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British-built Range Rover rolls into the US auto market

Mud, boulders, stumps, bogs, ruts, running water - nothing stops the four-wheel-drive, aluminum-bodied Range Rover, just now rolling ashore as the nation's newest automotive import. The British-built Range Rover is a different breed of import. No one else builds a vehicle exactly like it - not the United States, the West Germans, nor the Japanese. Indeed, the Range Rover has survived such tortuous terrains as the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania and the Australian Outback, and even the boring anonymity of the American interstates. The four-door, all-wheel-drive Range Rover can slog up and down 45-degree slopes without a slip. Now, however, it may be attacking its biggest challenge so far: the American car buyer.

The US car buyer has been an enigma for auto companies in a number of Western European countries, among them Italy, Britain, and France. Fiat long ago ditched the US market, for example, while the British, in recent memory, have never been able to sell more than a few high-priced or high-sports cars with such brand names as Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Lotus. Some efforts have been economic disasters. And Peugeot is still trying to expand its wee grip on the US consumer.

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Does Range Rover have a chance? While the Range Rover will never make much of a dent in the four-wheel-drive market, at least not in the number of vehicles it will sell, no one else competes with exactly the same kind of product. The British company hopes to fill a very special niche. The point is, the Range Rover can go where other cars fear to tread, or would very likely fail if they made the effort. I found this out not long ago as I went for ``a spin'' in some hilly, bumpy terrain about 50 miles north of Manhattan. As the tires sank into the thawing ruts and rolled over the bulging boulders with nary a slip, the vehicle proved up to the task.

``The Range Rover bridges the sports/utility vehicle group as well as the European high group,'' says Charles R. Hughes, president of Range Rover of North America Inc., meaning it is a comfortable, well-appointed ``toy'' for the well-heeled adventurer who likes to drive off-road, yet wants a car that has the capability of going with the flow of traffic on an expressway. At $30,825, ``it's the most costly sports/utility vehicle on the road,'' reports Mr. Hughes. The Range Rover offers only one option, leather seats at $1,025.

The engine, an old Buick V-8 which was sold to the British by General Motors in the late 1960s, has been widely improved and today produces 150 horsepower at 4,750 r.p.m.'s, with maximum torque of 195 lbs./ft. at 3,000 r.p.m.'s. At 13 miles per gallon in the city and 15 on the highway, however, fuel economy is nothing to write home about, but that's not an issue with this kind of vehicle. The importer itself pays a $155 gas-guzzler tax.

The company's modest sales goal calls for 3,000 vehicles this year and 5,000 by 1989. In the past six years, the sport/utility market has grown more than 400 percent, and in 1987 is expected to exceed 780,000 units. That should leave plenty of room for the AMC Jeeps, Toyota 4Runners, Mitsubishi Monteros, Suzuki Samurais, Dodge Raiders, and all the rest. After all, they don't have to climb as many hills or survive all those rock-strewn streams which the Range Rover boasts about.

Take it onto a few deep-woods logging roads; along a rock-pocked mountain stream; or blaze your own trail above the timberline of a few peaks. That's when you learn to appreciate the capabilities of this unique vehicle with its suspension that's designed to go anywhere.

Its pedigree? The Range Rover is the only vehicle ever to have been displayed in the Louvre. But will that sell cars? The Range Rover people are about to find out.

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