Think sports tourer and a bunch of high-powered coupes and sedans spring to mind but add all-wheel drive and all-terrain capability and the list shrinks dramatically - in fact almost to zero. Now add the name Land Rover to the mix…

The new Range Rover Sport, the fifth nameplate in the Land Rover store, is perhaps the definitive vehicle in this exclusive genre and it's just landed in South Africa with a choice of two V8 engines, two badges and two prices - each at the top end of the scale.

A diesel, I am told, should be available in 2006.

I was introduced to the petrol pair this week in an aeroplane hangar at George airport in the Eastern Cape and got to know them pretty intimately over two days of driving on tar and dirt - split by a luxurious kip at the new Pezula resort and golf estate in the hills above the Knysna lagoon.

The ultimate model among the Landy badges is, of course, the Range Rover - longer, higher, more spacious than the Sport - but it, the maker says, is the luxury model intended for people who have made it, for whom the expense of such a set of wheels is nowhere near bank-breaking - they just want one.

They Range Rover uses the same 4.4 and blown 4.2 engines as the Sport but, if you add a couple of accessories, its price will top R1-million

The 4.2-litre Range Rover Sport Supercharged and 4.4-litre Range Rover Sport HSE come in below that exalted level at R675 000 and R740 000 respectively and are aimed at buyers who enjoy their driving (read going fast and, basically, anywhere), are still proving themselves and mean to use their car not only as transport but also as a tool, an image-maker, to help them clamber up those last few rungs of the corporate ladder.

About 160 of them will have their wish fulfilled this year; that's about how many of these 2.5-tonne urban battlewagons Land Rover SA will receive from the factory by year-end and, I was told, most have been sold.

Land Rover sees the Sport as a challenger for BMW's X5, VW's Touareg and even Porsche's Cayenne, which is a Touareg on steroids, though Audi's XC models, Jeep and Lexus also come into the picture.

Like the BMW, VW and Porsche, the Range Rover Sport is total overkill in terms of technical wizardry. Everything the automakers of the past 25 years have come up with is packed in, on or under its 4.8m length and, frankly, most of it will be redundant in the hands of any but a dedicated outdoorsman.

The engines, for a start. As I've said, each is a V8 with four valves per cylinder. The supercharged version displaces 4197cc and, if you care to press the accelerator far enough, will blast out 287kW at 5750rpm and 550Nm at 3500rpm. It's brutal and will hurl you to 100km/h in 7.6sesc and thunder on to 225km/h. The penalty is that you could be burning 20 litres of petrol each 100km, though Land Rover is honest enough to admit in its media documentation to 15.9 litres/100km.

Six-speed ZF auto

Less devastating is the non-blown V8 that displaces 4394cc, has an unusually high compression ratio of 10.75:1 and, according to Land Rover, is capable of 220kW at 5500rpm and 425Nm at 4000rpm while using 14.9 litres/100km in general driving. Top speed is given as 209km/h and the 0-100km/h time as 8.9sec.

The question now, it seems, is which will last longer - the world's oil supplies or a new Range Rover?

Anyway, all that power and torque is transmitted through a six-speed ZF auto transmission which, if you want to do your own gear changes or you're working off-road, becomes a six-speed manual/sequential by shoving the gear lever to the left and then backwards or forwards - but beware, you can select the gear but the box can override your choice, sometimes when you really would prefer it not to.

Low range can be selected by pushing a button - but that's only the start of the Sport's armoury of off-road tactical weapons, a bunch of electronic gizmos first seen in the Land Rover Discovery III launched earlier this year with a drive along the beaches of Namibia and into the coastal dunes.

The Sport also has the Land Rover genes that allow the chassis to rise or fall according to terrain being crossed, when parked to allow easier access, or when hurtling along at more than 100km/h - when the chassis will drop itself to improve stability and aerodynamic efficiency.

Comical pictograms

Should the belly bottom, there's an even HIGHER setting that comes in automatically to try to lift the chassis off the obstruction - in that mode the Sport looks like it's on stilts.

But back to the tactical armoury - the same on each model. There's a pop-up, rotating knob between the front seats and half-surrounded by five comical little pictograms representing various "terrains": tar, gravel/grass/snow, rocks, mud/ruts and sand. Depending on choice, the system will adjust the electronic throttle map, gearbox change points, air suspension height, stability control settings, traction control and ABS, the centre and rear differentials (lock or not) and invoke hill descent control management.

It all takes a little getting used to but, once mastered, you and your Sport should be able to go anywhere except completely underwater (though it can wade through the best part of a metre of the stuff) or down a mineshaft.

Some of the systems also come into play on tar. Once you've overcome the spooky feeling that a vehicle so high shouldn't be able to go around corners so fast (Landy says the Sport's air-suspension and anti-roll equipment will keep it flat the curves up to four g's, then allow a five percent lean to tell you things are about to become too interesting) it becomes a lot of fun.

Certainly the name 'Sport' is not misplaced but it could have been Versatility; this Jekyll and Hyde machine is remarkable for its changing character. We whispered along the back roads of the Little Karoo, the shell hunkered down as De Rust and Dysselsdorp fled past, and even the Oudtshoorn ostriches paused in their pecking as the convoy rolled into town.

Top 4x4 route

From Knysna we'd lifted up, over and through the stunning vistas and peaks, valleys, rivers and forests of Price Alfred's Pass to Uniondale, taking in the Ysternek nature reserve and through Die Vlug and Avontuur on the R339. The road is gravel, twists like an angry mamba and, thanks to rain, very wet in places but, in gravel mode, the Sport showed off its Hyde character and didn't put a wheel wrong - it's astounding that the car can be two such very different animals.

We took lunch at the Louvain guest farm about midway between Oudtshoorn and George - then put the Sports to work on the farm's tough 4x4 track (see gallery) that's rated as a top route by DriveOut and SA 4x4 magazine and winds, up and along severe gradients, through indigenous forest and fynbos. Once again, the Sport transformed itself from highway cruiser to mountain goat - thanks to the traction systems, even the novices among the group managed to get through.