As far as appearances go, the 200-year-old Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, U.K. looks like a dark, medieval fortress that guards England's borders. Interesting as that might be to some, it's not my destination this time around, that's because I'm driving a Range Rover. The Range Rover, the instructor and I are going off-road on the castle's 5,000-acre grounds. For years, the challenging terrain at Eastnor Castle has been used as a secret test facility to refine the off-road capability of every new Land Rover. It's the place where Land Rovers become real Land Rovers!
As we head out onto the narrow trail of the Land Rover Experience Centre, we encounter a Freelander coming the other way. He has to reverse quite a bit to let our eight-car convoy pass. I couldn't help but notice the huge smile plastered across the Freelander driver's face all the time as he reversed his SUV. “One more satisfied customer,” says Robert Darr, my instructor, smiling away himself.
We commence our escapade with light off-roading — dirt, slush and mud.
Rough and tumble
Seated high in the well-appointed cabin of the Rangie, the ride is peaceful so much so that you feel as though you're on a regular paved road. Then we reach what looks like a slippery 50 degree decline with a 90 degree turn at the bottom. Slide off the turn (as I think is likely) and you'll disappear into the scenery in the blink of an eye. My heart says ‘Yeah! Go, go go!' while my head screams ‘Waah! No, no, no!' Rob simply clicks the terrain response system to the ‘mud and ruts' setting, and we're off.
The Range Rover lifts on its air springs, selects low ratio and switches hill descent control on. Tap the throttle and we're suddenly at an angle where you can feel your lungs caress your ribcage. The Range Rover laughs it off — you can feel it braking different wheels, controlling the speed of descent and all I have to do is steer. We make it down, we make the turn and we're safe — that was easier than it looked!
We did a whole lot of off-roading that day — axle twisters, steep slush-covered uphills, three-point U-turns on what seemed like impossible slopes, water crossings – and the Range Rover simply took all of this in its stride. Cameras mounted all over the car transmit images to the touch-screen on the centre console to tell you exactly where every wheel is, making it all the more simple.
Down a stream
Our final challenge for the day was a certain stream crossing. What I thought was a simple drive across a gentle stream turned out to be a drive up a narrow, treacherous, life-engulfing stream. Deep enough to swallow the Range Rover's wheels, we even stopped in the middle to take pictures. When you hear the exhaust pipe of your car burbling away under water, in truth, it's the last thing you would dare to do in a lesser SUV. But what blew me away was how calm and serene the Range Rover felt, even when it was crawling with two wheels in the air.
You walk away from the experience with a real understanding of what this vehicle can do, and maybe even a tale or two to tell the lads at the pub. I even struggled to believe some of the things I did but the fact is I did those things, and it was with no small help from the Range Rover. I guess that's the point these guys are trying to get across. We all know how comfortable a Range Rover is on the road. But now, you get a sense of exactly how comforting it is to be in a Range Rover when there is no road.