Coincidence is a funny thing. When it happens, it can seem as if a higher power is orchestrating things, but in reality it’s all just a game of chance. And what are the chances of Land Rover inviting me to an event at its purpose-built facility just outside Coventry to mark five generations of Range Rover, Nic saying we should do a hero’s piece on the L322, and the evening before I go, my brother turns up saying he’s thinking of buying a classic Range Rover? You couldn’t make it up. Or could you?
After all, I write about motoring stuff, Nic’s the editor of a motoring website, and my brother’s had a few Rangies over the years, including an original BMW-based L322, a first-generation Range Rover Sport, and he’s currently running an L405. But that’s the family wheels, and he fancies something from yesteryear to potter about in. He started off saying he really liked his old Sport, and seeing that was where his mind was wandering, I nipped that in the bud. Just that afternoon, I’d seen one of the chavviest examples of a Sport parked in a DIY car park. It had all sorts of addenda, none of it enhancing, and I told him straight: old Sports seem a bit naff these days. A nice, clean, original-spec L322, on the other hand, is like old money.
I remember these when they were new, because at that time I was working for a main dealer with a Land Rover franchise. It was the first car I drove with a heated steering wheel, which I thought was a stupidly indulgent frippery. Until I held the toasty steering wheel on a freezing winter’s morning, that is, and then I decided that it was brilliant. I learned that day not to be so judgemental.
I didn’t take as long to warm up (pun intended) to the L322’s looks, though. From the moment I clapped eyes on it, I decided this was the perfect reimagining of an icon. It had all the right signatures, like the clamshell bonnet, tall glasshouse and split tailgate, so it couldn’t be anything other than a Range Rover. Yet at the same time, it looked ultra-modern and sharp. It was the same story inside. Yes, it had lots of piped leather and wood, but it wasn’t fuddy-duddy in the least. The timbre wasn’t presented traditionally, in great slabs across the dashboard as you might’ve expected. It formed vertical struts framing the centre console with a capping at each end of the dashboard.
There may have been a hint of art deco in its interior style, but it was modern sculpture and thoroughly twenty-first century, and that went for the feature count, too. The sat nav was fully integrated, rather than seeming like the afterthought it was in the P38; it had piercingly powerful xenon headlights; heated and cooled seats – to go with the heated steering wheel; a power-operated steering column. This wasn’t Land Rover’s traditional way of doing tech, struggling to keep up with the Jones’s - this was showing the Jones’s how to do it.
Underneath its handsome body sat a stiff, but relatively light, monocoque chassis, and while the idea of all-round air suspension was a carryover from the P38, connecting it to the body via independent suspension was something completely revolutionary. And not only revolutionary for Land Rover, but most SUVs of the time. As was the technology that kept it ploughing on in tricky conditions. The L322 came with an electronically operated low-range ‘box and centre-locking diff, and it had Hill Decent Control, even if that was first seen on the Freelander. Then there were its BMW engines. Gone were the clanky diesels and ancient pushrod Rover V8. In came BMW’s M62 4.4-litre V8 petrol, which was smooth and refined, and its M57 straight-six diesel wasn’t far behind. Whichever one you chose, it came with a slick and responsive five-speed automatic that was a leap on from the sluggish slusher in the P38.
There is a cynical feeling among some at Land Rover regarding BMW’s ownership of Land Rover. Its involvement began with the supply of engines for the P38, but the management back in Munich seemed to like the company so much BMW bought the whole caboodle in 1994. It set about developing the L322 almost immediately, because even though the P38 had just been launched, it was deemed to be so outdated then that it wouldn’t have a long shelf life. BMW’s was a short-lived tenure, though. It sold Land Rover to Ford before the L322 had hit the showrooms in 2000, and some believe it was all a big ruse. The plan all along had been about BMW gaining access to Land Rover’s intellectual property as it set about developing its own range of SUVs.
Whatever the truth of it, BMW’s legacy is something quite special. Put it this way: within the first hour of being among the assembled throng of Land Rover employees and fellow journalists, I’d heard the phrase ‘peak Range Rover’ mentioned several times in reference to the L322. At least once by me - because it is. The car I drove is from 2010. That meant it was stripped of BMW’s hardware and boasted even more modernity, like Ford’s Premiere Automotive touchscreen infotainment system and the 4.4-litre TDV8. The downside of these later cars is the glitzy grilles instead of the classic elegance of the earlier models but, that aside, its proportions still look bang on and its panels remain chiselled and sharp.
