It's not like I've never teetered on the edge before. It's just that I've never gone to school to learn how to do it for kicks behind the wheel of a $50,000 vehicle. Or a $75,000 one either, for that matter. But the new Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, N.C., is predicated upon the idea that off-roading has as much to do with levitating above terra firma as it does with driving off pavement.
Driving by the seat of the pants is not an option during a Land Rover Experience course. It is learned behavior, not instinct, that allows one successfully to negotiate the diabolical obstacles lurking within the thousands of forested acres that carpet the Appalachian foothills surrounding the Vanderbilt family's eccentric facsimile of a feudal manse.
Take, for example, the unnerving "teeter-totter berms" that perch at the edge of a muddy plateau overlooking a 150-foot drop into a marshy bog. "What I want you to do," says instructor Travis Martin with nonchalant calm, "is to drive up the side of that first berm there and stop." Mind you, the 2005 Range Rover (the $75,000 one) weighs something like 5,500 pounds, and we're driving sideways at an angle of, oh, about 35 or 37 degrees from vertical.
Travis looks oddly comfortable mashed up against the window of the passenger-side door. I, on the other hand, don't quite know what to think about hovering in suspended animation over the driver's seat. The only things anchoring me to the vehicle are my hands white-knuckling the steering wheel. Hanging over that bog, I feel like a spider dangling over the jaws of eternity. And the bog looks hungry.
"Now I want you to ease over to the right," Travis continues. Downhill sideways? I protest in silence. Are you daft, man! "That's it, that's it. Just aim your right front wheel at the top edge of the next berm tilting in the opposite direction. Now stop!"
With the left rear wheel remaining planted on the first, right-tilting berm and the right front wheel now perched atop the second left-tilting berm, the Range Rover begins an ungainly pas de deux. We teeter on two catty-corner wheels for a moment, far above the bog. The sumptuous leather and sparkling accoutrements that define Range Rover's legendary interpretation of luxury are the farthest things from my mind at this point. Slowly, Range Rover's automatic air suspension elongates the travel of the other two air-borne wheels, and the teetering comes to a gentle stop.
"See?" asks Travis. "No problem. Want to do it again?"
I do, actually; because after several off-road miles under the belt in a new Range Rover, my driving partnerfellow auto-writer Pete Szilagyi-and I are increasingly confident in both our and in our vehicle's abilities. Besides, what's on tap for the afternoon is a jaunt behind the wheel of Land Rover's revolutionary new LR3 model.
The LR3 does not so much update the venerable Discovery II of recent memory as it does entirely replace it. This is the first all-new Land Rover model to reflect the parentage of Ford Motor Company; as a result, it benefits from an enhanced array of corporate resources.
Conspicuous among these is the 300-horsepower twin-cam V8 derived from Jaguar. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with CommandShift manual control, the engine delivers ampleand more importantly, smoothpower to the all-time four-wheel-drive powertrain.
What's particularly revolutionary about the LR3 is its versatile combination of standard center and optional rear differentials, automatic air suspension, and traction, stability and roll control systems. An exclusive Terrain Response feature manages to "network" the LR3's manifold capabilities into five discrete traction modes. Apart from the "general" mode for routine driving, there are tailored settings for "grass/gravel/snow," "mud/ruts," "sand" and "rock crawl." A console knob selects each one, and the vehicle responds accordingly by, for example, raising or lowering the suspension, locking or unlocking differentials, even attenuating throttle response for delicate rock-crawling maneuvers.
Hill Descent Control is, likewise, standard; and it is this feature, which Land Rover helped pioneer, that tends to "recalibrate" a driver's instincts for driving off-road. In setting up for a particularly tortuous downhill right-angle descent through syrupy mud, Travis nurtured the art of threshold braking. "Just feather the brake pedal lightly," he said, "until you feel a wheel lock up; then back off ever so little. If the wheels lock, you'll slide; and if you slide, you're toast."
Miraculously untoasted, I had positioned the LR3 at a quirky angle just at the upper lip of the challenging downhill track. "Ready?" Travis asked. Yup, I replied. "OK, then. Let'er go; and remember to keep your feet on the floor."
With a flick left, then deftly right, I launched the LR3 downhill. It was like pulling the ripcord of a parachute: Hill Descent Control managed throttle and brakes to eliminate wheelspin; I tweaked the steering wheel to navigate the serpentine track. My feet stayed planted, out of harm's way. A muddy roller-coaster ride later, we were at the bottom of the ravine, on-course and unscathed.
With mere turns of a knob, the LR3 negotiated the mud, rocks and gravel of the Biltmore acreage with aplomb while three of us nestled within the well-appointed cockpit for seven. Our gear, moreover, traveled secure upon flat-floored cargo space that's expandable from 10 to 90 cubic feet. At the end of a muddy, scruffy day of driving off-road in the shadow of Cold Mountain, it was hard to define what was the greater satisfaction-picking up some new off-roading techniques or experiencing the next generation in "smart vehicle" technology. In either case, it took a slippery slope to get started; and only then did expectations rise.