Land Rover Range Rover (© Ford Motor Company)Click to enlarge picture

Although the boxy exterior styling of the 2008 Range Rover HSE is somewhat of a throwback compared to its curvy competitors, the innovative technology inside is on the cutting edge.

For nearly a decade, Range Rover was the lone luxury SUV available in the U.S. But that was before the Hummer became a hit, celebrities discovered the Cadillac Escalade and every high-end nameplate added sport utes to their lineups. Now that big SUVs have become as popular as Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Range Rover still has a cache and cult following that other gas-guzzlers can only envy. And although the boxy styling of the 2008 Range Rover is somewhat of a throwback, its technology sits right on the cutting edge.

Dial-in Driving
Most of the technology found on the 2008 Range Rover HSE I tested ($82,950) is designed to take on the roughest terrain and elements with the least amount of effort on the driver's part. Simply by turning the large Terrain Response dial in the center console, even the most non-technical drivers can select the best traction for snow, mud, sand and rock crawling (just in case you want to go bouldering on your way to the country club). Via the air-spring suspension, the vehicle's height can also be quickly and easily adjusted to Off Road, Standard or Access using a center-console mounted switch.

For drivers who want to be more hands-on, the touch-screen display in the dash can deliver visual verification when individual wheels have reached their suspension limits or the amount of contact a tire has with the ground. And for finding your way off-road, the navigation system includes a compass on the in-dash display, shows latitude and longitude, allows setting waypoints and trace points, and delivers voice prompts to provide distance and bearings to the next waypoint.

Guided by Voices
The in-dash display controls the Driver Information, audio and Bluetooth hands-free communication systems. It's intuitive to use and the menus are easy to navigate, with few of the maddening multilayers of, say, BMW's iDrive interface.

Good thing, too, since the Range Rover (and other Rover vehicles I've tested) has a sketchy voice-recognition system. While it works okay for telephone and audio functions, for navigation it was better just to pull over and punch in a destination manually. While looking for a certain address in Portland, Oregon, for example, the system kept asking me if I wanted to be routed to a Chinese restaurant — no matter how many times I issued the command exactly as instructed by the owner's manual.

Are hands-free communication systems useful or a driving distraction?

The voice-recognition system did make it easy to initiate hands-free phone calls simply by pushing a large button on the steering wheel. In fact, all the buttons on the steering wheel are super-sized so it's easy to find them by touch, without looking down at the wheel. And it was also very straightforward to pair a cell phone, and I was able to download and call from my phone's address book without a hitch. The Range Rover is also is one of the few vehicles that allows sending (when the handbrake is engaged) and receiving text messages, although it would be better if the system could read received text messages aloud like Ford's Sync system, rather than forcing the driver to read them on the in-dash screen.

Read:  Ford Sync System

Refined Off-Roading
Since a Range Rover can handle nearly any road — or lack thereof — some of its tech is used to make sure the vehicle's occupants are cosseted from rough terrain and the elements. The 14-way adjustable driver and front-passenger seats, for example, are heated, cooled and covered in leather smooth enough for an Italian sofa. The telescopic and power-tilt steering wheel is also heated and leather wrapped. The barely noticeable squiggly lines running parallel through the windshield are heating elements designed to clear away snow and ice much more quickly than a defroster.

The list of standard amenities is long — rearview camera, triple-zone climate controls, heated and power-folding side mirrors — and not part of the $4,500 Luxury Interior Package that came with our test vehicle. The vehicle's standard-equipment 14-speaker, 710-watt Harmon/Kardon sound system with Logic7 surround suitably rocks and comes with SIRIUS satellite radio and an aux-in jack, which is inconveniently located on the back of the center console.

Follow the Leader
The 2008 Range Rover HSE has plenty of competition these days. And while many luxury SUVs will get you where you're going in comfort and come loaded with lots of great gadgets, few combine the off-road heritage and prowess with such an array of high-end electronic accoutrements. All of which makes the Ranger Rover the leader in the rare air of this segment.

Doug Newcomb has been writing about car electronics since 1988, as editor of Car Audio and Electronics, Car Stereo Review, Mobile Entertainment, Road & Track Road Gear and as a freelance writer. His new book, Car Audio for Dummies, is available from Wiley Publications. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.

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