Off-roading isn’t for the faint of heart; it requires skill, concentration and patience.
And most people would never dream of driving a luxury SUV off the beaten track, but there are some upscale rides such as the Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the Land Rover LR4 capable of conquering anything in its path.
There are even specialized schools like the Land Rover Experience Driving schools in Montebello, Quebec – the only location in Canada – designed to teach drivers the skills of off-roading. Occasionally, Land Rover driving instructors bring the school to you. In my case, they create a makeshift off-roading course near the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., east of Toronto, so I can experience the LR4’s rugged capabilities first hand.
The LR4 is engineered for extreme off-road travel thanks to Land Rover’s Terrain Response System. It’s the heart of this off-roading machine. The system has five driver-selectable settings that maximize traction and control based on the ground surface. You can choose between: general, grass/gravel/snow, sand, mud and ruts, and rock crawl. Just turn a dial in the centre console to the desired setting and the response of the engine, transmission, differentials, dynamic systems and air suspension changes. I set it to “mud and ruts” for tackling the deep muddy holes on our wilderness route.
Downhill on steep inclines, the hill descent control system kicks in, restricting the LR4’s speed to a mere crawl: 3.5 km/h in low range and 6 km/hr in high range. At first, it feels awkward when the system engages, controlling the brakes for you. But once under way, it’s very impressive. When traveling uphill, the hill start assist kicks in, which prevents the vehicle from rolling backwards on an incline.
The LR4 balances gingerly along the route, the wheels take turns becoming airborne. A 4x4 information screen is helpful – it displays the wheel position on the LCD screen. The surround camera system is also handy. Five digital cameras provide a nearly 360-degree view of the vehicle.
Powering the LR4 is a 5.0-litre direct injection V-8 engine that delivers 375 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque. There’s no V-6 engine available – it was dropped in 2010. But the V-8 is certified as an ultra low emissions vehicle (ULEV2). It has a deep, pressure die-cast oil pan to accommodate the extreme tilting angles the vehicle can negotiate. Belt drives are waterproofed as are the alternator, air-conditioning compressor, power steering pump and starter motor. The V-8 is mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission with normal, sport and manual shift modes. The transmission sends power to all four wheels via an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case with shift-on-the-fly capability.
After an hour, the LR4 emerges unscathed – tackling everything thrown in its path including a two-foot ditch filled with water. And on smooth pavement, the LR4 doesn’t disappoint. The ride is composed, sure-footed and quiet in the cabin with little engine or road noise. At times, it feels big and heavy to drive and park along the city streets. Its tall narrow body also results in some body lean when cornering.
The gas mileage isn’t the greatest – averaging 17.1 litres/100 km in the city and 11.6 on the highway. But I suppose you can save cash with the oil changes. Using 5W-20 semi-synthetic oil means there are fewer oil changes. It’s only required every 24,000 km or 12 months.
From the driver’s seat you get a commanding view of the road ahead. The leather front seats are supportive and firm. My tester, the top-of-the-line LR4 HSE LUX, comes with three rows and seven seats. No matter where you are sitting, you won’t be sacrificing head, shoulder or leg room. A power-tilt-and-slide front sunroof and a large fixed glass sunroof over the second row brighten the cabin significantly. An asymmetrical split tailgate makes it easy to access and load groceries into the cargo bay. If you don’t need the third row, you’ll have a vast area to fill with grocery bags, hockey equipment or strollers. Behind the second-row seats, there’s 1,192 litres of space.
For 2012, the LR4 received audio/infotainment upgrades including a revised touch-screen navigation with voice activation, a new standard seven-inch touch screen, a revised rear-seat entertainment system with larger eight-inch screens, new 19-inch and 20-inch alloy wheel designs and extra paint colors. The dashboard and centre console layout are still a bit busy for my tastes. There are countless controls and buttons everywhere – even the simplest functions like changing the radio takes time to figure out using the LCD touch screen. At least dual-zone automatic climate control dials are large, easy to spot, and simple to adjust.
From the outside, the LR4 is distinctive and retains Land Rover’s classic DNA, which is instantly recognizable on the road. The sharp geometric lines and beefy 20-inch 10-split spoke alloy wheels, which cost an extra $2,200, are attractive. Large, square windows around its entire body also provide excellent visibility in all directions.
Land Rovers are built for off-roading, but they’re pleasing on-road rides, too. The base LR4 costs $59,990; while the LR4 HSE LUX starts at $70,790. And if you want to take the LR4 for a spin at the Land Rover Experience Driving School in Quebec, that is $1,200 for a full-day session.
Tech Specs:2012 Land Rover LR4 HSE LUX
Type of vehicle: Five-or seven-passenger, mid-size luxury SUV
Base Price: $59,990; as tested, $76,540
Engine: 5.0-litre, DOHC, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 375 hp/375 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 17.6 city/11.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Porsche Cayenne, Infiniti FX35, Volkswagen Touareg, BMW X5, Jeep Grand Cherokee