25 November 2011


I've written pieces on my Discovery and Defender, but have neglected my Freelander.

Quite a few of my 4x4 exploits have been in my Freelander. It's a 2005 Td4 which has been modified with:
  • 2" suspension lift for extra ground clearance
  • Mantec sump-guard
  • DAP Sliderz rock guards
  • Reinforced front recovery points, and
  • Spare-wheel mounted work light.
The lift kit and recovery points were manufactured by Tornado Motorsports and fitted by Freelander Storm, both in Derbyshire.

People say that Freelanders are not 'proper' Land Rovers and are only suitable for driving to the supermarket: nonsense. I've taken mine around off road courses and shown up a few Defenders by not getting stuck when they've needed a tow...

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

09 November 2011

Punch Challenges

After taking part in a 4x4 trial in the Freelander, I have been trying my hand at another off road competition in the form of Punch Challenges with Northants 4x4.

The concept is very simple: a laminated card is attached to the passenger-side door mirror, a number of orienteering punches are set out around a site and the aim is to visit and stamp your card with as many punches as possible. As the card is attached to the vehicle's mirror, you need to get the card to the punch.

Each punch has a different pattern of pins to mark the card, and the card has numbered boxes corresponding to the numbers on each punch. It is a simple matter then to match them up: e.g. mark box A3 on the card with the punch labelled A3. Simples. The person with the most punches in the shortest time is the winner.

Of course it is the location of the punches plays a big part, and this is where the challenge element comes in. They can be anywhere: up embankments, across streams, in deep water, through narrow gaps in trees, in ditches etc., so the skill of the driver, and the type of vehicle, plays its part too.

A heavily modified 4x4 with larger wheels, a winch, raised air-intake etc. will find it much easier than a completely standard vehicle, so a handicap system is employed. At the start of the challenge, each entrant is told how many punches they need to collect: the more modified the vehicle, the more punches will be required. This allows the unmodified entrants to avoid some of the more extreme punches that they are incapable of getting to.

Whilst it is possible to do it while single-crewed, it is much easier to have a co-driver (AKA "winch-bitch") in the passenger seat to punch the card, look for the punches (which are often hidden), guide you in to tight spaces and, if necessary, help you winch yourself out of trouble.

Depending on the site and how the punches have been laid out, it can take from a couple of hours to most of the day to get them all. Even if you are not especially competitive and are just doing it for fun, the opportunity to get a punch gives a purpose to the day and gives you an incentive to stretch yourself to have a go at things you might not normally consider trying.

The nature of the event means that you will be putting yourself and your vehicle at a degree of risk in terms of damage, but with care and patience it should be possible to emerge unscathed - although most Land Rovers are not watertight, so fording deep water is likely to result in wet feet (don't ask me how I know...!).

Whether you win or not, it's the taking part and having fun that counts!

14 September 2011

Test Drive: Freelander 2

Unfortunately my Defender has been having some teething problems, and it has gone back to the supplying dealer to have the defects attended to. While it's away, the dealer has kindly lent me a Freelander 2. As a Freelander owner, I'm enjoying being able to experience at first-hand the differences between the two.

The loan car is a 2011 Freelander 2.2 Td4 XS 6-speed manual, and has a full leather interior, fully (electrically) adjustable seats, automatic stop-start (more about that later), built-in sat nav and Bluetooth mobile phone hands-free, automatic headlights, windscreen wipers and dipping rear-view mirror, parking sensors front and rear, climate control, and cruise control.

From the outside, the resemblance between the two cars is very obvious: the profile, and in particular rear windows being very similar in shape. The 2 is taller than the original, although mine has been lifted by 2" so these two are same height.

Inside the 2, the seats are comfortable and supportive, and adjustable in most directions whereas in the original the seats only have basic fore-aft and rake adjustment. The driving position is a lot more cramped than in the original: the centre console is wider, and consequently there's nowhere to put your left leg when it's not on the clutch, and your knee rests on the edge of the centre console. There's no space under the seat to fold your clutch leg out of the way either as there is a plinth that the seat sits on.

The leather-trimmed steering wheel isn't adjustable, seems a long way away and slightly on the small side. It has controls for the cruise control, mobile phone and radio as well as two slender chrome strips that are the buttons for the horn. It feels very car-like whereas the original feels more Land Rover-like - a similar change with the Ford Transit van, where the more recent models feel less van-like and more car-like. Whilst I'm sure this is intentional to make them more appealing to 'normal' people, it does mean that those of us who buy Land Rovers for their rugged, chunky nature are left feeling short-changed.

