NEAR THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE — Cellphone service is a distant memory as we’re covering the rear window of the 2018 Range Rover Velar with sand.
The road is a dusty trail carved into the hills near Pioneer Town, Calif., and we have to negotiate rocks, ruts, sand, uphills and downhills.
Meanwhile, Sirius XM’s Classic Rewind is playing something by The Who over the umpteen-speaker sound system while we get a hot stone massage from the leather seats.
Dichotomy? Just a little.
The Velar is the culmination of a concept introduced about five years ago and it is, according to vehicle engineer Mark Burniston, an entry into some white space Land Rover identified in the market.
Land Rover, of course, is known for the uber-luxurious, ultra-capable Range Rover and its sibling Discovery, two SUVs that can do more than their owners will ever ask them to.
In short order, you can expect to see the return of the Defender line, which is geared more to off-road than luxury.
In the case of Velar, it’s designed to appeal to those attracted to the Land Rover esthetic but don’t want the size and don’t need quite the capability of Disco or Range Rover.
It follows on the heels of the Evoque, itself a Land Rover that’s more car than off-road beast, but Velar is a bit larger, offering increased cargo capacity and increased passenger space.
All that said, however, the Velar is hardly a slouch on this, at-times challenging three-hour off-road adventure about an hour north of Palm Springs.
Terrain Response, as in Disco and Range Rover, manages vehicle parameters for a variety of off-road situations, from sand mode that limits wheelspin on startup but allows it freely once moving, to rock mode that locks the centre and rear differentials and rolls back the throttle response to make crawling easier.
Meanwhile, the All-Terrain Progress Control — essentially cruise control for off-roading — is keeping the car at a responsible pace: we don’t have to touch the throttle or brake, we only need to adjust the speed up or down, in 1/10th of a mile-per-hour increments, using the cruise control’s plus and minus speed buttons. It automatically engages the brakes when needed for going downhill.
When we need to slow down, two taps on the minus button — scrubbing 2/10ths of a mile-per-hour — feels like dropping anchor. The tiny increments seem insignificant at first glance, but using them shows the 1/10th increment was carefully chosen.
The optional air suspension, when needed, adds two inches of ground clearance — to nearly 10 inches — though we did most of this road at the normal height.
Yet, as good as the Velar is off-road, it’s even better on the road. Rare is the SUV program that takes you down twisty mountain roads more suited for sports cars than sport utilities. But on the way to and from the off-road portion, we’re carving through switchbacks as though we were in a Jaguar instead of a Land Rover. The San Bernardino National Forest and Mount San Jacinto National Park offer some amazing, twisty tarmac.
The handling was outstanding, with nicely weighted steering, good feedback, instant steering response and minimal body roll.
There is little coincidence on the choice of our base camp for this journey, the L’Horizon Resort and Spa in Palm Springs. Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern draws on the architecture of this SoCal hotspot for his designs, which he calls modern, reductive and lacking ornamentation.
Many of the homes around here follow that mantra, using crisp lines, simple colour palettes, scale and proportion to create simple elegance. McGovern carried that over to Velar, with a long profile, low roofline and simple lines. Proportion does the heavy lifting here, with short overhangs, a long wheelbase and a greenhouse sized just right for the body below.
The name Velar has an interesting tale. McGovern showed us a slide of an original Land Rover prototype from 1969, when the company was starting its journey from merely producing off-road vehicles to producing luxury sport utilities. Engineers didn’t feel a need to disguise the prototype for on-road testing, but had to give it a name that didn’t identify it as a Land Rover. They chose Velar.
One story concocted about the name holds that velar is from Latin and means to cover, as with a veil.
“But the reality is these were the only letters the engineers had on hand,” McGovern said.
Three engines will be available in the Velar globally, but for the first year at least, Canada will get only two: a 3.0-litre supercharged V-6 and a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel. Steve Larocque, product planning manager for Land Rover Canada, said he estimates the V-6 to be the volume seller and the diesel to be popular for its fuel economy. A 2.0-litre turbo gas engine is expected to be offered for the 2019 model year.
The diesel at $62,000 is the entry price for now.