Silvio Calabi: A romp afield with Range Rover
“It’s usually the third owner who takes a Range Rover off-road,” said our Land Rover Experience driving instructor. “The first owner doesn’t want to dunk his costly 4X4 in the muck. The second owner has saved for years to buy the vehicle of his dreams, and he’s going to treat it like a member of the family. The third owner — chances are, he’s bought it as a beast of burden, and he’s in good position to find out what it’ll really do.”
So were we, churning through muddy water above the doorsills at the Range Rover plant in Solihull, in the English Midlands. I’d brought several American friends with me, and we were driving a caravan of three Land Rover models: A top-of-the-line Range Rover Autobiography, a pavement-eating Range Rover Sport and a well-equipped Land Rover Discovery — all white and (our instructor’s comment notwithstanding) all brand-new. We already knew that these machines behaved impeccably on pavement; now we were probing the other half of their portfolio, the steep and slimy, mud, rocks and ruts part. Under the scrutiny of professionals, we were having a go at the Adventure Zone, the Jungle Track, the Steps, the Elephant’s Footprints, the Railroad Tracks, the see-saw bridge and an array of up, down and side hills so steep as to require hands-and-knees crawling, had we been on foot. But we were in box-stock vehicles, on street tires.
Any well-optioned new Range Rover is essentially a laptop computer encased in a leather-lined, all-aluminum SUV. The computer has an arsenal of standard and available on- and off-road hardware to deploy, including a self-adjusting air suspension that allows tremendous wheel travel and bump absorption, two powered axles, three differentials, an 8-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift paddles and a transfer case with high and low gear ranges, and even an electrically deployable trailer hitch — along with a choice of gas or diesel engines. There is also a full suite of programs, I mean apps, ranging from wireless this and smart that to adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, satnav, automatic hill descent and climb control, and the latest generation of Terrain Response.
Terrain Response goes back to 2005, when Land Rover first provided a way to optimize driving on rock, grass, gravel, snow, mud, sand or pavement. Turn the TR control knob on the console and the computer alters the suspension, ride height, brakes, transmission and differentials — and their software, from anti-lock braking to hill-descent control and ATPC, All Terrain Progress Control — for best behavior on those surfaces. It works, and other carmakers have adopted similar, if less sophisticated systems.
Real off-roading calls for real skills. Before each obstacle, we stop for a risk assessment. Our instructors recommend the TR settings — I get lazy and rely on “Auto” — and make sure we line up properly and then ply the steering, throttle, brakes and gearbox just so. We go “as slow as possible, as fast as necessary.” We feel our way through, being “sympathetic to the vehicle, our passengers and the environment.” (That’s good advice everywhere, come to think of it.) In the deepest parts of the swamp, we learn to push up a bow wave, which creates a trough in the water behind it where the engine air intake can breathe.
When we’re done, we step back into our daily driver, a deluxe Range Rover Autobiography diesel-electric hybrid, and purr back to our hotel in the Cotswolds in decadent comfort. In addition to four adults, there are nearly 500 pounds of shotgun cartridges in the back of this two-and-a-half-ton SUV — we’re here to help defend Britain against ravening hordes of pheasants — but the car ignores the weight and does a credible simulation of a fine touring sedan while achieving 30-plus miles per gallon.
Hybrid Range Rovers are not available in the U.S., yet, but we’re not really missing anything, yet. The standard diesel drivetrain achieves about the same MPG for a lot less money, and with better throttle response. Still, I’ll bet that before too long most luxury vehicles will be powered at least partly by electricity, and capable of astonishing fuel efficiency. That too will become part of Range Rover’s unique collection of capabilities.
— Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.