"Don't be aggressive; be assertive," Fred Monsees tells us. "Try and build the momentum gradually." The 2011 Range Rover eases forward, its chain-clad tires taking a bite of the ice. A bow wave of snow gathers in front of the grille as the big sport-utility plows up the trail. Our supercharged 510-horsepower Range Rover can't be doing more than 15 mph, but it's enough to induce a blast of adrenaline.
This adventure wasn't supposed to be quite so, well, adventurous. The plan was to fly to Vermont and then hook up with the Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Equinox Resort in Manchester. We'd enjoy a little light-duty lifestyling in surroundings to which we, as the temporary custodian of a $100,000 example of Land Rover's finest, would grow accustomed.
But then it snowed. And then it snowed some more. And now we're passing through the hamlet of Weston and the manager here where we've stopped for a snack says the staff has been sent home to keep from getting stuck overnight in all the snow. By the best estimates, 17 inches of snow fell here last night and it hasn't stopped yet.
That New England Vibe
Even to our British eyes, this bit of New England looks like the land that time forgot. So quaint are the towns and houses that the area feels more like a Disney theme park than real life. Even the manufacturer outlet stores — of which there are plenty — are housed in pine cottages. It's hard to believe that we're less than four hours' drive from the center of New York or Boston. Little wonder that so many of the select set have country retreats up here.
Many of the select set will make the journey here in a Land Rover. That's because we're in proper, old-school Land Rover territory. You know, narrow roads and rocky trails, low-range gears engaged, axles buried in snow and icicles forming on the fenders. This snowbound New England landscape is at the heart of Land Rover's identity. It's a company that makes vehicles according to the Nike Air principle. That is, you might wear them only to the local mall, but you know that they could run a marathon.
Not Just for Gentlemen Farmers Anymore
The 2011 Range Rover and 2011 Range Rover Sport remind us that we've come a long way from the original 1970 Range Rover, so beloved of the gentlemen farmers of Britain. Even the 1993 Range Rover seems like something from a different planet. Where once you would find complex gears and clever mechanical bits, now there are sophisticated electronic circuits.
There's something surreal about sitting in such a luxurious cocoon while in the middle of a blizzard. It's as if the world outside is in a different time and place, like those old Hollywood movies with their superimposed driving scenes.
To our eyes at least, it's now the 2011 Range Rover Sport that feels like the most luxurious member of the Range Rover model lineup. The nouveau-riche gray plastic of the Sport's dashboard last year has been replaced by a more refined mix of leather, wood and aluminum. It's a more considered design that still looks chic and contemporary.
For 2011 the Range Rover proper now offers an even posher optional stereo, plus electrically reclining rear seats, but this full-size SUV is now starting to feel its age. The basic cabin architecture dates back to 2002, a product of BMW's brief stewardship of the company. It still feels luxurious and expensive, but next year's all-new model should move the game on.
Hitting the Trails
Based out of the Equinox Hotel in Manchester, Vermont, the Land Rover Experience Driving School opened in 2008, one of four such Land Rover driving schools now in the North America that include the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; the Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley, California; and the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello in Montebello, Quebec, Canada. The Vermont facility boasts a purpose-built off-road course on an 80-acre plot of land, or you can ditch the manmade obstacles in favor of the off-road trails that zigzag through the Green Mountains.
We've opted for the latter today. In theory we'll use the road network to jump from trail to trail, but so challenging are the snowbound conditions that it's often hard to work out where road stops and off-road begins. Also the fresh powder has fallen on a solid layer of ice, making the conditions extra tricky. Save for a few hardy trucks and the occasional snowplow, we're the only vehicles out today.
We quickly learn that by turning assertively, lifting off the throttle and then jumping back on it, you can make a 5,700-pound SUV believe it's a WRC rally car and slide sideways through the corners. It's great fun, but driving instructor Monsees is not impressed.
The instructors at the Land Rover Experience are alpha males, many of whom took part in the legendary Camel Trophy expeditions, those enormously difficult competitions from 1980 to 2000 that involved cross-country treks in Land Rover vehicles. Monsees competed for the U.S. team back in 1990, a real badge of honor in the off-road world. Someone with Camel Trophy experience is used to doing things properly and everything is done with military precision. Idiot behavior by a journalist is not to be admired.