Like many other manufacturers, Land Rover have done away with the traditional ignition key and replaced it with a rectangular plastic block that doubles as the remote control for the central locking. Slotting this in to the dashboard, you push down on the clutch and press the start button - handily located behind the steering wheel to the left of the instrument panel. The same button stops the engine, and if you press it without the clutch down, it just turns on the ignition which lets you open the windows, use the sat nav etc. in the same way as turning the key to the first position. The key cannot be ejected while the engine is running, but when you've switched off, you push the key in slightly before it pops back and you can pull it out.

There are a number of automatic systems in the car:
  • Headlights
  • Windscreen wipers
  • Dipping rear-view mirror
  • Central locking
  • Stop-Start
Some of the things the car insists on doing for you cannot be overridden. For example, you will spend a lot of time unlocking doors: by default only the driver's door unlocks when you press the button on the remote - a second press is required to open the rest of the car. When you start driving, the car automatically locks all the doors again. Why? If you want to get something out of the boot when you arrive, or pick up passengers or do anything you will need to find the remote and unlock the car again, or press the unlock button on the centre console. Opening the driver's door from the inside doesn't unlock the rest of the car. If you unlock the car and don't open a door, after a few seconds the car will automatically lock itself again. There is a boot-button on the remote control, but it only releases the boot rather than opening, so isn't all that useful if you've got your hands full.

The automatic headlights don't work all that well with them turning on and off, seemingly at random, on an overcast but not particularly dull day in Peterborough. Why do we need automatic headlights? I can tell when it gets dark.

With the automatic windscreen wipers, there are three settings on the wiper stalk: automatic, on and fast. There's no intermittent setting, which I presume it replaced by the automatic setting. I have a distrust of automatic systems which stems from my experiences in a Peugeot 206 several years ago, where the automatic windscreen wipers decided to work only in the dry, and when passing a lorry that was throwing up bucket-loads of spray, they decided that wipers were not necessary - which lead to an exciting few moments as I tried to override the automatic system so I could see where I was going.

My concerns were not entirely unfounded, with erratic wipes of the screen in completely dry weather. Automatic wipers seem very like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist: As with the headlights, I can tell very easily when I need my wipers on.

The 2.2 litre diesel engine is very quiet, almost too quiet, as when you're on the open road is difficult to hear exactly what's going on. A green arrow indicator on the dashboard tells you when to change up a gear, but if you follow its direction you will find yourself in too high a gear, with the engine starting to struggle and vibrate. To be fair, the 2 isn't the only car to suffer this: the automatic gearbox in the BMW 1-Series I've driven suffers a similar issue unless you put it in sport mode.

In what I assume is a attempt at emission reduction, the 2 has an automatic stop-start system: come to a halt, put the gear lever in to neutral, lift the clutch and the engine stops. A green 'Eco' light lights up on the dashboard to let you know it's stopped. When you're ready to go, push down the clutch and before your foot reaches the floor, the engine's running again and off you go. While stopped, all the other systems in the car keep running. If you stop for too long, the engine will start again of its own accord; presumably to prevent the various systems running down the battery. The stop-start system can be turned off by a button on the centre console, but it will be reactivated again next time you start the car.

At Motorway speeds, the cabin remains quiet with little engine, wind or tyre noise. Steering is light and responsive, possibly a little too light and responsive for a vehicle of that size - a little more weight would stop the steering being quite so flighty at speed, especially on faster turns such as open roundabouts or on fast, twisty cross-country roads.

The radio has a CD player as well as an Aux socket to plug in your iPod, and the speakers give a good performance. There's even a sub-woofer hidden somewhere in the car - which was turned up to the max when I picked up the car, which made Radio 2 sound a little odd. There's also a built-in Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone system, which works very well and accounts for many of the buttons on the centre console.

A large touch-screen at the top of the dashboard contains the built-in satellite navigation system. The user interface is not particularly user-friendly, and it took a lot of fumbling around and back-tracking before realising that the "Destination" label at the bottom of the screen was actually a button. On the road, the announcements are clear and easy to hear over the car's speakers, but the timing of the announcements is very poor. Approaching a turn, your first warning is at just 400 yards: if you're not in the inside lane at the time, forget it - you're going to miss your turn. Bizarrely, on Motorways (and only on Motorways, not dual carriageways) it extends the warning to one mile.

