The Curiously Ubiquitous Range Rover
What is it about a gas-guzzling $80,000 luxury SUV that has Hollywood lining up?
In Robert Altman's 1992 Hollywood satire The Player, Griffin Mill -- the double-breasted-suit-wearing, Volvic-water-swilling studio executive -- drives a black Range Rover. That Tim Robbins' take on a smarmy (and murderous) Tinseltown notable would drive a Range Rover says a lot about the car, which long has enjoyed the imprimatur of Hollywood.
"It's a subtle decadence to have that car," says Michael Tolkin, who adapted The Player from his novel of the same name. "I think it said 'armor,' it said 'protection.' It's a much less vulnerable car than, say, a Mercedes or BMW."
To say that Range Rovers have since become ubiquitous in Hollywood would be an understatement. In December, The Hollywood Reporter cased out a handful of notable entertainment business properties and tracked the number that appeared at each over a roughly one-hour period. At 2000 Avenue of the Stars, home to CAA and showbiz law firm Morris Yorn, 50 percent of the cars arriving or departing from the valet stand were Range Rovers, with the top-of-the-line HSE (starting at $80,275) ranking as the most popular. At Spago, 19 percent were Range Rovers. Some perspective: Analytics company Autodata Corp. reports that parent company Land Rover's U.S. sales accounted for just .29 percent of the domestic market through October.
The company is poised to further expand its market share with a new SUV, the midsize Range Rover Evoque, which launched in October and comes in two- and four-door iterations. Starting at just shy of $44,000 and topping out at about $63,000, the Evoque is the least expensive car to carry the Range Rover name and likely will become the company's best-seller. A Range Rover spokeswoman says that, so far, about 85 percent of Evoque buyers are new to the brand. Automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight believes annual sales of the Evoque could hit 15,000. By comparison, the company sold 8,791 of the HSE, which starts at $80,000, and 13,512 of the marginally less pricey Range Rover Sport, according to Autodata.
Everyone from Paris Hilton to Justin Bieber to Jennifer Aniston has driven or currently owns a Range Rover; record executive L.A. Reid departed from THR's Dec. 7 Women in Entertainment breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel in one. The cars also have long been lauded by hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z and Ice Cube, who've weaved Range Rovers into their songs.
But there is a nuanced appeal to the car that fit the bill for the oily Griffin Mill. In the rarefied price range of high-end Range Rovers, which top out with the $142,000 HSE Autobiography edition (features include a supercharged engine and abundant interior wood paneling), there are plenty of other vehicles to choose from, such as the Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet or Maserati GranTurismo. But Range Rovers offer a way to show off without being so obvious as to drive a rip-roaring sports car. And of course, there are practical benefits to a Range Rover: Four-wheel drive, massive cargo bays and an elevated seating position that allows the driver to peer over hopelessly snarled traffic are all hallmarks of the brand. "It has amazing capabilities and that is part of the fantasy," says Lindland. "The thought is: Should you get stuck going up to Big Bear, you can get out. It never happens, but reality doesn't play a big part in these cars."
In other ways, though, Range Rovers are impractical. The HSE tips the scales at a portly 5,697 pounds and returns 12 miles per gallon for city driving and 18 on the highway. And the HSE and Sport models only seat five, while several other luxury SUVs such as the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 can accommodate seven passengers (Land Rover's more utilitarian LR4 has room for seven passengers). Debbee Klein, co-head of Paradigm's literary department, drove Range Rovers until she opted for a Mercedes-Benz GL 450 a few years ago due to space considerations. "The GL 450 is very large and I wanted that space. There is no way around that with the Range Rover, it's seating five or bust," says Klein, who is married and has two sons. "I switched for that reason and that reason only."
Automotive observers say that Range Rovers have resonance in Hollywood because they connote wealth -- and having made it -- in an understated way. "It's a very safe car to be driving in L.A., because it says so much about you, but also so little about you if you want it to. It is rather a subtle status symbol," says Rob Dickinson, the English founder of Singer Vehicle Design, a Los Angeles-based coach building company that makes bespoke Porsches. Kim McCullough, Land Rover's brand vp, says that at a recent focus group conducted by the company, owners were asked to name a person they admire and some of the people said "there wasn't another person they admire, because they consider themselves self-made."
Like the beat-up Volvo station wagons driven by allegedly homespun Silicon Valley tech billionaires and Greenwich, Conn., hedge fund titans, the fact that Range Rovers are perceived as discreet only heightens their pretentiousness in some observers' eyes. "It's a ridiculously pretentious car -- overkill," says Tolkin. "How many people who have four-wheel-drive cars in Los Angeles ever actually need it?" (McCullough notes that in Los Angeles, "There is rain, which since it doesn't happen so often can be dangerous because there is oil on the road.")
Greg Chou, a motion picture finance agent at Paradigm who owns a 2004 black HSE, says his car has proven reliable for ski trips to Lake Tahoe and other adventures. "I guess in L.A. you don't have the weather to use the four-wheel drive, but I've moved furniture, I've driven across the country," he says. "I'd love to keep it forever and fix it up as needed."
But could the abundance of Range Rovers in Los Angeles, which is Land Rover's second biggest market behind New York, portend a backlash? It's doubtful, though Michael Davies, executive producer of the U.S. version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, got rid of his Range Rover a few years ago, "partly due to ubiquity in L.A. From now on, I will only drive a station wagon," says Davies.
If Range Rovers have one other attribute that appears to entice some Hollywood buyers, it's the company's English roots. With leather seats done up with contrast piping and interiors swimming in burled walnut, Range Rovers evoke all things British. "It fits in with the Anglophilia of Hollywood in general, especially around awards season," says Davies. (Although, in recent years, Land Rover has been passed from an American owner, Ford, to current owner Tata Group, an Indian conglomerate.) "It ticks a lot of boxes, which is why I think people drive it," Davies says.
At the end of The Player, once Mill has been promoted to head of the studio, he trades in his Range Rover for a convertible Rolls-Royce Corniche. Apparently, there are some Hollywood types for whom a Range Rover wouldn't do. "That's comedy," Tolkin says. "That's just being silly."
RANGE ROVER U.S. SALES: Year to date through September
- Range Rover HSE: Base price: $80,275 | Sales: 8,791
- Range Roger Sport: $60,895 | 13,512
- Range Rover Evoque: $43,995 | 1,500 (since Oct. launch)
Bryan Logan contributed to this report.