The first facelift of the mighty Range Rover, the P38 truly cemented this luxury SUV’s place on Knightsbridge. However, even though this car was built less for muddy bogs and more for the scrum of London traffic, it still holds up as a perfectly capable 4×4 when put to the challenge.
If you’re a regular on my blogs and websites, you’ll know I’ve often considered the Range Rover P38 my favourite car of all time. The reasons for this come down to two things; everyday practicality and oodles of luxury.
While the original Range Rover of 1970 is indeed a classic, and its ability to marry 4×4 off-road abilities with the comfort of a regular car should not be overlooked, it does have plenty of problems. These cars were built by British Leyland, an immediate death knell to anyone who wants to buy a car with even the slightest bit of structural integrity. Furthermore, the original Range Rover, especially early ones, weren’t exactly luxury items; with a somewhat spartan interior and a generally utilitarian feel. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1980’s that the Range Rover renaissance truly began and the car was marketed to the upper echelons of society.
However, the 1994 launch of the P38 is what gave the Range Rover its identity as a luxury car; bringing SUVs out of the swamp and putting them on SW1.
The P38, for 1994, was the absolute pinnacle of luxury, helped along by the magnificent Autobiography edition which allowed prospective customers the opportunity to have their car custom made for them. From the paintjob and internal gadgetry to the colour of the leather and the type of wood veneer, there were over 100 individual selections you could make to turn your Range Rover into the perfect luxury machine with a personal touch. Small wonder that sales for the contemporary Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit slowed to a dribble during this period.
Better still, Autobiography versions originally cost some poor fool upward of £75,000 back in the 1990’s to implement, which presents and incredible value for money on the second-hand market.
As standard, the car has electric memory seating, cruise control, superb interior furnishings clad with wood and leather, acres of space, a fantastic infotainment and climate control system, gorgeous styling, and the ability to climb every mountain and ford every stream.
The Range Rover’s off-road abilities can be attributed to the fitting of the legendary Rover V8 engine. This powerplant was originally developed by Buick for their pickup trucks of the 1960’s, but once Rover bought the rights to manufacture license-built versions in 1961, this incredibly reliable, endlessly tuneable and superbly crafted engine was fitted to all of Rover’s top-range models and many more right up until 2006. The Rover SD1, the P5b, the P6, and the mighty Range Rover all attribute their classic status to the fitting of this incredible engine.
However, the Range Rover’s off-road abilities don’t mean it’s unsuitable for those who find the prospect of leaving the comfort of tarmac roads horrifying. The car, for its size and weight, is surprisingly sure-footed and will handle like a dream. Unlike the previous Range Rover Classic, the car’s road manners are much more refined and it readily responds to commands. Good wheel communication means that drivers can feel which direction the front wheels are pointing, while the preceding model was incredibly vague.
The off-road suspension also doesn’t negate a comfortable ride, although at speed it may have a tendency to wallow in the corners. However, at no point do you feel it’ll capsize as the car’s design put as much weight as possible low to the ground. Of course, if you do act like a bit of a numpty and manage to flip over, you’re guaranteed to come out of it alive and generally in one piece thanks to the car’s incredible safety. It weighs nearly 3 tonnes and is built like a tank, so very little can dent its armour. In the event of a simply hideous accident, the Range Rover is truly the place to be!
This is primarily the reason why this car became a staple of the ‘School Run’ during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, with middle-class mothers flocking in their droves to buy a car that would not only be safe enough to make sure she and her little kiddie winks made it through their daily commute, but also provided oodles of luxury for when Mum and Dad decided to leave the kids with a babysitter and have some time to themselves. 🙂
Finally, there’s image. The Range Rover P38, I feel, is the perfect middle ground when it comes to the looks people will give you when they see you driving it around. The original Range Rover is admired as a classic piece of British engineering while the later L322 is reviled for it’s very ‘Cheshire Footballer’ styling and wideboy image. The P38 on the other hand found a happy medium. It has a huge road presence, and the sight of one directly behind you in your rear-view mirror will conjure mental images of Stephen Spielberg’s 1971 film ‘Duel’. At the same time though, it’s a very understated car with conservative styling that’s not smothered in silly trinkets like the L322; which ups the ‘Bling’ factor to an embarrassing degree.
Now, onto the hard part (for me at least), what’s wrong with the P38?
While I still consider the P38 my favourite car of all time, problems and all, I’m not one to shy away from the fact that it is an undeniably flawed machine.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the car are the selection of engines.
The car came equipped with two types of engine; the 4.6L Rover V8 and the 2.5L BMW M51 from the 3-Series (there was also the specialist Overfinch 6.3L V8, but that was an aftermarket conversion). The Rover V8, while the perfect engine for a car of this type, is among the most notorious gas-guzzlers the world has ever seen; with an average fuel efficiency rating of an abysmal 9 miles to the gallon! Furthermore, the V8 models, due to their biblical consumption, lose value like a stone and you’d never be able to sell it for a profit.
The biggest problem of all though is the general reliability of these powerplants. The 4.6L V8 was notorious back in the 1990’s for bore liner failures due to over-bored engines; which made them porous. The result was huge expense on the part of the owner to rectify these problems, the Range Rover P38 eventually coming 3rd as the most unreliable new car on the road for the 2002 model year. Replacement bore liners can cost anywhere between £1,500 and £4,000 depending on the damage done, not a fine prospect for those looking to buy this apparently infallible piece of machinery.
So, what about the 2.5L BMW engines?
