The other day I was lucky enough to visit the Land Rover Experience (LRE) centre in Luton Hoo, the nearest centre to us, with my Dad for a ‘half-day experience’ courtesy of a free voucher. The Luton-Hoo site is the newest LRE centre to join the portfolio of locations Land Rover uses within the UK, being set in some lovely countryside, making use of the terrain for the best part to create the obstacles needed for off-road driving.
NB: Clicking on the images with a caption will take you to their source as they are not my images.
I should really apologise for the lack of photos from the day, but with a busy schedule, time slipped by and really some of the situations we were in did not qualify as valid photo opportunities!
The day would be quite a learning experience for me, as I had never driven an automatic, or a 4×4 for that matter. Quite a difference to a Fiat Panda 1.2 manual then!
Looking around the car park there’s always a few things that catch my eye, such as the Environment Agency Land Rover Defender 130, a Range Rover Evoque ready to be washed after its off-road session, and a new Freelander 2 2013MY with some rather eye-catching new LED lights, which I really like with their interesting patterns.
The vehicle that I drove was be a 2013 Discovery 4 HSE (click for more info), in Siberian Silver (so a very pale blue) with an Ebony Interior, with several optional features including a TV, an electronic rear differential to aid power transfer to the wheels when grip is at a minimum, as well as a Surround Camera system; which involves 5 small cameras positioned around the car, one either side of the front numberplate, one under each wingmirror, and one being the reversing camera. The reason for these cameras is what they show can be seen on the main touchscreen inside, giving the driver a better understanding of their surroundings.
With my inexperience at driving this type of vehicle before, I asked to be spoken through everything from scratch, despite me having a reasonable idea as to how many of the controls worked having spent much time sitting in a Discovery 4 before. This way, as the instructor spoke, nothing was missed out and I could learn more about the controls. Having a senior supervisor with us who was assessing the instructor was an unexpected bonus, as there was another person who would occasionally provide tips and guidance.
To summarise the main controls, it is a 8-speed automatic, controlled via a rotary dial on the centre console, no gearstick to be seen. In front of that are the off-road controls, for the raising and lowering of the air suspension, the change between the high-ratio and low-ratio gearboxes, and Terrain Response, Land Rover’s electronic program that alters the settings of the car to match the terrain you are on. In practice, this works very well. There is also a button for Hill Descent Control (HDC) where when pressed, it will control the car’s ABS brakes while going down a hill, to stop you from losing control due to the wheels locking.
Due to insurance purposes, I was not able to drive the car on the road, being under the age of 25. However, holding a full UK license allowed me to drive off-road, and see what this car is really capable of. For those of you familiar with the Land Rover brand, it will come as no surprise to hear how stunningly capable the Discovery 4 is. Although the obstacles at Luton Hoo are not regarded in the wider sense of off-roading as extreme, it would be more than enough to stop any car, and quite a few 4x4s in their tracks!
After being shown around the site by the instructor, I took over, and the first section looked pretty tame, a muddy, heavily pot-holed farm track. But heavy rain the night before had filled these potholes, so there was no way of knowing their depth. It was actually very rough, not that this was an issue, having been taught to take everything “as slow as possible, as fast as necessary” things were just fine!
One of these challenges was a curved side slope, which I was not comfortable with as it is possible to roll the vehicle. However, it was explained to me how although the car is high-sided, the centre of gravity is low due to the weight of the engine and drivetrain. Still, it was nervy when you’re at an angle where you have to look at a small piece of ground just under the driver’s wing-mirror to see where to position the car.
The obstacle that required the most faith in the car was definitely an extremely steep mound. It was very steep, so up I went and was instructed to stop on the top. With Hill Descent Control on, low range selected and the air suspension raised, I was instructed to take my foot off the brake pedal, not to touch any pedal, and let the car’s electronics do the work… a leap of faith! Needless to say, the car did exactly what it was meant to! With the angle of the slope being so steep, all of us in the car were left hanging in the seat-belts on the way down. Very impressive!
One of the most taxing obstacles for the car during the session was an axle-twister. It is designed in such a way that at the peak, only the diagonal axles (front left/rear right or front right/rear left) are in contact with the ground. The other two wheels are in the air. This tests the suspension to its maximum, and from the touchscreen, you can see how hard the axles are being pushed, with warnings if it goes too far.
The session finished up driving through some very deep, muddy ruts. Here I learnt a crucial tip. In the ruts it is possible to turn the steering wheel at a heavy angle, and you’ll keep going straight. However, at the end of the ruts, if you haven’t got the steering wheel straight ahead, you’re going where the wheels face. And that could lead to a big accident. What I did learn first-hand was that the ruts guide you. Trying to move into different ruts is never going to work, and if you’re not careful, leads you into the above situation. With this avoided, the rut driving was very successful.
Overall, the session went very well, and I was proud to have positive comments regarding my driving at the end of the session.
There were other memories that I shall remember from the day, but I think that this blog post could go on forever if I did that! So I have just mentioned the main points, and I would like to extend a big thank you to the Land Rover experience people at Luton-Hoo, who were friendly and informative. It was a very enjoyable day, and I hope to be off-roading again soon!