The defining sound of this year’s most-wanted luxury car, the new Range Rover Velar, isn’t generated by its multi-cylinder diesel engine, some clever active exhaust or even its 17-speaker audio system. It’s the rhythmic sequence of gentle whirrs and puffs made by the car’s pillowy, beautifully upholstered ‘massager’ driver’s seat as it sets about discreetly but determinedly kneading the tension out of your lower back. It’s a sound you can hear because the noise of the car’s V6 motor descends to a barely audible background hum at a motorway cruise – and also because there’s little more than the faintest flutter of wind noise creeping around the door seals at that speed. And what it sounds like – honestly – is a polite but persistent case of robotic after-dinner flatulence. It’s not quite silent, a little bit violent at times, but thankfully unaccompanied by any lingering odour. Nope – the pseudofarts of the new Velar’s driver’s seat don’t actually smell of anything; but that may even be a missed opportunity when you consider they might have been so deliciously perfumed.
And so, having had the glare of a full Autocar road test on it and some stinging criticism made of it in lower-end four-cylinder diesel form, the Velar gets a chance to reveal what it’s really all about. Our focus turns to the near-top-of-the-range six-cylinder diesel model. If this is the outstanding modern luxury SUV that Gaydon claims it is, so accomplished in all the ways it’s purported to be, then it should easily prove itself superior to a couple of other similarly priced SUV rivals. What rivals, though. For the £70,530 of our Velar R-Dynamic HSE D300 test car, you can have a Porsche Cayenne S Diesel and a little bit of change – or an Audi Q73.0TDI 272 Quattro S line and quite a lot more change. You could have a Maserati Levante Diesel also – although Maserati wouldn’t lend us one of those for this comparison.
But even without the Italian, these are opponents that vividly demonstrate why this magazine’s voice has been one of many to remark on the ambitiousness of Land Rover’s Velar pricing. The Porsche offers more cylinders, more power, more torque and more performance from its 380bhp V8 diesel, as well as a lasting reputation within the luxury SUV set for sporting handling. The Audi, on the other hand, matches the Range Rover’s claims on acceleration and beats them on fuel economy and CO2 emissions, combining the usefulness of seven seats with an outstandingly classy and well-finished interior, and one of the most refined SUV-class driving experiences you can currently buy for any price. So, can this superbly handsome new Range Rover prove it’s got the substance to match its evident style and bring home a couple of big SUV scalps? Or will it wilt in the face of the competition that Gaydon has chosen for it?
VALUE IN THE VELAR?
Seventy grand. We keep coming back to it but it’s obvious why: because it seems an awfully high price for a Land Rover that’s supposed to sit below the Range Rover Sport in Land Rover’s showroom model range. That’ll be the Range Rover Sport that, in what you might consider close-as-possible-to-matching 3.0-litre SDV6 HSE Dynamic spec, costs £1400 less than our Velar test car on Land Rover’s current price list. And yet, if it could, Land Rover might interject here and point out that this Velar isn’t expensive as much as high-end: lavishly appointed and generally dressed to impress. And, if you buy a six-cylinder HSE at any rate, there’s a certain amount of credibility to that claim.
The Audi we’re comparing it with here might look like it’s £14,000 cheaper in upper-trim ‘S line’ form but it doesn’t come with half of what the Velar’s giving. Matrix LED headlights; 21in alloy wheels; leather upholstery extended to the doors, dashboard and centre console; air suspension; memory seats; adaptive digital instruments; keyless operation; and a full suite of active safety systems all come on the Velar R-Dynamic HSE D300 as standard, and all are cost-options on the Q7. And guess what? Equipped to the same level, order would be restored: the Audi would cost more than the Range Rover – just as it should, being a longer, larger, full-size seven-seater SUV, you might argue.
The Porsche would cost quite a lot more. A set of 21in alloy wheels, some memory sports seats and a full leather interior take the Porsche’s price beyond that of the Range Rover all on their own – and they do so without air suspension, LED headlights, a premium audio system or even a DAB radio being on the car’s spec sheet. Suddenly, the Velar’s sticker price, while still a long way from a bargain, doesn’t seem quite so exorbitant.
We’ll call that surprise number one. Number two materialises when you finally get the chance to clamber into the Velar’s interior, take in your surroundings and then clamber back out again to assess how the Q7 and Cayenne compare. You expect the Audi to land some telling blows here: to be significantly more spacious than the Range Rover, as well as to seem a cut above on technological sophistication and material quality. That is, after all, how German and British luxury cars tend to relate to each other.
But, while it is more roomy than the Velar, the Q7 isn’t necessarily the more comfortable car of the two. The Audi’s got a fair bit more second-row legroom than the Range Rover, granted. But it’s the Velar that has the more comfortable driver’s seat and the marginally more laid-back driving position. In the back of the British car, while a 6ft 4inbloke like me has to sit with his thighs splayed in order to ‘sit behind himself and avoid the seatback in front of his knees, there’s still plenty of headroom and a more agreeable seat to relax in than you’ll find elsewhere. The Audi’s rear chairs seem a bit flat and narrow by comparison.
The Cayenne, meanwhile, offers more second-row legroom than the Velar too, but more limited headroom and elbow room. Its back seats are more deeply sculpted: good for two passengers but not much fun, I suspect, for a third. Moving on to luxury-car ambience, it’s another mixed showing for the Audi: another area where you think the Velar could come up short – and yet it doesn’t. The integrity and baseline quality of the Q7’s interior is absolutely spectacular. The granite like substance of some of its fittings just amazes you. The chromed centre console trim of our test car seemed more securely fixed than my kitchen worktops. Most of all, it’s the consistency of the finish – the lack of absolutely anything that stands out as even a little bit flimsy, rough, hard or unattractive – that really distinguishes this car.
