Lynda Melanson knows most people don’t drive their Land Rovers off road, but they like to think they can. So she teaches them how to do it properly at the Land Rover Experience.
This is the only official Land Rover school in Canada, though there are three in the United States and others around the world. It’s really the only way for people to realize – safely – the capabilities of their vehicles.
“I’ll bet you thought you’d never do that!” Melanson says, after watching me steer a Land Rover Discovery up and over a giant rock, while guiding me with hand signals from outside. And she’s right. The rock was huge – taller than the SUV – but the Land Rover’s four-wheel-drive system pushed the tires up and over with little fuss, slow and steady.
The key is to not attack the obstacle at speed, hoping brute force will rule the day, but to slow down and allow the SUV’s technology to look after things. Set the Terrain Response to the appropriate surface – mud and ruts, or snow, or rocks, or just Automatic and let the Land Rover figure it out – and then crawl forward with no jerky movements. Most people can’t believe the ability of the vehicle until they experience it.
The course at Montebello, Que., is actually in the nearby Kenauk Nature Reserve, a privately owned, 65,000-acre reserve that caters mostly to hunting and fishing. New owners of a Land Rover or Range Rover receive a complimentary voucher for instruction at the Experience, but anyone with a driver’s licence can sign up for an hour ($225), two hours ($400) or a three-hour course ($600). All-day excursions are also possible in a choice of provided vehicles and more than one person can drive if it’s for two hours or more. Most people combine the Experience with a stay at the Chateau Montebello resort.
There’s an obstacle course in an old quarry at the reserve, and that’s where Melanson and the other instructors get down to business. She sits in the passenger seat and talks you through the hills and pits, whoop-de-doos and ruts of the course. The crowning achievement is the giant boulder at the top of a hill, and not everyone gets to tackle it. The instructor needs to be comfortable that the driver can control the vehicle and understand its dynamics.
“In ruts like these,” Melanson tells me as the Discovery sinks into a deeply scarred track, “you want to slow down and you don’t want to struggle – your [tire] sidewalls are the weakest part of your vehicle and we don’t want them to deflate or even puncture.” Yahoos are not welcome here and their course will be cut short if they appear irresponsible. Considerate drivers, however, can achieve the seemingly impossible.
Melanson shows how to use the Discovery’s onboard cameras to see what’s ahead, even when climbing a hill so steep that the windshield is filled with sky. The cameras at the front and the sides of the SUV can be set to show the track on the central display screen, and they also help find the way when the going gets narrow.
(Land Rover recently showed a concept vehicle with even more advanced cameras at the front: They’ll display the ground below the bumper on a heads-up display along the bottom of the entire windshield, as if looking through the hood. There’s no word on whether this will ever be produced, but Melanson says she’d love to give it a try.)
Such gadgetry is not limited to off-road use, of course. Cameras that show the vehicle’s immediate surroundings are also useful in parking lots and tight garages, although they’re truly appreciated among the rugged obstacles of Kenauk Nature Reserve.
The driving advice is also not limited to off-road. “Hold the steering wheel on each side and keep your thumbs on the side,” Melanson says. I have my thumbs hooked comfortably around the wheel. She doesn’t like this. “You won’t be able to shuffle the wheel, and if you have an impact and the airbags deploy, you’ll break your thumbs.”
When it comes time to drop down a particularly steep hill, Melanson shows how to correctly use Hill Descent Control, which governs the vehicle’s speed without needing to use the brakes. “With Hill Descent, you can concentrate on driving the vehicle safely,” she says. If she’d not been sitting calmly in the passenger seat, I’d not have believed it and would have stabbed at the brakes. That could have made the Discovery slip and slide and slew, instead of setting its ABS brakes to limit speed and maintain control on the steep drop.
Again, on a series of mounds to one side and the other, where the Discovery was tipped so far on its side I was sure it was about to roll, and where individual wheels were hanging high in the air, Melanson’s calm demeanour helped assure me the SUV could take the punishment. She’s been instructing drivers on this course for more than a decade – has anyone ever crashed or been hurt?
Never, she says, and I’d better not be the first. “Slow down, please,” she adds. “You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish when you slow down.” I slow down, unhook my thumbs from the wheel again and set off, more confident now, back into the woods.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.