The second announcement is at 200 yards, almost before the first announcement has finished. The map set on board has similar errors to other navigation systems, leading to vague and confusing instructions; especially in towns where there are lots of junctions and roads in a small area where it strings instructions together for multiple turns.

Yes, you can look at the screen, but the maps are very diagrammatic and don't reflect the actual arrangement on the road. Also the location and dimness of the screen means you cannot easily see what it's showing. As a very expensive (£1530) option on the Freelander 2, it's a big disappointment and I certainly wouldn't be choosing it over my my much cheaper, more accurate and clearer Garmin.

Interestingly, the satellite navigation has a number of Points of Interest (PoIs) in it's database, including a list of franchise dealers - but the dealer who lent me the car is not included.

There is a trend in some cars for soft-touch indicators that don't stay tipped in the appropriate direction, like the aforementioned BMW. The stalks in the 2 behave as indicators should, staying cocked until cancelled either automatically by turning the wheel, or moving the lever back by hand.

At the back of the car, the 2 has a lift-up boot instead of the side-opening one on the original. It's a big, fairly heavy door, held up on gas rams. A shorter person might struggle getting it closed as it's a bit of reach up when fully open. The boot space is much greater than on the original, although the floor starts much higher up to allow space for the spare wheel. Which isn't there.

Lifting up the boot floor, which has a handy hanging hook to keep it up, reveals a large, mostly circular space where the spare wheel would go if one were supplied. Instead, in a neatly shaped box in the centre of the space there's a bottle of tyre sealant and a pump, which also acts as a support for the centre of the boot floor. Whilst I'm sure these kits work fine for a simple puncture, any other wheel or tyre problem will leave you stranded and I doubt that a recovery company will be all that keen to collect you and the car from a remote field or byway should you damage a tyre.

Unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to try the 2 off road, but having driven its bigger brother, Discovery 4, and experiencing the Terrain Response system I am sure that it'll be just as capable, if not more so, than the original. Next time I visit the Land Rover Experience I will be putting the Freelander 2 to the test.

Would I buy one? Maybe. There are too many automatic systems on it for my taste that cannot be turned off or easily worked around (why would you want the the doors to lock automatically? In an accident, I want people to be able to get me out!). On the other hand it drives very nicely, is quiet, comfortable and while I've had it the average fuel consumption has been around 36mpg. It just needs to feel a bit chunkier and more like a Land Rover.

With thanks to Hammond Land Rover, Halesworth, Suffolk, for lending me the Freelander 2 while repairing my Defender.

22 August 2011

Irish Weekend - May 2011

After my Irish trip in February, I vowed it wouldn't be fourteen years before I went back again. When some of the KTM Forum guys in Northern Ireland posted that they were heading to Co Dongal for the long weekend I jumped at the chance of joining them.

My plan was simple: ride to Birkenhead, take the overnight boat to Belfast, meet with Kyle (the ringleader) for breakfast, ride, camp overnight, ride, and get the overnight boat back again.

Stena Line ISF operate the ferry service, and the overnight boat leaves at 22.30 and gets in at the early hour of 06.30. Boarding commences well in advance of departure, so although I arrived at 19.30 I was in the Mersey Seaways's snack bar soon after with a group of three other motorcyclists from Norfolk on their way to the Antrim coast.

The boat is best described as basic, although the cabins were clean and comfortable, the food was pretty poor, and they ran out of glasses in the bar...

An 06.30 arrival means getting up about 05.30 (they kick you out of the cabins at 06.00), but I didn't quite get around to breakfast on the boat. Fortunately it was only a half-hour ride to Kyle's house for an
Ulster fry :)

 From there we headed over to the Donegal coast, picking up another two others along the way. The sun was out, the roads were clear, and it was a wonderful run through the spectacular scenery.

Photo by Terry Irvine

We were camping at the Sleepy Hollow camp site, which was very aptly named, and they'd kept plenty of space for us, including reserved parking for the bikes. After pitching our tents, I unexpectedly tested
mine... Well, it had been an early start and a poor night's sleep...

Photo by Eugene Gillen

Time for an afternoon ride. There are a lot of gravel tracks in the area, so instead of the area we were expecting to ride (a half-hour ride away) we explored the new tracks while trying not to get stuck in the peat bogs!

