Over the years, the average customer profile for Land Rover has expanded from adventurers and the overlanders to a list that contains the who’s who of the society. The movers and shakers, footballers, sports stars, big businessmen alike, all seem to find comfort in the Land Rover’s extensive range of SUVs. The problem, however, is that most of the Land Rovers, Range Rovers that leave Land Rover showrooms barely leave the side-walk and never ever get to explore their natural habitat off-road. Now, this is a travesty considering that even today Range Rovers are perhaps some the best off-road machines money can buy. In order to ensure that the world never forgets what Land Rover really stands for, the company now organises off-road drives and short overland adventures that reflect what Land Rover is really capable of. This report is about one such drive.
Having been a part of the automotive journalism community, I’ve been to quite a few of these drives, most of the time the obstacles that make the drive interesting are man-made, predictable and slightly mundane in light of the true capabilities of Land Rovers. However, this time when Land Rover invited us to Pune for the latest edition of their off-roading expedition called the ‘Above and Beyond’ drive, they promised us the track would be completely natural and un-manipulated or sensitised for driving. At the peak of the rainy season, the western ghats promised slush pits, water forging and even a little bit of climbing on slippery rock surfaces. A noteworthy fact is that according to Land Rover Policy, none of the cars in this event had any fittings that it would not have had straight out of the showroom, right down to the street-spec tyres.
The drive started from an adventure camp, 19 Degrees north in Aamby Valley between Pune and Mumbai, and saw the Land Rovers fight their way through the bowels of the western ghats and back to the camp. The car we were allotted to was the smallest member of the Range Rover family, the Evoque. The Evoque is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel motor that makes 176 hp and 400 Nm of torque, through a 9-Speed Automatic Gearbox mated with Range Rover’s signature Terrain Response 4WD drive system. Now, being the smallest member of the Range Rover family the Evoque might feel like it simply isn’t cut out to do the things a traditional Range Rover can but that isn't the case. While the Range Rover is designed as the more hard-core off-roader, the Evoque is just a few degrees behind its sibling, in terms of capability.
While we tromped through the jungle, inside the leather-wrapped interiors and luxe-et-al of the Range Rover it is easy to forget where you are. That is until you reach the first obstacle. That’s where you have to think of whether you actually have what it takes to put a car that costs north of half a crore in a tricky spot, with damage being a possibility. With a quick pep talk from my instructor, we set off through the course. The first obstacle was a water fording that took the Range Rover through a waist-deep stream filled with slippery rocks; one quick turn of the terrain response system to mud and ruts mode was enough to drive through the rocks in the most uneventful way possible. As slow as possible, as fast as necessary is the ground rule for Range Rover instructors. They only ask that you ensure that your right foot stays as steady as possible on the throttle when going through obstacles. The rest is electronic wizardry that ensures each tyre has all the grip that it needs at any given time.
Exiting the rivulet in the Range Rover Evoque meant crossing a narrow path which only allowed for two of the Range Rovers tyres. The trick, a short 45-degree incline on the wall face that was to provide traction to the other two wheels. It must have looked dramatic outside the Evoque, but on the inside, it might as well have been a rut, the Range Rover Evoque with its tyres still wet went over the obstacle that was layered in the loose mud without even flinching. Not bad for a car that Range Rover calls a compact SUV, is it?
The next few obstacles involved the use of Range Rover’s Terrain Response system which includes Hill Descent Assist and Hill-start assist, which is a lot like cruise control but for off-roading down slopes with low traction. Put the Range Rover on the peak, turn on hill-descent assist set the speed with which you’d like to descend and then thumb the throttle over the top. The moment that you get on the incline, the Range Rover starts to control the speed at each wheel to ensure that it stays straight and most importantly does not let the car barrel down into the base of the slope. I have to say, as someone who has gone off-roading in a manual vehicle sans electronics the Range Rover makes it almost too easy. The driver could well be enjoying a spot of tea and cookies, although Range Rover instructors insist that “hands must be at 10 and 2 at all time, thumbs outside the wheel”. Leading out of the trail, even a steep mud filled rutted 35-degree incline that was covered in potholes and stones was not enough to make the Range Rover Evoque flinch. The only place where the wheels even so as much as squeaked was around a sharp right-hander on the slope.
Now, in fairness, you don’t do a lot, but you still learn a lot, from being inside the car controlling and learning how the car responds to different off-road situations. It also teaches you how much strain you avoid if you are driving in a Land Rover, no matter where you are going. The Above and Beyond tour then, is exactly that, a subtle reminder that every time you buy a Land Rover, you are not only buying one of the best road vehicles that money can buy, but also one of the most potent off-roaders.