Land Rover Discovery
A discovery negotiates a deep water hole. Click image to enlarge.

Story and photos by Grant Yoxon

Land Rover Experience 4X4 Driving School

Montebello, Quebec – As if a week’s worth of heavy rain wasn’t enough, the black flies swarmed so thick the video people thought they were shooting through fog. Then the off-road all-terrain tires were back-ordered and most of the vehicles couldn’t make it up the first challenging slope. To make matters worse, all had to be winched up the last few feet by a real 4×4, a Land Rover Defender that, unfortunately, isn’t even sold here.

The author at driving a Freelander
The author driving a Freelander. Photo: Land Rover.

It could have been a public relations disaster except the Land Rovers, even the Freelanders, proved to be capable off-roaders, even on street tires. You can always count on the weather to throw you some surprises.

The author playing in the water
The author and Global TV’s Rob Davidson submerge the Freelander. Photo: Land Rover

Although a bad weather plan should have been at the top of Land Rover’s contingency list, apparently it wasn’t. In hindsight, a stock of good mud tires might have made the difference.

This little romp in the woods was meant to be the big send off for Land Rover’s first North American Land Rover Experience 4×4 driving school. And while a dozen journalists beat up on their vehicles and carved deep ruts into the forest trails of the Kenauk Park, the folks at Land Rover Canada had a chance to consider the importance of planning and their commitment to Treadlightly, the organization dedicated to environmentally responsible off-roading, of which they are a founding member.

Land Rovers ready for the test at Montebello
Land Rovers ready for the test at Montebello

Land Rover Freelander
Land Rover Freelander

Land Rover Range Rover
Range Rover, Rob Davidson at the wheel

This Discovery needed a winch
This Discovery needed a winch

Discovery negotiates slippery slope.

Range Rover on two wheels
Range Rover on two wheels

This stream proved to be no problem for the Freelander
This stream proved to be no problem for the Freelander

Range Rover goes downstream
Range Rover goes downstream

Land Rover Defender
Land Rover Defender
Click images to enlarge

Kenauk is a vast 26,000-hectare wilderness preserve operated by the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello in Montebello, Quebec. The area has miles of gravel roads and dedicated off-road trails with enough variety and difficulty to challenge drivers of all skill levels. With a fine hotel in an unspoiled natural setting, Chateau Montebello and Kenauk Park are perfect for an off-road driving school. And it should have been a perfect setting to showcase the capability of Land Rover’s Sport Utility Vehicles.

And in truth, it was. The vehicles, two upscale Range Rovers, two mid-size Discoveries and two compact Freelanders performed extremely well given conditions that would have sent any ordinary SUV back to the hotel.

With electronic air suspension, speed-sensitive power steering, hill descent control, 4-wheel electronic traction control, automatically locking centre differential and 281 milimetres (11.1 inches) of ground clearance, the Range Rover is one formidable off-road vehicle.

Not as big, luxurious or powerful as the Range Rover, the Discovery is no less capable off-road with permanent four-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer gear box, four-wheel electronic traction control and 208 mm (8.2 in) of ground clearance under the differential and more under the frame.

Though less adept than its big brothers, the Freelander offers off-road capability rarely seen in the compact SUV category where most of its competitors are better described as foul weather vehicles rather than off-road vehicles. Minimum ground clearance under the front axle is 186 mm (7.3 in).

But the Freelander could have used a few more milimetres. Despite its surprising ability to scurry up slippery slopes, navigate miles of mud and ford radiator deep streams, the Freelander constantly bottomed out on the rough Kenauk trails. At first we were a bit sensitive to the sounds of damage beneath us, but our guides assured us that we were only scraping the skid plate protecting the mechanical essentials. “It’s just noise,” said one, “Don’t worry about it.”

And every time we banged into a rock, my driving partner and I would echo the refrain, “it’s just noise” and continue on. At least it wasn’t my Freelander.

Ground clearance was never really a problem with the Discovery or the Range Rover, but weight did prove to be a factor when the mud slogging got really tough.

And tough it was. It didn’t matter whether we were crossing a bog or skirting a hill, everywhere we went there was mud and plenty of it. And traveling in a convoy just made matters worse as each vehicle would churn up the ground and the one following would attempt to avoid the deep ruts left by the one in front, leaving more ruts behind.

I asked Bert Coates, Executive Directory of Treadlightly Canada, who was along for the ride, if a responsible off-roader would choose not to go into the woods when conditions were as wet as this. “Well, yes,” he replied. “That would be a wise choice.”

The off-road trails at Kenauk are dedicated for that purpose and vehicles don’t go elsewhere. But it took us over three hours to negotiate a trail inch by excruciating inch that I could have walked in less than half and hour without any mud on my boots.

And I would have to question the sanity of anyone who would drive a $104,000 Range Rover any further afield than the cow path to the cottage unless they had one heck of a good reason, not to mention lots of money.

The Defender makes a whole lot more sense for an activity such as this. As far as I could see, our Defender winch truck never had any difficulty with even the worst of Kenauk’s rain soaked terrain. A purpose-built vehicle, simple and sturdy, a true 4X4, the Defender is sold just about everywhere in the world except North America. Pity.

Land Rover Experience packages range from a two-hour ‘Taste of Adventure’ to full-day lessons that conform to the standards set for Land Rover Experience training around the world. Discovery and Freelander buyers qualify for a free half-day First Experience course, while Range Rover buyers get a full-day Total Experience course. Land Rover Experience courses are open to anyone, with prices ranging from $195 per person for two hours in a Freelander or Discovery to $395 per person for a full day ‘Total Experience’ course in any of Land Rover’s vehicles. A full day Advanced Experience course is available to those who have completed the Total Experience course for $490.

Hotel packages including breakfast and supper, a boxed lunch and a half-day First Experience course start at $433 per person. Call Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello at 1-800-870-7619 to register for the Land Rover Experience 4X4 driving school.

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