From a parapet high on the Ackergill Tower, a 15th-century castle in northern Scotland, I looked out upon the Highlands: windswept hills, green grasslands, white sand, and craggy cliffs surrounding tranquil lochs. I couldn't wait to ignore my pangs of guilt and chew them up in the Land Rover LR3.
I'd journeyed to Scotland for the worldwide launch of the new LR3. As I quickly learned, the vehicle is to off-roading what au naturel is to kilts -- it may feel rugged and frightening at first, but let it all hang out and you'll be well cared for. I test-drove the LR3 on sand, rock, mud, and grass, conditions corresponding to the four modes in the new Terrain Response System. (Snow shares a setting with grass.) A turn of a rotary dial changes the LR3 to whatever the computerized pit crew feels is needed. For example, on a beach of jagged stones, I switched to rock crawl mode and automatically the suspension raised, the throttle scaled back, and power was distributed equally to all four tires. Other highlights were sinking the car in a deep pool (it's good to 28 inches) and gunning it in sand mode on the shore of the North Sea. Another feature, Hill Descent Control, allowed me to nose up to the crest of a steep incline, take my feet off the brake and accelerator, and turn fate over to the auto gods.
Sticker price: $44,995 base, up to $49,995 for the HSE package.
Available: Now. Vital stats: 4.4-liter 300-hp V-8, six-speed automatic transmission, 113.5-inch wheelbase, 315 pounds of torque.
Nice touches: A cool asymmetrical tailgate; electronic parking brake; headlamps that track the road; raised "stadium seating" in the back that fits seven adults, and fold-down back seats that open up 90 cubic feet of space.
Drawbacks: The plastic and rubber interior is good for washing out muck but is also a little low rent.
Last call: For serious off-roading, the LR3 is state of the art. To paraphrase Robert Burns, "My heart -- and tire tracks -- are in the Highlands, wherever I go."