Land Rover luxury, at $35,000

Many Land Rover owners don't appreciate the true off-road creature that lurks beneath their vehicle's luxury appointments and status-symbol reputation. They pay through the nose for gear they will never use: in some cases, $90,000 and more.

Now, however, Land Rover is introducing a perky, sturdy -- and still luxurious -- rig that makes no pretense of reaching Dakar or descending from the Sierra to Lake Tahoe.

Today's test car, the 2008 Land Rover LR2 SE, has the upright stance and graceful boxy appearance that define the company's modern models. It has the same distinctive grille, kaleidoscopic headlights, and fish-gill slats in the sides, behind the front wheels, that bigger and more expensive Land Rovers feature. It does not have low range for its all-wheel-drive system. Still, a terrain-control knob allows the system to be adjusted to four settings: regular, slippery, ruts, and sand.

And the hill-descent control limits speed to about 7 miles per hour, without any braking.

Plus, it feels and performs like a big model, and the all-wheel-drive system will take 98 percent of buyers as far as they dare to go. The LR2 is also a smooth, sure commuter car, unless you're someone who needs to be noticed in a $90,000 model cruising a beachfront resort town, or you require a lot of interior space.

This is a great time for Land Rover to come out with a model like the LR2. With gas prices up, owners of big SUVs are casting about for something more practical. That's why there's a boom in crossovers, which are part SUV, station wagon, and minivan. But this is no crossover, just a small and practical SUV that retains plenty of Land Rover's mud-crawling, snow-slashing capabilities.

I did preliminary testing on a closed course in California that featured steep and rocky paths, mud, water, and slippery slopes. In New Hampshire recently, I slogged through eight inches of sucking mud on a dirt road, maneuvered on roads made icy by sleet, and drove an unplowed road after a snowstorm.

I also did plenty of everyday driving -- on highways, back roads, and into the suburbs -- and found the LR2 to be quiet, comfortable, smooth, and fun.

The LR2 is powered by a 3.2-liter, inline-6 engine that comes from Volvo. Its 230 horsepower is more than adequate, and the 234 lb-ft. of tugging torque was just what getting through the mud required.

The six-speed automatic transmission was as smooth a gearbox as I've seen in an SUV at this level.

Inside, standard leather seats (black Alpaca, in this case) were firm, with long bases up front for leg comfort. The rear seats were a bit shorter, and while space up front was plentiful, the rear seats were only OK for legroom. The black, textured dash was bisected by a gleaming wood strip. The control panel down the center made it easy to make adjustments for climate and sound, although it was perhaps too busy with buttons.

Safety features include electronic traction control, antirollover technology, front air bags, driver's knee bag, side-impact bags up front, and side-curtain bags front and rear.

You can take the LR2 home for about $35,000 if you pass on the extras that came with our $40,000-plus luxury model: a technology bundle that feature DVD, Bluetooth, and an upgraded sound system ($3,500); a lighting package with BiXenon headlamps and adaptive front lights ($1,050); and a cold-climate package with a heated windshield, front seats, and windshield washer jets ($700).

That is some buy for this much luxury and performance.

Royal Ford can be reached at