Somehow one of our group managed to get lost, as did the person sent to find him. Just when we though we'd found the local equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle, we were reunited up a side-trail. Quite how the wrong turning had been made is a mystery.

Unfortunately some of the longer trails through woodland were closed for forestry operations, but they'll be there for next time.

On one section of trail through an area there they'd been cutting peat, I beached the bike on top of a mound - that takes some doing with the 990, and a bit of a shove to get it off again (and all on video!).

With Saturday's plan taking shape, we headed back to camp for a cuppa in the evening sun before retiring to a local pub for a superb steak and plenty of local ale (not Guinness - I don't like it).

Saturday morning, and a trip to a local petrol station cafe for a decent cooked breakfast. The other riders joining us spotted our bikes as they rode past, so came and joined us. Everyone was on a KTM 9x0 Adventure, except one brave chap on a Suzuki V-Strom 650.

Photo by Terry Irvine

Knowing the trails a bit better than yesterday, we strung them together more smoothly, found a few more, and generally enjoyed ourselves.

One of the hills was home to a wind farm (isn't there enough wind already without farming more?) and the view was amazing. The track up to it was a mix of steep bits, not-so-steep bits, some gravelled, some sealed - I almost threw myself over the bars on the way up when I found a larger rock in the road (the only one for miles).

Lunchtime approached so we headed in to a village for lunch, and found the Seaview Hotel a short distance inland. Toasties were the order of the day, and the landlord was able to suggest some trails we could try - even taking Kyle in his car to show him where they were. Sadly they were the closed forestry ones. Undeterred, he called another chap who's a rally driver and knows the area well, and he came over to the hotel to talk to us about the trails too - that doesn't happen over here!

We were getting back on the bikes when someone noticed that my front tyre looked a bit soft. Flat, in fact. Fortunately I'd stuck a front tube in my luggage just as I was leaving home, so it wasn't long before we'd changed the tube and found a four-inch thorn stuck in the tyre. Impressive!

The others had gone for a ride while we changed the tube, so from there we decided to return to the camp-site. I was booking on the overnight ferry at 22.30 from Belfast, so after striking the tent I set off in hot persuit of the chap on the V-Strom. It was a very brisk run through the mountains, joining the main roads in Northern Ireland and I got to the ferry terminal just after 20.00.

Once on the boat, the Lagan Seaways, I found myself in the queue for cabins behind Guy Martin - the TT rider and star of the BBC series "The Boat That Guy Built" - who'd misplaced his boarding card. He headed off to the restaurant while I made do with the snack bar again (the food was better, but still not brilliant).

As it was Mum's birthday I went on deck to give her a call to the accompaniment of Celine Dion's greatest hits on the PA system: hearing the theme from "Titanic" whilst on a ferry is... well, not ideal if you're a nervous passenger (which I'm not). Although looking at it another way, we were just a few hundred yards from the place RMS Titanic was built.

The crossing home was uneventful, if slightly rougher that the outward journey, and I didn't see Guy in the morning - perhaps he jumped off as we passed the Isle of Man?

Arriving early at Birkenhead, it was 06.30 as I left the port for the ride home. I was the only bike on board, and it had been well secured with three wheel-chocks and two straps. I guess they don't see bikes all that often!

Some excitement on the ride down was finding the load-liner of a pick-up between lanes 2/3 on the M6. I thought a call to the Highways Agency was in order at the next emergency phone - and before I hung-up I could see an incident unit on the scene. Glad it wasn't dark and wet or it could have been nasty, although the traffic was very light.

A brilliant weekend, well worth all the travelling.

Some footage from my helmet camera.

Self-Service Checkouts

I know this 'blog is supposed to be about my travels, but while on those travels I've had a few problems with self-service checkouts in a variety of shops. The problems range from forgetfulness on my part right through to... well... stupidity.

On a recent trip to a well known furniture shop of a Swedish persuasion, I bought a large recycling 'bucket' with handles. I used the bucket to put my other purchases in before going to the checkout. They don't have scales on their self-service ones, so I very carefully took everything out of the bucket, scanned everything, checked it twice on the screen, moved the bucket to the other side of the till and put everything back in it.