Monsees guides us to a rising trail through a wood. The vehicles in our little group are wearing standard street tires, and in these snowy conditions you need chains for the trail ahead. Unfortunately we can't get them to fit under the front fenders without causing clearance issues, so instead we chain up the rear tires in the old-fashioned way.
Land Rover's Terrain Response system has been designed for these conditions. Select the Snow mode and everything from the gearbox to the throttle response is adjusted to suit the demands of terrain with a very low level of available traction. A driver of the old-fashioned Land Rover Defender might sneer at the helping hand of electronics, but there's no denying its benefits in the real world. And for 2011, the functionality of Land Rover's traction electronics has been extended with the introduction of Hill Start Assist, which prevents the vehicle from rolling backward on a hill start, and Gradient Acceleration Control, which restricts the initial rate of acceleration while descending very steep inclines.
Another new addition is the Surround Camera System, part of a Vision Assist pack that costs $1,200 for the Sport and $1,800 for the Range Rover proper. On the central video screen it's possible to see all around the vehicle, which is surely useful when you're trying to fit into a parking space at the mall. Yet it's also useful on a narrow trail in Vermont, when putting a wheel wrong could have consequences that range from merely expensive to totally dangerous.
To Winch or Not To Winch
For all our best efforts, the 2011 Land Rover LR4 that's acting as a support vehicle gets stuck while climbing an incline and the only solution is to winch it to the top.
The noble art of winching tends to polarize opinion. For some off-roaders, creeping through the most inhospitable terrain at a few feet per day is the ultimate challenge. Monsees admits he'd be happy to winch all day. But for others, muggins included, winching's novelty soon wears off. For us, off-roading is about driving, not playing tug-of-war with a local tree. We successfully winch the LR4 back into the game, but by now it's clear we can go no farther. We only have one winch, and to get all our convoy through this section would take most of the day. So we double back to the road.
Stopping for coffee at a local store we meet a young couple, honeymooning in an original Range Rover. It's a five-door from the 1980s and on chunky tires and jacked-up suspension it looks magnificent. The current Range Rover has aged well, but not quite as well as the original.
The light is failing and the LED driving lights of the LR4 are drawing a squiggle in the snow. In just the past few years as Audi has popularized LEDs, these lights have become as much a signature of a car as the grille or badge, and you get the impression that some manufacturers haven't quite worked out their strategy. Maybe that's why this Land Rover's lights look more like a doodle than a design.
Throughout the day, we've been jumping from the Sport to the conventional Range Rover. Our Range Rover Sport HSE retails for $72,045, while our Range Rover Supercharged will deprive your wallet of a mighty $105,965. In these conditions, the engine choice is actually irrelevant. We've had no opportunity to employ the 375 hp of the Sport's normally aspirated 5.0-liter V8, let alone the 510 hp and 461 pound-feet of torque of the Range Rover Supercharged .
Even so, we figure that since the Range Rover has always been about the ultimate, you might as well have the ultimate engine. There is something undeniably appealing about a 5,891-pound vehicle that can crack 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and then scale the Andes.
Over the coming years, Jaguar Land Rover will seek to distinguish the luxury Range Rover lineup from the more practical, utilitarian Land Rovers. The LR2 and LR4 will thus sit beside the Evoque and Range Rover Sport and cost similar money but appeal to different people. It will be fascinating how it plays out, especially in light of the company's advertising slogan in Britain, which is "the best 4x4xfar." There will, after all, be a 4x2 version of the forthcoming 2012 Land Rover Evoque.
No doubt the Land Rover Experience Driving Schools will play an important role in continuing to assert the traditional values and heritage of the brand. Above all else, they help differentiate Land Rover as the real deal compared with other premium SUVs from BMW, Mercedes and the like.
As Monsees tells us as we leave New England for our own little piece of real England, most Land Rover owners leave the school genuinely astonished by what their vehicles can do.
We believe it.