Range Rover's New Hybrid: Already Five Years Behind the Curve

LEAD FOOT Range Rover’s PHEV is 360 pounds heavier and a full two seconds slower from 0-60 mph than the gas-powered Sport SVR model Photo: Jaguar Land Rover North America

IN DECEMBER 2002 the Norwegian-flagged cargo ship Tricolor sank in the English Channel, taking to the bottom a load of nearly 3,000 cars, including factory-fresh BMW s, Volvos and Saabs. In 2006, the car transporter Cougar Ace tipped on its side in the North Pacific, scrapping a shipment of 4,700 Mazdas. And in March of this year the Grande America caught fire and sank off the coast of France, consigning its load of Audis and Porsches—including a clutch of GT2 RS supercars—to the briny deep.

Here I shake my fist at the sky: Why, why couldn’t my test car—a Range Rover Sport HSE P400e—have been among them? It already feels a bit waterlogged.

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The what: The Range Rover Sport ($69,500 to $114,500) is Jaguar Land Rover’s premium-luxury midsize SUV. The Sport model is withal a swanky and capable performer, with lovely silver and saddlery inside and mad prestige on the outside. Note its blacked-out roof pillars and dark glazing that creates an effect like a bandit’s mask. This is the Range Rover that looks so good Ford up and copied the design.

Let me walk you through the brochure: The Sport is available in five trim levels (from SE to SVR) with a range of six powertrain options: two supercharged V8s (515 hp or 575 hp, depending on the chip tuning); a turbodiesel V6 (254 hp); two versions of the mild-hybrid 3.0-liter gas in-line six (355 hp and 395 hp); or this hot mess of parts, a plug-in hybrid.

‘The Range Rover Sport wasn’t future-proofed for electrification. Thus the weak battery, shoved where the sun don’t shine.’

Under the hood is a hardworking 296-hp turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder, mounted longitudinally, buttoned to an eight-speed transmission and all-wheel drive. Baked into the guts of the transmission housing is the 141-hp electric motor, which provides quiet, seamless propulsion and regenerative braking throughout the driving cycle, optimizing for efficiency.

The smoothness and smarts of the hybrid hardware can’t be faulted. The torque boosting, blending and braking are all unobtrusive and transparent, even though power levels are significantly higher than, say, a Toyota Prius. The fact is, the Range Rover brand and electrification have a lot of common cause: cabin quiet and refinement, accelerative torque, and even off-roading. Because electric torque can be more precisely modulated at the throttle and at each tire’s contact point, EV-ified Range Rovers promise to be better climbers than their gas-only forebears. Rechargeable in the field, too.

The P400e’s system net maximums are 398 hp and 472 pound-feet of torque. Those worthy numbers are pitted against the vehicle’s curb weight of 5,430 pounds, before options! And now it all goes somewhat south. For reference, the Sport SVR—with a blown 5.0-liter V8, radiators for days and a wheel-and-tires set you can see from space—weighs 360 pounds less (5,070 pounds). The SVR has only about 10% more torque but hits 60 mph a full two seconds faster (4.3 seconds) than the plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and makes a lust-incarnate sound doing it.

SHORT CIRCUIT Even fully charged, the PHEV only gets an estimated 25 miles of range. Photo: Jaguar Land Rover North America

The PHEV’s problem is the technical overhead relative to its delivered performance. At the absolute best, fully charged, the Sport P400e can squeeze maybe 25 miles of all-electric from its 13.1 kW/h battery—though I never saw close to that in my time in the car. Even in the first few miles of low-to-moderate speed urban driving—like I’m on my way to a funeral in Eco mode—the little turbo four would drum to life. Dang. That was a short virtuous spiral.

The EV mode button acts more as a powertrain bias selector—EV and gas—telling the control modules which batch of algorithms to favor. Once the battery-assisted range is depleted, the P400e’s hybridization becomes transparent and integrated, with brake and throttle responses like any Sport that might have anvils under the cargo floor.

Why is the Range Rover’s PHEV system underbaked? One must avoid monocausal explanations. For one thing, any car is a time machine, a look at a company’s resources and technical mind-set about five years ago. At that time, JLR and the management of the conglomerate Tata Motors had doubled down on diesel technology, spending millions on research and production, at the expense of electrification. But diesel sales collapsed in Europe, post Dieselgate. So that bet didn’t pay off.

More context: When JLR engineered this, its first PHEV system, its electric range targets were much lower. That permitted the engineers to use prismatic pouch-style cells that—while less energy-dense than cylindrical-style cells, typically—are safer and easier to package.

That was before China—the world’s largest car market—began to upwardly revise PHEV range requirements to avoid import penalties, stipulating a minimum 50 km of range. JLR, BMW and other Europe-based car companies have found themselves with a lot of noncompliant plug-in technology to amortize. In any event, this is a portrait of commercialized lithium batteries circa five years ago.

The Range Rover Sport is a longstanding design that wasn’t future-proofed for electrification packaging, as Volvo’s SPA platform was. Thus the relatively weak and bitsy battery pack, shoved where the sun don’t shine, between the rear air suspension uprights. The P400e version gives up 2.7 cubic feet of cargo space over other Sport models.

The battery inverter and charge inverter (7 kW)—both pretty small—are under the front seats. The charge port is concealed behind a panel in the grille panel.

But for me the P400e’s marquee number is its wading depth of 33.5 inches, at which point all of these high-power electronics are submerged. I’m sure that’s fine.

I don’t want to tax JLR too badly for the gooey centered P400e. After all, JLR was the first premium-luxury car company to go after Tesla, with the excellent I-PACE electric crossover. And, for the conscientious owner with short-range daily use cycle, the P400e can return remarkable economy, provided he or she remembers to plug in at night. Under the right conditions, the Sport can get 70 mpg or better.

But if you forget, or ignore the plug, the mileage sinks like a cargo ship full of…well, you get the idea.

2020 Range Rover Sport HSE P400e PHEV
Photo: Jaguar Land Rover North America

Base Price: $79,000

Price, as Tested: $93,200

Powertrain:Plug-in hybrid system, with front longitudinally mounted dual-overhead-cam 2.0-liter in-line four-cylinder gas engine; eight-speed automatic transmission with integrated AC motor; permanent AWD

Curb Weight: 5,430 pounds

Max System Power/Torque: 398 hp/472 pound-feet of torque

Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase: 192.1/81.6(with mirrors folded)/71.0/115.1 inches

0-60 mph: 6.3 seconds

Towing Capacity: 5,511

Cargo Capacity: 24.8/56.8 cubic feet (behind 2nd/1st row)

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