As the Land Rover L4 crested the hill on a dirt road carved through the forest, the only thing I could see from behind the wheel was a beautiful blue North Carolina sky.
A few seconds later, the 4,000-pound Land Rover was headed down a 40% grade and only faith in the vehicle kept my foot off the brake as the vehicle’s hill descent feature combated gravity and controlled the decline gracefully.
The adrenaline pump was one of several I received traversing off-road trails in a closed area of forest on the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville as part of the Land Rover Experience Driving School offered to the AAA Four Diamond Biltmore Inn’s guests.
Of course, driving through fields, up steep hills studded with rocks, through shallow streams and between trees isn’t what most people who own a 4-wheel drive sport utility vehicle typically do.
But Range Rover, the company that builds Land Rovers, has four vehicles for customers to drive, always with an instructor passenger, to learn what these
awesome off-road vehicles can do.
We drove the Evoque, the smallest and newest Land Rover with stylish good looks; Range Rover; Range Rover Sport, and LR4, the biggest and most recognizable with its boxy, muscular look. Most sport utility vehicle owners never risk taking their four-wheel drive off road, fearful of risking a crash, denting a fender or getting stuck in the wilderness.
However, it is different driving someone else’s vehicle with a passenger who knows how to handle a nearly six-ton vehicle (the 2012 LR4) riding on 19-inch wheels with 7.3 inches of ground clearance and 375 horsepower and the same foot-pounds of torque.
Aimed primarily at guests staying at the 213-room Biltmore Inn, it is one of four Land Rover driving schools; the others are at Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello in Quebec; Quail Lodge in California’s Carmel Valley, and Equinox/Vermont Resort in Manchester Village, VT. All are designed to teach fundamental off-road driving techniques and show the versatility of Land Rover products.
Customers pay $150 an hour to drive alone or $700 a day with up to three drivers able to share the cost.
All-day participants enjoy lunch at Antler Village below the a new shopping Mecca for visitors to the historic 250-room Biltmore House completed in 1895, and today the largest private residence in America.
Who signs up?
“I would say about 15% have never been off-road, 20% are experienced off-roads and the remaining 65% are somewhere in between,” said the school’s head instructor, Greg Nikolas.
Nikolas’s mantra, which he has reiterated daily since the school opened in 2004, is “Go as fast as possible, as slow as necessary,” repeating it to a driver traveling on a sloping hillside at a 28 degree angle and again when going up and down in to and out of 8-inch deep muddy puddles on a much-neglected dirt road.
Riding in the rear seat feels like a cheap amusement park ride, as you are thrown side to side, forward and backward, as the vehicle tilts, tips, slides and bounces along twisting, slippery trails that slice narrowly between trees, rocks and hills.
After a day of driving, here are some lessons learned without sideswiping a single tree or scraping a bumper or getting stuck in a mudhole.
- When parking on a steep hill, put the vehicle in neutral, put the emergency hand brake on, then put the vehicle in park. This reduces stress on the parking brake.
- When slowly pulling through mud, a light touch of the brake with the left foot, while the right foot is lightly on the accelerator, allows the vehicle’s traction control to engage slower, providing better traction and driver control.
- Take your foot off the brake and let the vehicle’s hill descent mode work with gravity when dropping down a 40% incline. (Range Rover invented the hill descent feature, now copied by other manufacturers.)
- Use drive in automatic mode to slowly climb out of a mud hole. Wiggling the steering wheel slightly will help wheels grip better and reduce the chance of wheels spinning while getting out.
- Do not lock your thumbs around the steering wheel. A sharp jerk on the wheel could injure or break them.
I failed to make it up one mud-slicked hill, rescued three times by the hill ascent feature that prevented the vehicle from rolling backwards. Lesson learned was too much power on the gas pedal can cause too much wheel spin and decreased steering control.
For the first time, I had sympathy for all those four-wheeled SUV owners stuck or off-road during winter snowstorms. It made me realize that like my experience, it is the driver, not the vehicle that makes the mistakes.