Climb aboard and you’ll notice the driving position straight away. Unlike the earlier models, which make you feel like you’re perched on a box, the L322’s monocoque delivers a conventional, comfortable, integrated driving position. This has other advantages beyond the natural driving position. In the P38 my hair brushes the roof lining, but in the L322 there was a good six inches of free air above my head. These are big cars, too. Back in the day, they used to feel bigger than anything else on the road, bar a Phantom, and it’s still a noticeably bigger beast than the P38, but a lot more manageable than the latest L460. It’s almost the perfect size for a luxury SUV: big enough that there is masses of legroom front and rear – so it’s genuinely limo-like, just higher up with bigger windows to enjoy the view – yet still easy to thread through towns and country lanes.
Even bits that you’d imagine would be showing their age, like the infotainment, work well. True, the sat nav hasn’t heard of postcodes and the display’s a bit fuzzy, but the touchscreen is amazingly responsive and it’s straightforward to use. The quality still stands out as well. The buttons operate with panache, and because they’re chunkier than the earlier BMW switches they’re easier to use. It feels solidly screwed together and the leather still feels supple and crease free, despite its 31,000 miles. To be fair, the back story of this particular car is something out of the ordinary. It was once part of Land Rover’s VIP fleet. The brief didn’t say definitively who it was loaned to, but did pointedly mention ‘it was used on a private estate – possibly in Norfolk’. If you’re not from the UK and wondering what it means, look up the Sandringham estate. The point is, it’ll have had no expense spared in its upkeep.
The 4.4 TDV8 is clearly a diesel from the muted rumble of diesel knock at low revs, but once you stretch it out it’s very clearly a V8, too. It sounds rather nice, actually, and the performance is mighty. Hardly surprising that, when you think that it can claim 313hp and 516lb ft of torque, both of which aren’t far off double what the original BMW diesel made, and it’s all divvied up sublimely via the eight-speed ZF transmission. It’s just a slight shame this is the era when Land Rover dropped the proper gear selector, and instead gave you the silly rotary switch that rises out of the centre console.
There’s another thing about the L322 that’s a shade disappointing, too: namely, the ride. It’s firmer than I remember, although two things might be at play here. Land Rover Classic’s example is on 20-inch wheels, and in the back of my mind I recall the early cars being less forgiving on 20s, which was frustrating because back then the oh-so-elegant 20-inch five-spokes looked terrific. The other thing is it had Pirelli Scorpion Zeros, which I suspect have stiffer sidewalls than the original tyres. The ride isn’t bad mind, and is softer than the P38 I drove on the same day, but you feel a little more niggle from smaller imperfections than is ideal. There’s also a bit of sway in what is a tall body with no active-roll tech to sure it up. The good news is it handled better than I expected, and if those sidewalls are stiffer, it shows up in steering that is a lot more direct than it was in the recesses of my mind. Still, this a car that inspires calmness behind the wheel rather than any tomfoolery. You sit back, sinking into the comfy chairs and the effortless torque and just waft. It’s all about enjoying the ambience. So that’s what I did.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the L322 represents peak Range Rover. I know the later cars have more tech and are certainly more luxurious - but on that score, what you get with an L322 feels like enough. There is a tendency with the most modern stuff (not just Range Rovers) to heap more and more features on, some of which are unnecessary and others that actually hinder. That’s not the case here. This was the most complex Range Rover ever in its day, but now all the gadgets seem eminently simple and sensible. They’re all useful to some degree. At the same time, the design remains a standout. In some ways, the L322 has hardly aged at all, but where it has grown older, it has done so gracefully.
Admittedly, I still have a soft spot for the earliest BMW models, but I think that’s more rose-tinted than objective. I’ve never been tempted by the petrols, preferring the more fitting torque curve of the diesel. So which one? The 4.4 TDV8 is a magnificent engine, no doubt about that, but I still find the exterior add-ons that came with it a bit too chintzy, so the sweet spot is arguably an early 3.6 TDV8. It strikes just the right balance in terms of performance and purity of design, and at the same time ups the ante with more up-to-date features like All-Terrain Response, an improved HVAC system and touchscreen infotainment.
As soon as I left Coventry, I called my brother and told him to buy one. Then I arrived home and began looking at L322s myself. And yesterday, Nic told me he’d been doing the same, inspired by watching Clarkson swanning about his world-famous farm in one. The conclusion? That the L322 is both peak Range Rover and peak PH Hero.
SPECIFICATION | Range Rover L322
Engine: 4,367cc, V8, twin-turbocharged
Transmission: eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 313 @ 4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516 @ 1,500-3,000rpm
Top speed: 131mph
Weight: 2,505kg (DIN)
On sale (L322): 2001-2012
Price new: £52,000
Price now: £2,000-£25,000
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