First things first: Range Rover plugs in to future. Will you?
Why you've got to use it or lose it
I am a sucker for 'firsts'. It's not an ego thing at all. I just get an enormous buzz from being involved, or included, in something that hasn't been done before. So I am not going to spoil this historic 'first' drive of two Range Rover plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) by starting off negatively. However, I have to let off steam at some stage.
Downtown Los Angeles was busy, bustling and noisy as we took off. The freeways were jammed, every second auto a proper gas guzzler. A band of smog shrouded the horizon.
Under us on the first leg of our drive was the first Range Rover plug-in hybrid. A PHEV as they are called. Awaiting us en route was another Range Rover, the 'smaller' Sport - also debuting in this plug-in technology. As you know, PHEVs let you charge a battery pack so you get a certain distance on electric charge only, thereby cutting petrol consumption (in this case a 2-litre engine).
As we sat frustrated in gridlock, we consoled ourselves that at least we were being as economical as possible because we were using only electric power at standstill or while crawling. That's where cars like this should come into their own. Sadly, I don't think it is that simple in real life. That's my whinge for later.
As a passenger, initially (I luckily got the subsequent open-road part) I took the time to tot up some figures. I couldn't help musing if I ever thought we'd see the day a Range Rover would cost just €170-a-year on road tax.
That's the fee with the new P400e as they are calling these new models. Some (more daunting) figures: The Range Rover plug-in itself costs from €130,185 (high-level Vogue trim). The conventional SUV line-up starts at €120,055 (3-litre V6 diesel, HSE trim). But that stirs 'only' 258PS compared with the plug-in's combined 404PS. And it costs €750 to tax - against €170 for the PHEV. It's the same for the Sport version I subsequently drove (from €90,050 v €94,280 for the V6 diesel). By the way, the stats for both cars are almost identical on fuel consumption, performance and technical set-up.
There are pros and cons on price and running costs, of course. And people still love their big Range Rover diesels. But for the first time they have a plug-in choice - so long as they 'use' it.
Key to the PHEVs' performance is the combined power of the 2-litre petrol engine (relatively small in Range Rover terms) and a 13.1kW lithium battery pack (under the rear floor but it only takes an inch off the boot depth).
We never truly got to test the 404PS output but as Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu slid by, the congestion loosened and we got a sense of it. Slow-drive was quite appropriate, in many ways, because cars like these are at their best in stop-go conditions. It's one way to help beat the smog, I suppose.
Of course driving a Range Rover would never be complete without an off-road stint. Which led to another 'first'. On electric energy only (no engine input for a time) I drove this mother-of-all large luxury SUVs up steep inclines and down plunging gravel tracks in low electric 'gear'. Never been done before, we were told. The electric motor has no creep speed so you get maximum pulling power from zero revs to all four wheels. It is a remarkable achievement to blend all the power sources.
Both the Range Rover and Sport were prototypes and still need work. The Sport is nearer completion but the 2-litre engine in it was raspy, noisy when pushed only moderately. Not the sort of sound for a premium SUV.
These PHEV versions also coincide with tweaks and twirls for the full range for next year. Some items to mollycoddle you (depending on trim) include a heating system for your heels, yes your heels, as you stretch out in the rear where you'll hear less of the real world thanks to thickened glass too. There are as many as 17 connecting points and 4G Wi-Fi for up to eight devices. Life as most of us don't know it.
And so to my negative take on all this plug-innery. The fact is you can buy one, subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of €7,500 in incentives, and low road tax, and NEVER plug it in. Okay, you don't get 30/35km (my real-world estimation) of 'pure electric' driving with no engine working and, therefore, your MPG and emissions soar. Ideally if you plug in at night and at the office you should not have to bother the engine much on average commutes.
But I don't see people getting out cables on a wet night. I am a total cynic on this. I don't think people are bothering to plug in much at all. It takes commitment and a change of mindset. You never have to prove to anyone you plug in but you go on saving on 'subsidised' road tax.
I think we need a rebalancing. We have the technology; now we need honesty. Plug-in or opt for something else. It's the least taxpayers, the technology and those behind it, deserve.
FACTS & FIGURES
Range Rover P400e plug-in hybrid 4x4; 64g/km, 2.8 l/100km (101mpg), tax €170; 404PS (2-litre 4cyl petrol/13.1kW lithium ion battery), 8spd auto. Electric-range 51km. Rapid charging time 2hrs 45mins. Price from €130,185.
Range Rover Sport SE PHEV, 404PS, €170 tax. Price from €90,050. (Performance figs: both cars similar).
Range Rover Autobiography spec included massage heated/cooled front seats, Kalahari veneer, pixel-laser LED headlights, Row 1 fridge, 4-zone climate control, 21ins alloys, panoramic roof, Meridian Signature sound, digital TV (rear), Touch Pro Duo infotainment system.