2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport (© Land Rover)Click to enlarge picture

The all-new 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport handily meets the challenge of combining sports car-like performance with impressive off-road capability.

With the breadth of models in the SUV market, it's not hard to find an SUV that can offer sports car-like performance and handling. If you're looking to head off the beaten path, there are also plenty of options that can handle the toughest of terrains. But to have both those qualities in one vehicle is a challenge.

Land Rover's all-new Range Rover Sport excels on both counts. It possesses the ability to push through almost three feet of water one moment, and then accelerate to 150 mph in the next. During a two-day press drive in Wales, we had the opportunity to witness both feats firsthand — and plenty more.

More agile and capable than the outgoing model, the 2014 Range Rover Sport features a new Terrain Response system as well as a lineup of more powerful and efficient engines. The Range Rover Sport also has a completely new look, fitting nicely between the larger Range Rover and smaller Evoque.

View Pictures:  All-new Range Rover Sport

Model lineup
The Range Rover Sport will be available in four different trims with two engine choices when it goes on sale this fall. All variants of the Range Rover Sport feature full-time 4-wheel drive with electronic traction control, an 8-speed automatic transmission and a long list of safety feature acronyms.

The base-level Range Rover Sport is the SE, which starts at $63,495. Powered by a 340-horsepower supercharged V6 engine, the SE features leather-trimmed 14-way power front seats, heated front and rear windshields, interior mood lighting, an 8-inch touch screen and a 380 Watt Meridian Audio system with eight speakers. Also standard is the Land Rover's Terrain Response system, satellite navigation system, rain-sensing wipers, 19-inch alloy wheels and a rearview camera.

For an additional $5,000, buyers can upgrade to the HSE. In addition to the SE equipment, the HSE gets perforated leather heated seats, sliding panoramic sunroof, fog lamps, 20-inch wheels and Shadow Zebrano wood veneer with a choice of dark gray oak wood or micromesh metal aluminum trim.

At a starting price of $79,995 is the V8 Supercharged trim. In addition to a 510-horsepower V8 engine, features include a twin-speed transfer case, Terrain Response 2 with Automatic as well as Dynamic programming, and bright twin tailpipes.

The top-of-the-line Autobiography starts at $93,925 and as expected it's fully loaded. Standard equipment includes two-tone and three-tone seat color choices; a heated steering wheel; leather trim on dash and center console; a cooler in the front center console; 16-way power seats; heated rear seats; and a Meridian Premium 825-watt surround sound system with 19 speakers. The Autobiography also features 21-inch wheels, red-painted brake calipers, a surround camera system and the Performance Enhancement package which increases top speed to 155 mph.

Under the hood
Two new engines are offered in the Range Rover Sport, both with start-stop technology.

The base engine is a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 that produces 340 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. The V6-powered RR Sports can reach 60 mph in just less than seven seconds, which is quicker than the previous generation's V8.

For those in need or want of more power, the RR Sport is also available with a supercharged 5.0-liter V8 engine putting out 510 horsepower and 461 lb-ft of torque.

Acceleration is strong with either engine, but the V8 can reach 60 mph in less than five seconds and, as we experienced on a closed runway, it can exceed 150 mph. And it sounds fantastic.

Both engines are paired with a new 8-speed automatic transmission. Combine this with 800 pounds of weight loss (compared with the previous generation) and you have the two largest contributors to improved fuel efficiency. The average fuel economy of the V6 improves from 15 mpg to 19 mpg, while the V8 sees a more modest improvement of 2 additional mpg with a rating of 16 mpg. Granted, neither fuel economy number is particularly impressive on its own, but both are reasonable for a high-performance large SUV.

Inner space
Even though Range Rovers are capable of traversing the toughest terrain to the middle of nowhere, you'll get there in the lap of luxury, surrounded by the new Range Rover Sport's luxurious standard leather and loads of high-end amenities.