And yet, while it’s evidently very smart and very, very solid, there’s a relative shortage of richness in evidence from the Q7, which the Range Rover’s airy, tactile, supremely stylish interior makes very plain indeed. For this test, Audi sent us a lowly equipped Q7 whose moulded dashboard, dark leathers and chrome decorative trims simply didn’t produce the same enveloping bubble of lavishness as the Velar’s hide-upholstered panels and its various shades of oyster, ebony and ash veneer. With a more generously kitted Q7, the comparison would have been fairer – but, when all you can do is test the cars in front of you on the day, the Q7 felt like a business tool. The Velar felt like it was ready to transport you to somewhere much more special than the office. At first glance, little separates the Range Rover and Audi SUVs
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
The Porsche Cayenne’s interior doesn’t really bear comparison with either the Velar’s or the Q7’s – it’s perfectly comfortable and would seem very nice in isolation but otherwise looks and feels like the cabin of a car fully six years old whose third-generation replacement was unveiled to the world on the very day this test was carried out.
But then the Cayenne earns its place in this test for altogether different reasons. The honest, deep, menacing chug of its V8 diesel engine, and the understated but obvious vibration it sends through the pedals and steering column, hint at the first of them the instant you start it up. The Cayenne’s a freak –but an enormously likeable one. It disregards much of the luxury SUV rulebook, being noisier than the norm, as well as coarser, weightier, more demanding and less well-mannered in the operation of its transmission and controls. But, fully 15 years after the introduction of the original Cayenne, this car remains singularly appealing among its rivals as a driver’s car – and I include the Velar among them. No other large SUV, save perhaps a Range Rover Sport SVR, is so fast, balanced, agile and entertaining on the road that it could stand in so well for a rear-driven super saloon, if life dictated a need to swap one for the other.
So no – if you’re wondering, this new Range Rover isn’t as absorbing to drive as Porsche’s original go-faster 4×4. But it is much more suited to the purposes and particulars of a luxury SUV’s dynamic brief than the Cayenne. And, in its own more cossetting, compromising way, the Velar’s is a similarly enjoyable drive. Don’t think, for a moment, that 516lb ft under your right peg in the Range Rover will feel anything like as potent as the 627lb ft the Porsche serves up. Five-hundred-odd lb ft is plenty, mind you: enough that the Velar D300 suffers none of the sluggishness that we encountered in the cheaper D240.
On the road, the Range Rover combines low-range muscle, throttle response, flexibility and silken operating smoothness very cleverly indeed. Its eight-speed auto ’box seems to know exactly how much slippage – and how fast a shift – is conducive to quickening pace while maintaining comfort levels. The Cayenne, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with comfort levels; its transmission hustles up and down the cogs with the relative finesse of a Formula Ford racer on a qualifying lap.
The Velar’s steering is expertly weighted and paced – it’s matched to the car’s true handling response and roll rate as cleverly as a horsehair bow to a steel violin string. The car has Comfort, Automatic and Dynamic road-going settings for its active air suspension, but all of them leave it with ride and handling that meet the need for bump compliance, good body control and lasting grip levels in a wonderfully progressive, supple way. The Velar glides over the road just as you want a luxury SUV to, but never seems out of touch with it.
There is even more outright lateral grip, a more poised and adjustable cornering attitude and more driver reward on offer in the Cayenne, sure – but it comes at a cost. The weight of that engine in an already heavy car makes for steering that’s overassisted at times, and so straight-line stability isn’t as high in the Cayenne as it is in the Range Rover and there only a transient, illusive kind of contact patch feel. The car’s ride is never ideal: absorptive but underdamped in Comfort, becoming a bit wooden and tetchy in Sport – and always a touch thumpy.
This, to be frank, isn’t how most luxury SUV drivers would want their car to conduct itself on the road – but, golly, could they have fun with it if they got brave enough. This is a 2.2-tonne 4×4 with power-on oversteer available on demand: ridiculous, but true. The way the Cayenne grips and stays neutral though the heart of a bend, and then arcs into a powerslide as you feed in all that torque, suggests it’s not an SUV at all, but instead a sports car with a transaxle ’box and no forward driveshafts.
And where’s the Q7 in all this? Busy doing its best to keep its engine and cabin quiet, to filter every corrupting influence from its controls and to stay stable and reassuring in everything. And by succeeding at all of that, offering scant reply to the differing kinds of dynamic excellence of its rivals. But to be honest, though impressed by the car’s mechanical refinement and sense of isolation, I expected a much more settled ride from the Audi, which isn’t a car that takes well to an uneven road on its standard steel coil ‘dynamic’ suspension.
Here, as before, we were denied the opportunity for the fairest of tests by Audi’s particular test car – although previous experience suggests that, even on optional air springs and with all of Audi’s mechanical suspension and driveline augmentations fitted, the Q7 may not quite have hit the perfect compromise of the Velar. And so it is that our winner makes itself known. After a shaky start on these pages, and recovering from the considerable handicap that a glaringly ambitious value proposition puts on any new car, the Range Rover Velar sees off opposition that many would imagine belong beyond its orbit. An Audi Q7 3.0 TDI just hasn’t got the star quality – to look at, to sit in or to drive – to eclipse it; a Porsche Cayenne Diesel S, though brilliant, just isn’t rounded or luxurious enough. Spend big enough, it seems, and this Range Rover does have qualities worth spending on.