I was halfway to the door when the penny dropped... Once I got to the door (I was on an escalator at the time) I went back and confessed that I hadn't remembered to scan and pay for for the bucket itself. Firstly I was directed to customer returns, but they can't take money, only refund it. Eventually I was ushered to the front of the checkout queue where I was thanked for my honesty and everything was sorted out. My conscience wouldn't have let me not pay for it, so there was no question of not paying for it and I was very embarrassed at making such a stupid mistake.

A few days later, I stopped a northern supermarket for my weekly shop. After dealing with the somewhat temperamental and irritable self-service machine, I took my shopping and receipt and drove home. The following day, when I went to pay for something in another shop, I realised that I'd left my credit card in the till's chip and PIN machine - a call to the shop confirmed it and, as I'd already spoken to the card company, I asked that they destroy it.

But my crowing achievement took place some months ago, in another supermarket (one that's expanded all over the world), where after paying for my shopping, collecting my receipt and card, I then left the shop leaving my shopping neatly bagged at the checkout...

I'm sure I'm not the first to have done any of these, and I dare say I won't be the last. Perhaps checking-out shopping is best left to the experts.

Out with the old, in with the new(er).

The Discovery didn't stay long. I've always wanted a Defender, which to me is the definitive Land Rover, and when I bought the Disco I knew I'd probably regret it. So when I found a Defender at an attractive price, in good condition and the type I wanted, a 110 double-cab, it was the end of the Disco.

It's a 110 Double-Cab Td5 XS, first registered in October 2005, with 70k miles on the clock. It's been owned by a farm in Suffolk and has obviously been earning its keep with a few bumps and scrapes - but it's a Defender and they look better that way. The XS spec. means that it has a heated windscreen and seats (which are part leather) and it also has air conditioning.

At the moment it is completely standard, but that will change: the spare wheel lives in the load-bed and takes up a lot of room, so a carrier for the rear will take care of that. It's also lost its 'tent' that it originally left the factory with somewhere along the line, so a new cover will be needed too. And I'm going to keep the winch from the Discovery to fit, so a new bumper and other bits will be needed for that.

And don't worry about the Disco: it's gone to a good home.

09 February 2011

LRO 4x4 Training Day

Having never had any proper training on how to drive off road, and with the Discovery having low-range gears and a central diff-lock which the Freelander doesn't, I thought it wise to have some tuition. A friend mentioned that the LRO Adventure Club was organising a training day with Protrax at Rockingham Castle (where I had my Land Rover Experience), which isn't too far away, so I booked on as well.

Arriving at the centre there were a couple of Land Rovers there already (plus the LR Experience ones), and after signing in and a cup of coffee we headed in to the classroom for an introduction on the mechanics of driving off road, where the power goes in certain circumstances and how to use the car's abilities to your benefit. In total there were five Land Rovers and six drivers taking part: two Discoveries, a 110, a 90 with two drivers, and a Wolf (110).

From there we drove down to the off road course for our morning session. The weather was dry but chilly, with a cold wind, and I was wishing I'd brought a warmer coat with me as we were talked and walked through the route we were going to follow around the course: down a steepish slope, across a side-slope, through a section of axle-crossing holes (the section shown in the video in my LRE story on this 'blog), through two puddles, up a steep slope then up a parallel slope to the first descent, stopping half-way up to simulate a failure.

We took it in turns to go, there being plenty of room for three cars to be on the course at a time. I was last, and got to the axle-crossing holes before realising I hadn't engaged diff-lock... Land Rovers really are capable! A lack of momentum meant I got slightly stuck (or temporarily detained as the instructor put it) and needed a gentle shove to get enough wheels on the ground to reverse out again and drive around before completing the route.

As is often the case, the same obstacle in the opposite direction is completely different so next we drove the course in the opposite direction. This meant that on the side-slope the driver was on the downhill side, and it takes a lot of concentration not to steer uphill which would increase the lean-angle and could result in the car rolling over. One of the cars had a roof-tent and spare wheel on the roof-rack, but even the resulting higher centre of gravity didn't cause any problems.

Nobody had any particular problems, although the wet, slightly muddy grass did cause a bit of sliding around - wet grass is possibly one of the most tricky surfaces to drive on and is sometimes referred to as "green ice".

For the afternoon session we were going to relocate to Tixover Quarry, a nearby site used for pay and play days which has more space as well as a lake which we could use to practice wading. On our way to Tixover we stopped to grab a quick sandwich for lunch.

