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Think that Land Rovers are too luxurious for serious off-roading? Think again

Nat Barnes
Don't try this at home... the rocks at Moab are unforgiving. Note the standard tyres

All I can see through the windscreen ahead of me is a pair of hands. Actually, that’s not quite true, all I can see that’s helpful ahead of me is a pair of hands. The rest of my view is made up of a bonnet and blue sky and that’s it, due to our current 30-degree upward incline.

Call me conventional, but when you’re trying to pilot £110,000-worth of luxury Range Rover over some of the most treacherous and unforgiving off-road terrain on the planet, I tend to prefer to be able to see where I’m going. Thankfully for me though, those hands belong to our official Land Rover instructor, Jim Swett, who is guiding me inch by inch over rocks that are difficult enough to climb on foot, let alone drive up.

The terrain in question is in Moab in Utah, deep in the US west. It’s a region that’s not been short of attention over the years, mainly for film locations with numerous Westerns filmed here in the area. More recently, it has provided spectacular backdrops for Thelma & Louise, 127 Hours, City Slickers 2 and Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible films, among others.

Our presence here though is as part of Land Rover’s Experience Tours programme. Officially, the Land Rover Experience enjoyed its 30th anniversary in 2019, but in reality the green oval has been demonstrating its cars to customers on an ad hoc basis since the 1960s. In 2012, Land Rover delivered 200,000 Experiences, but by 2018 that figure had risen to a staggering 1.3 million.

Today, anyone who buys a new Land Rover is given a voucher entitling them to a free Experience, whether it’s driving at one of the firm’s off-road centres (there are 62 of these worldwide covering 91 countries) or a factory tour. However, the Experiences can also be bought independently, ranging from short taster sessions from £129 up to multi-day travel trips in Lapland, Namibia or our one in Utah, which can run into the thousands.

Don't try this at home... the rocks at Moab are unforgiving. Note the standard tyres

Rebecca Randall, head of global brand experiences at Land Rover, says: “Our Experience events were never originally created as a marketing tool, but they’ve become a tremendous asset for us.

“We’re not trying to sell people a car, we just want them to experience the products we offer while having fun and they often leave as the biggest Land Rover ambassadors. It’s also a way of having our customers experience the cars in an extreme environment that’s also controlled.”

I’m under no illusions who is under control with my car though. I may be the one sitting behind the steering wheel, but Jim Swett’s hand signals, telling me which way to go and how hard to press the throttle pedal, are invaluable. As our rear tyres follow the fronts and start the incline, I’m not convinced we’re going to make it as the revs begin to rise on the 5.0-litre supercharged V8 engine and the car begins to take the strain.

Experts are on hand to guide vehicles up seemingly impassable terrain

Our progress pauses and I hear one of the rear tyres start to spin on the smooth, slick rock beneath us. But no sooner have I heard that than it stops and the dash-mounted screen shows that the centre and rear differentials have locked into their maximum settings. The tyre stops slipping and we inch our way up the slope. That’s no exaggeration, either; often our progress is so slow that the digital speedometer doesn’t even register 1mph and on the downhill stretches, 2mph can feel like an uncomfortably-fast, even breakneck pace.

In a world where we’re now moving ever quicker and adrenaline-inducing action usually requires going ever faster, this Land Rover Experience is the exact opposite. It’s still adrenaline-pumping, but as you get to the top of each obstacle you’re left with a sense of total bewilderment. First that the Range Rovers and Discoverys that we drive, or indeed any car, could traverse such tough terrain, but also that they do so with such little fuss.

Think of it as the automotive equivalent of a swan. Under you, the engine, electronics and those differentials are working frenetically to get you over or through the obstacles that you present them with. Inside the car though, it’s all perfectly calm and serene as you settle into your seat-heated comfort. The juxtaposition could hardly be more marked.

Mind the gap: £100,000 Range Rovers are also used at the Utah experience

My instructor Swett says: “Customers never leave these tours anything less than amazed at what the cars can do.

“Even if the customers already know that the cars are highly capable off-road, they don’t expect them to be quite this good at handling this kind of terrain.”

To be fair, nor did I. After all, Land Rovers are renowned for being good in rutted, sludgy mud trails and wetter-than-average conditions, but it’s their off-roading US rival Jeep that is better known for tackling these kind of harsher, suspension-breaking rocky trails. However, along with our preconceptions, the rulebook appears to have gone out of the window.

On a 30-degree incline, Jim Swett's had instructions are the only thing you can see

It’s easy to forget that our Land Rovers are totally standard as well. There are no special off-road tyres or extra underbody protection, these cars are exactly as they drive out of the showroom. Ironically, that’s often to the slight annoyance of some of the other off-roading community present in Moab, who pride themselves on their adapted or specialised machinery to get them further or tackle tougher slopes than others.

There are plenty of tyre marks and paintwork-marked gouges out of the rocks to show past less-fortunate drivers too. With location names like Hell’s Revenge and Wipeout Hill, you could certainly never accuse Land Rover of picking an easy route. As Swett and the other instructors frequently point out, a driver’s nerves often give in way before the abilities of the car.

Randall adds: “Our brands are very experience-based and there’s no doubt that doing an Experience yourself will always have a stronger impact than just being told what a car can do.

What goes up must come down. If you can drag your eyes from the perilous drops, the scenery is magnificent

“The world is changing and people are looking to do more experiences in life generally rather than just buying things, and we’re seeing that much more. It’s undoubtedly an area of growth for us for the future.”

As we pull off the trail at the end of the day, there’s no question that the performance of the Land Rovers has been immensely impressive. That’s only underlined as we pull on to the road to drive back to our hotel – slick-rock, sand, Tarmac, it’s all the same to these cars. 

Our Range Rover feels just as ready to do the whole trail all over again. Me, on the other hand, could just do with a little lie-down first…

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