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RANGE ROVER COMES DOWN WITH `NO-FRILLS’ 1991 VERSION

SHARE RANGE ROVER COMES DOWN WITH `NO-FRILLS’ 1991 VERSION

Britain's Range Rover has come down the mountain for 1991 with a "no-frills" but still elegant version of its luxury sport-utility vehicle that has been carving a small niche among affluent Americans since 1987.

Range Rover says its "Hunter" edition is intended for "value-minded" buyers. That may raise a few eyebrows, since it starts at $36,500 and still has more frills between its beefy bumpers than most cars.But that is between $6,500 and $10,800 less than the standard and County SE Range Rover models. The real strategy, of course, is to broaden the appeal of this boxy, high profile vehicle that first rolled out of the Rover Group's Solihull plant 21 years ago.

The Hunter places the accent more on utility than luxury. Manually adjustable fabric seats replace electrically adjustable ones covered in supple leather. The burl walnut inlays on the dashboard are gone, but there are still strips of American walnut on the door panels.

Several other items are not offered on the Hunter in efforts to keep its price tag down: anti-lock brakes, anti-sway bars, a front air dam with auxiliary lights, and wiring for a compact disc player.

As mentioned, however, the Hunter is no bare-bones vehicle, although a set of bars separating the rear seat from the cargo area makes it look like the property of a very well-to-do dog catcher.

Besides that dog guard, every Hunter has air conditioning, a 4-speed automatic transmission with full-time four-wheel-drive, AM-FM stereo cassette, electric windows, heated door locks and mirrors and cruise control.

Each one also has an automatic load-leveling device and a Class III trailer hitch. There is even a pair of headlight washers, and a heated front windshield with a nearly invisible electric grid imbedded in the glass.

In fact the only extra-cost option is a glass sun roof, for $1,500 more.

As with other models, all body panels except its hood, tailgate and lower rear quarters are aluminum, with a welded steel underbody that rides atop a 14-gauge boxed-steel ladder frame.

A standard Range Rover was last reviewed in late 1987. Looking back on my notes, it was found to be immensely comfortable and built like a bank vault, but about as slow as one.

For 1989, its all-aluminum, 3.5 liter V8 engine - a General Motors design sold to Rover in 1965 - was bored out to the current 3.9 liters, raising horsepower from 150 to 178 at 4,750 rpm. Torque was also increased, from 195 to 220 foot-pounds at 3,250 rpm.

One week of driving a 1991 Range Rover Hunter (painted an olive drab shade more elegantly called Eastnor Green) showed acceptable acceleration for most conditions, although it felt no faster than competing models powered by six-cylinder engines, like Ford's Explorer, Oldsmobile's Bravada and Toyota's Land Cruiser.

Off the road, it performed flawlessly while being flogged over a rutted, muddy construction site. This 4,303-pound vehicle also seems to have enough torque to pull a locomotive.

On paved roads, the Hunter's manners are a bit unsettling at first because of its propensity to lean during sudden maneuvers or turns. One wonders why those anti-sway bars are not offered on all Range Rovers.

Still, its long-legged suspension is capable of smoothing out the worst chuckholes. It also has what is among the smoothest and best insulated highway rides in its class, and a feeling as if carved from a single piece.

Its supportive seats are more like thrones, their cushions 32 inches above the ground to provide a commanding view of the road. The spacious split rear seats fold forward to increase cargo space to 71 cubic feet.

The Hunter's dashboard may look a bit utilitarian, but all primary controls are immediately at hand, and the analog gauges are well marked. Owners might at first find the ventilation controls confusing, the steering wheel raked too horizontally, and the ignition lock hard to locate.

Owners will also pay a price at the pumps. Unleaded premium fuel is required, and EPA mileage ratings are only 13 city/16 mpg highway.

Fit and finish on the Hunter reviewed was first class. While the wide gaps between its exterior panels is evidence of dated body tooling, Range Rover claims this is needed to prevent panel damage because of body flex during off-road driving. They also permit easier panel installation and replacement.

In short, the Range Rover Hunter combines the ruggedness and versatility of a truck with all the amenities of a luxury car - for those who can afford it.

Only 400 Hunters will be produced for the U.S. market this year, or 8 percent of the company's total U.S. sales. Each one is backed by Range Rover's new three year-42,000 mile warranty offered through its 86 North American dealers.