Drive of the month: the new Range Rover

The fourth generation model is not only lighter and more responsive but, says Jeremy Taylor, no other 4x4 matches the Vogue SE's all-round ability. Plus: an alternative that may surprise you

Imagine this: you’ve just taken delivery of a new Range Rover and find it’s equipped with rubber floor mats, a crude four-speed gearbox and vinyl seats borrowed from a bus. Not only that, Land Rover has forgotten to fit a pair of rear passenger doors.

Back in 1970, the original Range Rover was the pinnacle of luxury off-roading. It boasted a host of revolutionary features, such as permanent four-wheel drive and coil spring suspension, designed to iron out the bumps. At £1,998 it was damn expensive too, despite having the aerodynamics of a brick.

Almost 45 years on and the latest, fourth generation Range Rover is, without doubt, the most desirable 4×4 money can buy. You can drive a bling Mercedes M Class, or a more powerful Porsche Cayenne Turbo, but there’s nothing to match the all-round ability of Land Rover’s flagship model.

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The adaptive four-wheel drive system takes over when it gets slippy, so even a bad driver can look good crossing the shires

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I’m talking about the full-size Range Rover here. Not the ‘squashed’ Range Rover Evoque, a competent school-run SUV for the Home Counties, or the mile-munching Sport, a beast of a vehicle that chucks gravel in the grille of BMW’s ubiquitous X5.

The 2014 Range Rover model may be half a ton heavier than the original, smaller model but importantly, it’s half a ton lighter than the 2013 model. An aluminium body accounts for a large chunk of that, plus a lighter, less thirsty 2993cc turbodiesel engine, capable of 38mpg. A more efficient engine uses less juice, too, so the fuel tank can be smaller.

It’s still a huge vehicle but now the Range Rover ‘feels’ smaller because it is easier to handle and more responsive. You can still wallow going hard into a fast corner but the adaptive dampers beef up and take the strain at the crucial moment.

Most Range Rover drivers wouldn’t be daft enough to take their vehicle too far off the Tarmac. Parking on the pavement outside the local deli is quite far enough. But there is some comfort in the knowledge that if things did get rough, the Range Rover can cope with just about anything you can throw at it.

The adaptive four-wheel drive system takes over when it gets slippy, so even a bad driver can look good crossing the shires’ vast open plains in one of these.

Rubber mats – fitted to the original so the floor could be hosed out – were replaced with plush carpet decades ago but inside the Vogue, luxury oozes from every cut of black wood veneer. The leather trim smells like proper leather and every dial and button cries out to be touched.

Special features? The entire driving experience is special, with the £77,895 mid-range Vogue SE including a heated steering wheel, automatic split boot opening and electrically adjustable back seats, all adding to the air of opulence.

You can tweak the Range Rover to the edge of reason with the more expensive Autobiography model, launched last month (March) in long-wheelbase form. It has leather so supple it must have been hand-stitched by virgins at dawn.

My favourite feature on the Vogue SE is the courtesy downlighting, which switches on automatically in the dark as you approach the car. Plenty of luxury vehicles do the same, but Land Rover has added an extra touch: the words Range Rover are beamed brightly on to the pavement by your feet. Special indeed.

The alternative: Fiat Panda 4×4

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I’m not joking. Fiat’s remarkable four-wheel drive is every inch as capable as the Range Rover across the rough stuff. Because it is so light, with hardly any overhang front or rear, the Panda clambers over ruts and ridges with joyous ease.

Costing a relatively modest £13,950, you are more likely to take the Fiat into places that would make a Range Rover owner squeal in fear. It’s also a lot easier to park and has a classless chic that reminds me of the Citroen 2CV.

There has been a four-wheel drive Panda in the past. However, that original box-on-wheels can’t compete with the current version. That’s because this one is based on the current Panda supermini, with a 0-9-litre Twin Air engine that loves to be driven hard and returns up to 65mpg.

The jacked-up suspension gives the Fiat just enough ground clearance to be interesting, more than coping with muddy tracks, wet fields and country roads that haven’t been gritted.

But what makes the Panda even more special is that it’s fun. The interior is covered in the Panda’s trademark ‘squircles’ motif – even the dials and steering wheel are the same shape. It’s not very spacious inside and the ride can be rather bouncy over potholed surfaces, but it’s easy to forgive a car that will make you smile so much.

Bluetooth, air conditioning and central locking are all standard. Opt for the green paintwork and interior trim and you can hold your head up high when you turn up at the next hunt or point-to-point.

The quirky design, all-terrain ability and gutsy performance of the Panda shouldn’t be overlooked, especially if you aren’t worried about the snob appeal of the right badge.