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Jonathan Manning enjoys an exhilarating off-road driving experience in Northamptonshire
For an instant there’s nothing but blue sky and cotton wool clouds filling the windscreen. Gravity pins me back into the driver’s chair as I look up, the bonnet and track no longer in view. Seconds later, the car pitches over the crest of the hill and faces down a 25% incline.
“Don’t worry,” off-road driving instructor Allan Jackson reassures me. “This car could tow a 3.5-tonne trailer down a 45˚ slope!”
In my experience, even towing a lightweight caravan over velvet-smooth asphalt can have its sweaty-palm moments, so the prospect of attempting an off-road track with something hitched to the towbar is inconceivable. But there again, this is not my towcar.
It is, in fact, a Range Rover Sport, which transforms from luxury, leather-upholstered road car to off-road superhero. The buttons on the dashboard offer a variety of initialisms designed to respond to virtually any scenario, allied to an air suspension that can lift or lower the height of the vehicle at the flick of a switch. Meanwhile, a low-ratio gearbox delivers Popeye levels of torque to keep the wheels moving.
The car is one of a small fleet at the Land Rover Experience East of England, based at Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire. The short, sharp hills, rolling parkland and muddy ponds of the estate provide the perfect environment in which to learn more about the capabilities of Range Rovers and Land Rovers, and to hone off-road driving skills. Oh, and it’s also an absolute blast, climbing and plunging and splashing and clambering over terrain that really ought to be impassable in a car.
All towcar drivers are welcome, but owners of new Land Rovers are offered a complimentary three-hour course – with no obligation to use their own vehicles!
Although we won’t be towing today, Allan delights in showing off the car’s towing convenience; how the press of a button summons or stows the towball, and how another prompts the air suspension to lift and lower the back of the car to establish the perfect height for hitching up. There’s no need for oily fingers or tweaked back muscles with this much technology at your disposal.
But it’s on the mud tracks and ruts of the Rockingham estate that the car really comes alive. I engage the GGS (Grass, Gravel, Snow) setting for a slippery surface, while the press of another button raises the height of the vehicle by 65mm, increasing our ground clearance as we tackle the deep grooves of a track.
“Instead of approaching at 90˚, try 12˚,” says Allan. I turn the steering wheel and the vehicle gently nudges one wheel then the next into the rut before serenely continuing its progress.
We’re not barrelling along like rally drivers – Allan’s advice is to drive no faster than you would walk or run through an uncertain landscape – but we only stop to address how to tackle the next obstacle, which right now is a descent so steep I’m anxious that the car might run away like the proverbial rolling stone.
In this scenario, I’m instructed to keep the wheels pointing straight down the hill rather than at an angle, so that if the vehicle does slip it will simply skid forwards and not roll. But, of course, it doesn’t slip – the HDC (Hill Descent Control) button lets me set the speed in increments of 1km/h (0.6mph), and I don’t even need to brake. The grip is unbelievably surefooted, even using standard road tyres at road pressures.
Reassured that I’m neither reckless nor rash, Allan directs me to an area of the estate where fiendishly uneven tracks have been dug to showcase the capabilities of off-roaders. Where one side rises, the other plummets, threatening to leave tyres spinning helplessly for grip in thin air.
Once again, there’s a button to help me tackle the abyss. This time it’s ATPC (All Terrain Progress Control), the equivalent of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for 4x4s, pulling away on wet ground or maintaining a slow, steady speed on the slipperiest of surfaces. It would be a godsend for any caravanner who has ever spun the wheels and churned up grass trying to tow a caravan off soft ground.
Here though, it keeps the car moving at angles more akin to those experienced by a yacht in the heavy seas of the South Atlantic, a slight creak from one of the windows being the only noticeable suggestion of distress. At one point, I’m sure the nearside wheel is more than a metre off the ground, before it lowers smoothly as the offside wheel heads skywards.
No off-roading experience, it seems, would be complete without a trundle through a swamp. However, Allan is keen to impress on me the dangers of trying to cross a river. Modern off-roaders may be good, but they can’t walk on water, and the risk of a strong current pushing you downstream is best avoided. Fortunately, he’s familiar with the muddy water hazards at Rockingham, so we don’t need to wade them with a stick beforehand to ascertain their depth. The car slips into the water and then glides along the lagoon, sending clouds of flies into the air.
Again, it’s a question of maintaining a slow, steady speed, avoiding the creation of a bow wave that might flood the engine, while depth sensors below the door mirrors check the water depth doesn’t creep above 90cm. At the far bank, the four-wheel drive pulls us effortlessly up the bank.
I’d like to say it’s my fine driving skills that have helped us negotiate the course so smoothly – but it was easy in this car. If only it could teach mine a few lessons! Regardless, I’ve certainly picked up valuable advice and experience for any future off-road encounters.
Club members can save 10% on the cost of a session at Land Rover Experience East of England using the Great Savings Guide. A one-hour taster drive costs £99, and a half-day costs £295.
Stay: Stamford Club Campsite