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Off the beaten path -Rock climbing, cliff diving and creek crossing

Published June 20, 2014

Extreme adventures challenge luxury SUV’s off-road capabilities

MONTEBELLO, QUE.—Mention Land Rover and I still imagine the ubiquitous Brit four-wheel-drive workhorse on safari, plodding across the African veldt with Stewart Granger as the Professional Hunter and a wide-eyed client in the jump seat, ogling vast plains full of antelope, zebra and lions.

Since then, Land Rovers have morphed into high-end luxury vehicles but, as I found out during a day at the company’s off-road advanced driving school, the African safari DNA still runs deep.

Sure, they can take you to the opera or a black-tie fundraiser in style, but they’re not out of place bombing down bush roads, plowing through mudholes or rocky traverses that would give a mountain goat the willies.

The only Canadian Land Rover Experience is at the Chateau Fairmont Montebello in Quebec, where they have 65,000 acres to explore. Lessons vary from a one-hour introductory session for $250 to full days that accommodate skill levels from novice to advanced.

Chief instructor Dominic Rochette covered the mantra of off-road speed control: “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary.”

Go slowly so you don’t pound the vehicle into pieces, but, sometimes, you need to give it a bit of gas to get over a ridge, a log or a bump in order to maintain forward momentum. If you stop, then gas it, it will just spin and dig in.

For my two-hour course, we grabbed the keys to the top-of-the-line Range Rover Supercharged, a 510-horsepower, $115,000 luxury SUV that’s a monster on the pavement (0–100 km/h in 4.8 seconds) but a pussycat crawling through mudbogs and over rocks and logs.

With this year’s revised air intake, the Rover can safely navigate water crossings up to the level of the hood when off-road.

Rochette started out with me as an interested (and a bit apprehensive) observer in the passenger seat, as he drove us through various bits of terrain that showcased what the Land Rover could do.

All the while, he was calmly chatting, showing me the proper line and telling me about the electronically controlled, infinitely variable locking centre differential that automatically distributes available torque to whichever wheel can use it.

He also explained the Terrain Response System, which adjusts throttle response, differentials and vehicle ride height for whatever environment you’re assaulting — from freeway to deep sand.

For steep downhills, engage Hill Descent Control, keep your feet off the brakes and it just crawls down.

And, with this year’s revised air intake, the Rover can safely navigate water crossings up to the level of the hood.

The nav screen doubles as a sort of situation centre, where you can see how much power is being applied to each wheel, front to back and left to right. You can also see the orientation of both axles and how they’re tilting, following the terrain.

Then it was my turn.

I saw a lot of sky through the windshield, then a lot of ground as we descended a gully so steep I expected to look over and see climbers with ropes and pitons.

Next, Rochette pointed to a near-vertical rock wall and said, “Go there.”

I stopped. Really?

“Just switch to Rock mode, steer towards that birch tree, and just at that large gouge in the face, turn right.”

Slow as possible, fast as necessary. We crawled up the rock face, seeing a lot more sky, and when Rochette said so, I cranked to the right, half expecting the Range Rover to do a couple of barrel rolls with a triple lutz before sticking the landing.

Chief instructor Dominic Rochette demonstrates the Rover's axle rotation abilities off-road.

But it forged its way up, I turned left at the dead oak and we were home-free.

The quick, responsive steering and very tight turning radius makes it easy to manoeuvre around obstacles.

And the plush leather buckets have excellent lateral support, which comes in handy when you’re traversing a rock wall like a lizard on a screen door.

And lots of glass means you have a panoramic view of the ascents, descents, traverses, rock crawls, boulders and creek crossings.

Rochette said that, in eight years of running the school, they’ve never had a windshield crack due to torsional stress on the chassis. As you can imagine, hanging there with two wheels off the ground places a huge amount of twisting forces through the body, so it’s a credit to the Rover’s rigidity that it’s not affected by it.

Until you drive it yourself, it’s hard to believe that a stock luxury vehicle weighing almost 2500 kg can easily navigate such rugged and hostile terrain.

It’s about the only car or truck available that’s equally at home lounging in a Rosedale driveway or plowing through mosquito-infested mud bogs and cedar swamps.

I’m just glad I got through it without scratching the roof.

Transportation and accommodation for freelance writer Steve Bond was provided by the manufacturer and Tourism Quebec.

Email: wheels@thestar.ca.

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