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At 10,000 feet and above the air becomes thin and saps the energy of both humans and vehicles. Stepping out of my Range Rover at the 13,188-foot-high Mosquito Pass in Colorado, I try jogging ahead on the trail to take some photos and quickly feel breathless. But in the flagship sport utility vehicle from Land Rover, the effect of mastering high altitude passes is less obvious.

The event is the 25th anniversary of an epic Great Divide Expedition, a media drive in which a group of original 1989 model Range Rovers traced a cloud-topping odyssey through the Rockies. My segment follows a mostly off-road route from Denver to Aspen.

As a participant in the original event, it's fascinating to see how easily the latest Range Rover model manages to pick its way along steep, narrow trails, strewn with sharp rocks waiting to puncture a tire or gouge vehicle bodywork. Along for the ride is one of the '89 Range Rovers, gamely and capably keeping up with the new version. My turn as a passenger in the old Range Rover reveals a vehicle surprisingly free from squeaks and rattles but prone to exaggerated body roll.

By contrast, the new model's much more sophisticated air suspension system keeps body roll — or head toss, as it's known in the business — under firm control, making for a more comfortable ride. And the power output from the new 5.0-liter supercharged V-8, at 510-hp, is far ahead of the 178-hp delivered by the original's 3.9-liter V-8.

But torque output and smooth throttle control matter when you are creeping along rock-strewn trails at an average speed of about two miles per hour. The '89 model's 235 pound-feet of torque may sound meager next to the new version's 461 pound-feet, but it gets the job done. Where the new version really leaves the old in the dust is in its surfeit of electronic driver aids and luxury features. Today's Range Rover boasts every convenience from Bluetooth phone integration to the latest in driver aids, with a special focus on adaptations for off-road conditions. The vehicle's transmission has selectable terrain response modes, which are tuned to adapt the power delivery to various conditions from sand to rocks to snow. Essentially you select a mode and let the vehicle computer do the thinking in terms of delivering the best traction available.

Our chief guide is Tom Collins, a local legend and veteran of many grueling off-road adventures all over the world. At one point Collins announces that after two miles "the trail gets serious and we will need spotters." To underscore the point, the trail sign warns: "Experienced 4x4 drivers only." On alert, we slow to an absolute crawl and gingerly pick our lines through the rocks and tight turns, following p

recisely the instructions of our spotter guides.

It's painstakingly slow progress but the payoff is a series of dramatic vistas from mountain peaks that relatively few people ever see. Along the way we pass long-abandoned gold and silver mining towns, plus a sign at the 11,925-foot-high Hagerman Pass that marks the dividing line between rivers draining to the Atlantic and those flowing to the Pacific.

Consumers who buy $100,000-plus luxury SUVs like the Range Rover rarely take their vehicles on such challenging trails, but for those who do, the rewards can be spectacular.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com.

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