During our on- and off-road trek of several hundred miles, we found the big seats quite comfortable and easy to adjust to the right driving position; the head restraints are especially sumptuous. Rear seats offer good legroom, but the seats themselves are stiff and may become uncomfortable after a few hours.

Controls have been complex in past generations of the Range Rover, but in the 2014 Range Rover Sport they were quite intuitive and easy to operate.

Rover is offering a third row in the RR Sport, but it is designed for limited use. Adults would find the space cramped; however, it should work well for children. The seating is actually referred to as "5+2," meaning this really is a 5-passenger vehicle that offers two additional seats if needed. The seats fold flat into the cargo floor when not in use.

On (and off) the road
Range Rover has a well-earned reputation for its off-road prowess and the 2014 Range Rover Sport certainly doesn't disappoint.

The all-new Terrain Response 2 system allows those who aren't experts to take full advantage of the Range Rover Sport's capabilities. Drivers can choose from General, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts, Sand and Rock Crawl. Each setting optimizes drivability and traction by adjusting engine output, transmission, differentials, and chassis systems to match the demands of the terrain. The system can also be left in Auto and will choose the setting that best fits current conditions.

We experienced a wide variety of off-road conditions and primarily left the system to decide on its own; however, for much of the steep terrain and deep water we put the transfer case in Low, which unlike past models can be done while the vehicle is still moving.

On rutted off-road track, the RR Sport felt solid with a comfortable ride. There was no groaning or squeaking (except from the passengers) as the vehicle traversed extreme angles that required the full use of its 21 inches of axle articulation. In fact, the RR Sport is impressively quiet on- or off-road.

The 2014 Range Rover Sport possesses an amazing ability to wade through more than 33 inches of water — that measures almost up to the door handles. Doors are triple-sealed to keep the occupants dry, and an industry-first Wade Sensing system alerts the driver if the water is getting too deep. Part of our drive included traveling upstream through a small river. Talk about odd sensations: From the riverbank, the vehicles, with their wheels completely submerged, looked like Range Rover boats.

What really sets the Range Rover Sport apart from its predecessor and much of the competition is its inherent agility. And while it certainly has amazing capability off-road, we also found it to be surprisingly responsive on the twisty roads through the U.K.

In addition to a lighter and more rigid chassis, the new RR Sport's suspension has been updated for better handling all around. The Terrain Response 2 system features a Dynamic mode, which provides a firmer ride, tighter body control, reduced roll and more responsive steering. The active rear locking differential helps maximize traction, and torque vectoring uses the brakes to reduce understeer and improve stability through corners. What all this really means is that you can take full advantage of the big power under the hood and have a great time when the road gets interesting.

To check this large SUV's stability at high speed, we took advantage of a closed runway at Cotswold Airport in Wales to take the RR Sport to 150 mph. There was a bit of wind-whistling at 130 mph, but otherwise the RR Sport was solid at top speed, and hard braking slowed us quickly with no drama. This was in the same vehicle that hours earlier had successfully driven through door-high water — there aren't many vehicles that can perform both these tasks, and with such ease.

Right for you?
If you're in the market for a luxury SUV, the 2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport is a perfect blend of luxury, performance and off-road capability.

The less-expensive supercharged V6 engine will be more than adequate for most buyers' needs, and the added fuel economy is definitely worthwhile. However, to experience the Range Rover Sport's full dynamic driving capability, the V8 is really the way to go.

Sure, most owners will never take their Range Rover Sport off-pavement, aside from driving onto the curb in front of the neighborhood Starbucks, but now they can thoroughly enjoy pushing a Range Rover along winding roads while knowing they could easily handle the off-road muck and mud when they want to.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Perry Stern's automotive career began over 20 years ago as an advisor at a vehicle consulting firm. One of the original staff members of CarPoint, Microsoft's automotive Web site that launched in 1995, he became editor of the site in 2002, which is now known as MSN Autos. Stern has also contributed to MSNBC and various MSN properties in Canada, Japan and Europe.