On the way from Rockingham Castle to the sandwich shop, a runaway dog, which was chasing another dog which was running away with its owner, decided to bounce in to the road right in front of me. I had already spotted the two dogs, and seen that one of them wasn't on a lead so I was half expecting something to happen. As a result I was able to stop before hitting the dog - but it was a close-call. The others thought I'd hit it.

Arriving at Tixover we had another briefing from the instructor before a 'follow-my-leader' drive around using some of the site's gentler slopes, the edge of the lake and other features to allow us to get a feel for the place.

The afternoon's first session was wading. The route was down a moderate slope, in to Tixover's lake, through it in a gentle arc before choosing one of three exit slopes: gentle, easy or moderate. When wading, technique is very important: too fast and you'll be swamped by the bow wave; too slow and you again risk being caught by the deeper water than follows your bow wave.

 After a demonstration by the instructor, which we were advised to watch carefully so as to get the right route through the water (there were hidden rocks, and the lake is very deep in places!), we all had a go. Carefully down the slope, stopping at the bottom to change gear before driving confidently in to the water. The aim is to create a bow wave and then keep up with the wave to stay in the shadow of it where the water is shallower. Once out of the water there was a simple drive up the chosen slope and round the top back to the start.

The shore of the lake on the opposite side was a good vantage point for photos, although you needed to be aware of the incoming wave so as not to get wet feet.

Next was the same, but in the opposite direction - the instructor was heard to say "perfect" as I waded past his vantage point - but he could have been speaking to someone else...!

With wading mastered we had another 'follow-my-leader' drive before the next subject: rock crawling. Using an area with some scattered boulders we were talked through how to pick a line, hazards to look for (troughs big enough to catch and stop a wheel, for example) and the risks involved in getting it wrong, such as damage to tyre sidewall if you scrape them along the edge of a rock, and tips on how to make it easier, like having a banksman to guide you from outside the car, or in the case of smaller rocks moving them to clear a path or fill-in holes, as well has driving technique on how to stay in control. When it was my turn, the person who kindly offered to act as my banksman directed me around the rocks rather than over them...

A final session of 'follow-my-leader' covering all the things we'd tackled that day: steep slopes, axle-twisting holes, wading, tight turns and rocks, before a free period where we could go and explore the quarry on our own - with a warning about a particularly technical section where we would get stuck, and we'd be on our own if we did!

Shortly after four, with the light starting to fade, we made our respective ways home having learnt some new techniques, reasons why we tackle things the way we do, and a new confidence in taking a Land Rover off road. A very enjoyable day, and excellent value at £50.

Thanks to Lee and Russ for taking some of the photos.

07 January 2011

Land Rover Experience

From time to time Land Rover offer places on their Land Rover Experience days, which allows you time behind the wheel both on and off road with an instructor. After seeing the invitation on Facebook I jumped at the chance to try an up-to-date Land Rover and chose a Discovery 4.

My nearest LR Experience is at Rockingham Castle in Leicestershire, so with Mum & Dad coming as my guests, I took a seat behind the wheel of a very new, shiny, 8000 mile Land Rover Discovery 4 HSE. The differences between my Discovery and the D4 are many: the D4 is much bigger and has automatic transmission, leather seats, 3.0 TDV6 engine, seven seats, Terrain Response systems and the like.

The most unusual feature is perhaps the five cameras located around the outside of the car: two in the front bumper, one under each wing-mirror and one at the back for reversing. The rear camera has a number of other benefits in that when you engage reverse it superimposes yellow lines that indicate where the car will go with the steering wheel in its current position. As you turn the steering wheel the lines move accordingly. For hitching up a trailer there is another mode that shows where your tow hitch is in relation to the image, and a yellow line branching from it again shows where the hitch will go as you reverse which should make hitching up a very easy process even when on your own.

Our instructor introduced himself and after a quick overview of the controls and satellite navigation system (which allows you to put in phone numbers instead of Postcodes to find places of interest - I was wondering what would happen if I put in a mobile phone number...!), we went for an
on road drive.

First impressions are how very smooth, quiet and powerful the car is, so much so that it's almost impossible to hear the engine. I loath automatic gearboxes, but this one seemed OK, with normal, sport and manual settings. To use sport mode you move the selector sideways, then the manual mode is a sequential system where you change gear by tapping the selector in sport mode forward to go up a gear and backwards to go down again.

