I consider myself a pretty simple guy (yeah, go ahead with the jokes…), especially when it comes to automobiles.
The most complicated vehicle I own is a 2004 MINI Cooper S, the others are a 1970 VW Beetle, a 1985 Volvo 244 DL (no A/C even), and, of course, our adventure-mobile, the 1999 Jeep Cherokee.
I like cars that I can work on, ones that won’t lie to me – cars that that don’t hide behind an electronic curtain. Traction control? Anti-lock brakes? Functioning heater? I don’t have time for that noise.
However. At Overland Expo East in Asheville, North Carolina I had the opportunity to drive the new Range Rover – possibly the most complex truck currently roaming the earth right now (and definitely one of the most expensive) – and I LOVED IT. OH, HOW I LOVED IT.
Am I ruined? I fully admit that after hopping into the trusty XJ when we got home it felt a little – shall we say – lacking.
I mean, it wouldn’t even give me a massage.
To back up just a bit, one of the primary attractions at OvEx East was the Land Rover Overland Skills Driving Course.
In support of their Land Rover Driving Experience School, Land Rover has blazed over 100 miles of OHV trails on the 8000 acre Biltmore Estate. During the Expo they set aside a small sample of those roads so folks could either drive their own vehicles, or try out one of Land Rover’s current products – both with a Land Rover instructor riding shotgun offering advice and guidance.
Since Julie and I had flown to Asheville, we chose the latter option. We managed to squeak into line the morning of the last day of the Expo. After signing a waiver and rolling on a short bus ride to the OHV area, we were greeted by this beauty:
That beautiful Defender was only there for show. Instead, Land Rover had an array of current models – Discovery’s, LR4’s, and Range Rovers – available for testing.
We were leaning toward the Disco, but when the opportunity came to ride the Range, we jumped at it.
Julie enthusiastically took the wheel first. This was interesting to me, because in the past she hasn’t really engaged in the driving aspects of overlanding. Normally, she’s perfectly content to go along for the ride, but when you get a chance to pilot a $100k Range Rover with expert instruction on technical trails, who can say no?
In the passenger seat was Sean Jones, an affable Ashevillian who works as a Land Rover salesman, but whose real passion is refurbishing old British trucks.
In fact, his shop in Asheville, Blue Ridge Rovers, focuses primarily on Series I, II, and III Rovers, but has taken on quite a few significant restorations of more modern Landys as well. His level of Land Rover knowledge is staggering. He and I had a great time talking about his projects, and the exploits he has had with his own personal 1967 Series IIa over the last 30 years.
Julie proved herself a natural over a lot of very tricky obstacles, including some nasty cross-axle stuff. Sean claimed that her throttle and brake control through the torquey bits were the best he had seen that weekend, which included nearly 80 rides through the trails.
Lounging in the back seat, swaddled in the what was possibly the best leather ever cut into squares, I could hear the air-ride suspension servos working hard over my right shoulder.
Needless to say, after her spin through the course in the Range Rover, Julie was both: (a) a convert to adventure driving, and (b) deeply enamored with the posh yet remarkably rugged SUV.
My turn came next and I was looking forward to dipping into the 510hp from the supercharged V8. Of course, there was little opportunity for that on these roads (though Sean said his experiences on highway on-ramps in similar vehicles have gotten him in some close brushes with the law).
So, let’s talk about that Range Rover.
In a photo above, you can see the high-resolution screens in the dash and the digital instrument panel that display all kinds of real-time data regarding the traction, aspect, attitude, steering angle, and various other metrics.
The dizzying array of chassis, transmission, and engine settings available at your fingertips in the Range Rover is overwhelming, especially on a short test drive. However, working in concert, all this electronic magic produces pretty astonishing results.
The hill descent control in particular was shockingly telepathic – hands calmly on the wheel, feet off the pedals, let the Rover do its thing. All this while getting my rear-end warmed and my lower back lovingly massaged.
Even with its huge wheels and highway-oriented low-profile tires, the Range Rover muscled through mud pits and up steep inclines with all the poise of the British landed-gentry who know Land Rovers as their birthright.
We could have brewed tea over an open flame in the backseat.
Sadly, before I knew it, the test-drive was over.
Sean had some very practical and common-sense advice for tackling off-camber situations, including how to do the dance with left-foot braking.
This is something I’ve shied away from in the past. As an extremely dominant right-hander, I have very little confidence in the left side of my body. This is especially true for something as important as braking a vehicle down a terrifying incline. But Sean’s calm instruction coached both me and Julie through some genuinely difficult terrain.
In any case, the Range Rover was probably more than capable of doing it all by itself. I could almost hear it chuckling at me.
As we wrapped up the ride through the slippery and narrow off-road course (I put a side mirror – likely worth more than my Jeep – mere inches from an oak tree on one maneuver), the three of us had a discussion about the merits of all this whiz-bang technology.
Sean has his feet firmly planted in two worlds: as a salesman and spokesman for contemporary (dare I say futuristic?) Land Rovers, and as a passionate enthusiast for very old Land Rovers.
As someone who has ended up sideways in the woods in his ‘67 Series IIa more than once, Sean said advances in automated vehicle control have certainly made vehicles and their occupants safer. But, we all agreed that one of the consequences of the vehicle taking control is the loss of human involvement.
When the robots can do it for you, why learn? Is the disincentive to gain new skills behind the wheel potentially canceling out all the sophisticated new technology? That was a question we left open.
What was most impressive about the Overland Driving Skills event was that it wasn’t just a showcase for new Land Rover technologies. That would have been an easy cop out.
The instructors were committed to helping students develop their off-road chops in the absence of technology: turning the tech off, left-foot braking, interpreting your own internal attitude indicator, learning how to hold the wheel properly, feeling how the tires were gaining or losing traction, listening to your butt.
As it was being gently, soothingly warmed.
In any case, I see my old Cherokee in a little different light now.
It may not have screens in the headrests or even disc brakes on all four wheels, but as a learning tool the XJ has its uses. I might keep it for a while – at least until I can write a check for that Range Rover.
Photos: Julie and Steve Edwards