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.