On a quiet lane I was given a demonstration of the effect the Terrain Response system has on the throttle and gears: the grass and snow setting softened the throttle response considerably means a very gentle and smooth take-off, whereas the sand mode sharpened up the response beyond that of 'normal', giving a lot of power very quickly.

The Discovery 4 has air suspension and as a result compensates very nicely for undulations in the road. One of the roads on the route had a series of crests and dips, and even a sharp, off-camber crest failed to unsettle the car. The smooth ride, quiet engine and high seating position makes it very easy to end up driving faster than you think, partly due to the lack of hedges flashing past (you're sat at hedge-top level) and the lack of noise... Officer.

After switching drivers to allow Dad to try it, the instructor demonstrated the emergency braking feature: driving at around sixty miles an hour the instructor pulled on the parking brake. This causes the car to slow to a stop under the full control of the ABS system so that in the event of the driving being incapacitated a passenger can safely bring the car to a halt. In a normal car, pulling on the handbrake is likely to cause some loss of control through locking wheels.

Returning to the Experience Centre we took to their off road course. The cars used are completely standard and are on road tyres, which makes their ability all the more impressive (even although it does cause some interesting sideways moments on wet grass). With low range engaged the car
will pull away in first, second or third gear (third being the equivalent of high range first), and changing the Terrain Response system also adjusts the ride height to help prevent grounding between ruts, or when crawling over rocks.

A number of obstacles have been constructed, including a thirty-six degree sideways slope, which the car coped with easily (and I'm told that even a forty-five degree sideways slope isn't a problem, but thirty-six is the official maximum!). The party piece for the occasion is a series of offset holes that causes a cross-axle situation. With two diagonally opposite wheels off the ground, the instructor opens the driver's door - and more importantly closes it again to prove that there's no flexing of the body going on. Something that my Discovery couldn't do as body flex would make the door difficult to open and potentially impossible to close. The traction control system kept the car moving despite having only two wheels on the ground:

From there I took to the wheel again, and after a couple of rutted tracks, a climb or two (and matching descent) the instructor took us to a harder section - he also asked if I was a mystery customer sent by Land Rover as I obviously knew what I was doing! Road tyres on wet grass with a sideways slope isn't the best recipe for success, but gave the instructor an opportunity to demonstrate the difference that the stability control makes, and how turning it off made for much easier progress off road as the car kept wheels turning instead of braking them. While the technology means you need less skill to drive off road, you do need a good memory to know what all the buttons and dials do, and which setting is best for the current situation!

Cresting a gentle hill, I was told to leave the brakes alone and let Hill Descent Control (HDC) do the work. Think of a ski jump where the track turns uphill after the skier has landed - we hurtled down this slope towards a sturdy looking fence at the top of the 'landing ramp' with me resisting the temptation to hit the brakes! Sure enough, the car brought itself to a halt just as the ground started to rise. Tyre tracks further up the landing ramp, much closer to the fence, were, we're told, the result of people trying to do the braking themselves and not letting HDC get on with it!

Next was a long, steepish, rutted climb with a few lumps a bumps along it. Selecting rut mode, disabling the stability control, increasing the ride height (I think I've remembered it all!) I opened the throttle and we started our ascent... and failed about halfway up despite wiggling the steering from side-to-side in the approved way. Rolling back to the bottom (HDC doing its thing again) we had another go which also failed. It was on my third attempt that the engine started to make a funny noise so the instructor asked me to stop, so I did: the car produced lots of black smoke from the exhausts and stalled. And refused to restart.

The parking brake warning light was flashing and a warning tone was sounding, so we tried resetting the car's computer system by turning it off and on again, opening and closing doors, locking and unlocking it.... Eventually we managed to get the parking brake released using the emergency release under the centre console which allowed us to roll back to level ground, but the car still refused to start. Eventually the instructor admitted defeat, and the group in the other D4 came to our rescue. With two of them, plus three of us and an instructor, I got the opportunity to try out the third row of seats - and they're surprisingly comfortable, with plenty of leg room - for a trip back to the centre's reception area.

With profuse apologies from the instructor I was invited to come back again, which I will no doubt do, and after coffee and biscuits we headed home.

If you are thinking of buying a Land Rover Discovery, Freelander or Defender (or Range Rover - they have RR and RR Sport models available to try too), or if you've just bought one and want to see what it can do, then it's well worth a visit.

Thank you to Land Rover and their Experience Centre at Rockingham Castle, particularly our instructor, Luke, for a very enjoyable afternoon.