Land Rover 'The Experience': Machine Versus Mud at Eastnor Castle Photo:
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Karl Peskett | Aug, 14 2012 | 5 Comments


The Evoque would fail, surely. It would disappear into the sludge, sink to its chassis, and any hope of pulling it out would be left to the Defender. It was stupid bringing a soft-roader to this place; it had no chance, none.

Well, that was what I thought. But the reality was very different.

The location was Eastnor Castle, England, in the West Midlands - Land Rover’s global centre of excellence for 4x4 driver training.

Here, Land Rover holds what it calls “The Experience”, a battle of man and machine versus the elements.

It’s designed to show owners and prospective customers what the brand’s cars are capable of, and how years of off-road experience have been assimilated into its products.

Rain? In this part of the country it barely stops. And the terrain of the Malvern Hills ensures lots of treacherous slippery slopes, mud, gravel, standing water, grass, tree roots and other obstacles.

All up, there’s 30 miles of trails, all of which are kept as challenging as possible. Driving through the walled gates, you’d never know what lies in store.

A small left bend and perfectly manicured hedges signify you’re close, and behind a massive stone archway entrance you can see the outline of the crenellation and battlements of the castle.

There to greet us were our cars for the day; a series of Range Rover Sport, Range Rover Evoque and Land Rover Discovery 4WDs.

The sheer size of the castle frontage is daunting; but while the castle itself and the rooms within are hugely impressive - it’s the grounds for which we’ve come.

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On a sodden, grey day, Eastnor offers wetter conditions than a kitchen sponge. The tracks resemble rivers, and the gluey mud keeps car detailers busy for weeks afterwards.

The training Land Rover offers here is used by police forces, the military, highways agency patrols, ambulance crews, and search and rescue organisations to raise their off-road driving skills.

With a hearty chicken pie and seasonal vegetables to fortify us, we step out into the cold and select our vehicles.

First up, it’s the Range Rover Sport. Seeing the Evoques being piled into was certainly interesting; we were happy to sit behind them and watch proceedings. After all, the Sport has low range, locking differentials and height-adjustable suspension.

If there was any chance of getting stuck, it wasn’t in the Sport.

With an instructor beside us, the bitumen road soon turned to gravel and, fully expecting to stop and adjust tyre pressures, I was surprised to receive instruction to press on.

The convoy soon slowed and took a right-hand bend. It was about to begin.

“Put it into neutral, and select “Mud Ruts” on the Terrain Response, please,” I was gruffly instructed from the passenger seat. Bill, the instructor, is a former policeman and currently trains the constabulary in their off-road education.

His manner was short and official. Note to self: don’t joke about crashing.

Bill nods toward the Evoque ahead. “Move forward, please. Keep your distance from the car in front.” Yes sir, moving forward it is, then.

Initially, the trails seem pretty tame. A little bit of water trickling across the track. A Renault Clio could tackle this.

But then the ruts get deeper. And deeper. And so does the water. Soon, sludge is half-way up the doors and the ground underneath us is turning to deep, slippery, treacle.

With the diffs locked though, we can move forward at a steady pace, with the occasional click from the brakes, matched by a flicker of the stability control light on the dash.

These cars are all running on standard road tyres which consequently turn to slicks as the wet clay clogs up the tread.

Short of getting out and using a blunt knife to clear them out every metre or so, you have to rely on the car’s electronic brain to determine which wheels have the most grip.

Because torque would normally follow the path of least resistance, it’s redirected to the wheels which have purchase on the ground. And braking the spinning wheels prevents the torque disappearing where it’s not wanted.

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“Electrickery”, they call it.

That was easy enough: time to see how the Discovery 4 handles the same terrain.

Under the eye of a much more cheerful instructor, we press on. Out of nowhere, the side of the trail drops away and soon the Disco starts tilting.

The camera gear slides across the leather back seat and slams into the door with a thud - okay, so the angle is definitely pronounced.

Thing is, the car is completely stable, even with the crumbly, soft surface that the tyres are claiming to have a hold on.

Despite its tallboy shape, the lean angle that the Disco can sustain is genuinely like a game of chicken: can you find the limit, or will you back off first?

The Discovery also has the same qualities that makes the Range Rover Sport so capable - height-adjustable suspension, locking differentials, low-range and Terrain Response.

But it rides better than the Sport, especially over gruelling terrain, with its slightly softer spring-rates and smaller wheels. For the really rough stuff, it’d be my pick.

But over the muddy, rutted track, different qualities are required. The electronics work overtime finding grip where there seems to be surely none; and if they fail that mossy slope next to us will become a one-way ticket to disaster.

There are such moments of doubt when being really challenged in terrain like this - your skill, and the car - are you, and it, up to it?

Amazingly, the Discovery’s programming works a treat and soon we’re climbing up and over with only the slightest slip (quickly recovered by the stability control system).

The Disco and Sport both have this place nailed. But after concentrating on these two for so long, we hadn’t noticed that the newcomer was still along for the ride.

Yes, the Evoque was forging ahead like a Jack Russell nipping at the heels of a couple of Rottweilers.

What’s more, it seemed to be having a great time doing it. How is that possible?

Terrain Response is the Evoque’s secret weapon. Without it, it’d just be another pretend soft-roader. But with Land Rover’s advanced programming, the Evoque’s sense of grip versus slip matches the Disco and Sport, and its shorter wheelbase gives it really effective ramp over angles.

And short overhangs also mean that its got real ability off-road. Yes, the Evoque surprised us the most, and proves that looks really are deceiving.

Truth be told, even through the tougher sections, the course seemed easy - not too much of a challenge.

But in reality it was the cars that spoiled us.

There was no recovery required, no tyres rolled off rims, no reversing even. All three cars forged through the sludge and slippery trails with barely a hint of difficulty. Given the conditions, we weren’t the only ones astonished.

The Land Rover Experience is more than a 4X4 off-road driving experience. It’s also to experience the best technologies an all-terrain off-roader can offer. And in leather-trimmed comfort to boot.

From the Range Rover all the way through to the Evoque, these cars have formidable off-road ability. It’s both a surprise, and it’s not. After all, for more than 50 years Land Rovers have been finding traction where there is little to be found, all around the world.

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