While these are infinitely more reliable (largely because they weren’t made in Britain), for a car the size and weight of the Range Rover they’re very underpowered. These cars are woefully slow and the already stunted acceleration isn’t helped by a preposterously bad automatic gearbox. The car will do 0-60 mph in a ponderous 16 seconds; all while Snails, Turtles and other slow-moving wildlife soar past you like a pack of Cheetahs!
Other issues include the general build quality of the car itself. During the time of its construction, Rover Group, then owned by BMW, were undergoing quite a bad spell as their sales plummeted and they spent nearly the entirety of the 90’s in the red; only supported by generous bailouts by their German parent company. As such, the reliability and build quality of all Rover cars from this era, whether they be the Range Rover, the Rover 800 or the MG F, was very poor. The sale of Land Rover to Ford in 2000 didn’t do much to help either, as the later models of the Range Rover for the 2000 to 2002 production years were riddled with faults and became one the most unreliable cars on the road. Among these issues include porous ECU’s (Electronic Control Units), which would cripple the entire car if water was allowed to ingress. Further issues included collapsing rear suspension, oil leaks in the axle and gearbox, and over pressurised cooling systems.
Of course, many Range Rover P38’s have been worked to death both on the road and in the country, so expect to find a wholesome amount of wear and tear on pretty much all surfaces. Dents, prangs and other cosmetic issues are the least of your worries, as a hard working life can lead to worn suspension, battered axles, rust on the chassis and other concerns that will need to be addressed if you don’t want to be levied with a ruinous repair bill and a useless, immobilised luxury SUV.
Perhaps the last issue I can consider with the Range Rover P38, and this one’s more down to the size of your wallet and what specifically you’re looking for, are certain special editions of the car which continue to maintain their value through rarity.
Due to the celebrity status of the Range Rover in the 1990’s, Land Rover would often seek the help of third-party sponsors to help give the car a little zhoosh.
Perhaps the most prominent example was the Holland & Holland edition, which was built with the English gentry and their penchant for bloodsport in mind. The car came fitted with both a polished wooden drinks cabinet and a gun rack, allowing the eccentric hunter to sit on the tailgate with a Brandy in one hand and a .22 Rifle in the other as he waited to blast the living hell out of any unfortunate creature that happened to bounce by (usually the local neighbour kids). Regardless, in spite of the car’s practicality being somewhat compromised so as to fit the gun rack and drinks cabinet, these things still go for at least £60,000; and they don’t even come with any free firearms!
The best value models you can look for are the 2.5L BMW examples, which go for anywhere between £3,000 and £10,000. While they are appallingly underpowered, and you’ll grow old and die before you reach 60mph, they do present the most reliable to own and least expensive to operate. The BMW cars were also the cheapest of the crop and the most popular among parents undertaking the aforementioned School Run. Having spent their working lives sedately ferrying the kids back and forth between home and school five times a week, these cars are more likely to be showing fewer signs of wear and tear; the only thing to look out for being lost action figures and small toys between the seats.
The 4.6L Rover V8 models, while going for as little as £1,000, are by far the most risky to buy. Given the quality of the engines in those latter years, I would personally avoid them at every single whim and accept the shortcomings of the BMW version. You may initially love the Rover V8’s power and performance, but once the fuel costs start racking up, as well as the reliability and horrifically bad resale value, you’ll definitely be singing a different tune.
So, is there anything worth salvaging from this?
Well, the Range Rover P38, in spite of its practicality, comfort, image, luxury adornments, style and performance, is languishing here at #10 for a very good set of reasons. There are a lot of flaws with the car, but they can be mitigated if chosen with due care. If you play your cards right, give the car and its service history a thorough inspection, and don’t simply buy the car because it has a Rover V8 in it, then you’re in for perhaps the greatest luxury SUV ever built.
It’s smooth, it’s sublime, it has the presence and majesty of a Rolls-Royce but can also climb Ben Nevis in the snow if that’s what you desire.
If the Range Rover P38 was a person, I’d imagine it would be a pair of well-dressed but bad mooded fairytale princesses, named BMW and Rover, who wear combat boots and could play rugby for England. BMW would always show up on time and not really want much in return, but if asked to do too much work might need to take an overnight stop; whereas Rover could easily march from London to Scotland before sundown, but is very high maintenance and would need some coaxing out of bed in the morning before doing it! 😀
- Comfort – 10/10 – The Range Rover made its name for being the ultimate mixture of off-road performance and comfort
- Practicality – 10/10 – With huge amounts of cargo room and go anywhere abilities, the Range Rover is second to none
- Reliability – 5/10 – 2.5L BMW V8’s give you the best reliability but at the cost of much needed power, while Rover V8’s have build quality issues that could be expensive to fix
- Speed – 5/10 – Rover V8 versions are fairly nippy for a car of its size, BMW examples are woefully underpowered
- Handling – 8/10 – Is surprisingly stable for such a tall vehicle, but don’t push it too far
- Looks – 10/10 – The very definition of utilitarian beauty
- Equipment – 10/10 – Even by today’s standards the Range Rover dishes out equipment and features in spades
- Price – 8/10 – Range Rover P38’s, even minters, can be picked up for tuppence. Autobiography editions especially, which cost some poor soul between £50,000 and £70,000 new, represent astronomical savings!
- Value – 4/10 – Values for the Range Rover P38 are mediocre at best, except if you have a special edition model with a sought after interior. Rover V8 fitted examples are practically worthless due to reliability and inefficiency
- Total – 70/90 – There’s a reason why this mighty machine became the most desirable car on the road in the late 1990’s.