As the Land Rover’s chain-covered tires emit the crunch of cold metal gripping frigid snow, easily pulling us through the pristine woodlands of Southwest Quebec, it became quickly clear that the Land Rover Experience doesn’t only deliver basic off-road knowledge to its clients, but also the chance to take in the thrill and freedom that comes from venturing into the unknown with only a vehicle to trust.
That’s what Land Rovers were originally intended for; even the name denotes a vehicle that’s meant for exploring the world. And yet, many of these vehicles (read: the vast majority) will never leave the pavement, used mostly to give off a sense of capability without it ever being exercised.
That’s where the Land Rover Experience Center comes in. The program takes the time to show owners exactly what their vehicles are capable of, regardless of your level of exisiting off-road skill. Anyone willing to pay can take in the experience, but most importantly, every single Land Rover buyer in Canada and the US gets a complimentary three-hour course at their nearest Land Rover Experience Center.
And no matter where you are in the world, an Experience Center isn’t too far.
Land Rover Experience Centers are speckled across the globe, much like traces of the British empire itself, providing owners and enthusiasts the chance to get behind the wheel of the brand’s latest products in an off-road environment with a trained instructor in the passenger seat. Finland, China, the U.S., Russia, and South Africa are just some of the countries that offer Land Rover Experience Centers, and Canada joins the esteemed list with one center, located at the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Montebello, where we had the chance to take in the program.
Montebello is famous for being the largest log cabin in the world, built in the 1930s as a private club for the world’s rich and elite. Nearly a century later, anyone willing to pay for a night at the hotel can be charmed by the massive hearth in the lobby or the small, rustic rooms. A long list of outdoor activities is also a staple of Montebello, which encourages its guests to get outside and try new things.
Thanks to the Fairmont, I learned that the definition of ice fishing, for me, is really just drinking white wine on a cold lake, but if you’re looking for an expert, my wife proved herself one by pulling in 10 gorgeous rainbow trout in less than two hours. Meanwhile, I stood and watched, bewildered, cold and bored. I’d make an ice queen controlling the fish joke here, but I like my life.
Once my wife’s fishing excursion was through (the day is gone, but the gloating will never end), it was time to load into the Land Rover and take to the trails.
Late February brought with it rain and lukewarm days slightly above freezing. Everyone knows mud is a challenge to drive through, but sloppy, heavy wet snow is not to be underestimated. We hopped in the Discovery with guide Lynda Melanson, a 15-year veteran of the Land Rover Experience Center, and set off for the snow.
We arrived at a large quarry filled with man-made obstacles; steep hill climbs, large whoops and deep ruts. Before I charged into the snow with reckless abandon, we established all the controls on the Land Rover Discovery, and unlike the manual-locking-hub Land Rovers that this course started with, the new Discovery has off-road smarts programmed right into its many computers.
The Terrain Response 2 system found in the Disco, for instance, alters throttle response, shift points and power distribution for optimal grip in a number of scenarios including grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock crawl. Simply turn the knob to the desired setting, and the vehicle does the rest, even telling you if need to shift the transfer case down into low range.
While we started out in grass/gravel/snow, it was actually mud/ruts that proved to give us the best traction, as a little more throttle power was available earlier in the pedal, allowing us to put power to the ground to hold our momentum through the snow, something that the snow setting didn’t quite offer.
It’s these types of lessons that can be invaluable to an owner when off-road, arming them with the necessary information to make the smartest decision for any obstacle they might encounter. On our day, in particular, we were reminded of the importance of building momentum for running through the snow, as the white stuff loves to suck your wheels in, offering a slick surface and lots of resistance at the same time. Being able to look at an obstacle and correctly judge the speed you’ll need to make it through is an art that comes with time and getting stuck, over and over. Luckily, we only got stuck once, and thankfully no digging was required. We were on a steep hill that I took with not enough speed, getting bogged down half way up. Slipping the Discovery into reverse was enough to get out of this situation, and the surround view camera setup helped to guide me back to flat ground in reverse.
Air suspension is another trick in the Discovery’s book, allowing the body to be raised by nearly two inches, making a sizeable difference in the snow as the body isn’t plowing through the white stuff.
To this point, our snow tires were performing admirably in the quarry, but we took it one step further with a set of chains, a serious off-road upgrade for those running through soft terrain. The bite of the metal is felt immediately, seeming to stick the Discovery to the ground with the authority of a high-performance slick on a race track. Except that it’s freezing and snowy.
The cardinal rule of chains is you cannot spin the tires or you risk wrecking something, and again the brains in the Discovery can help. The Terrain Response system will keep wheel spin to a minimum, but Land Rover takes it even further with a low-friction start feature. When selected, it will not allow the wheels to slip when you’re starting out, no matter how hard you punch the throttle, using a computer to sense exactly how much grip each tire has.
All-Terrain Progress Control is yet another new clever Land Rover feature for heading off-road. It allows you to set a speed and forget about the brake and throttle; the Discovery will handle that for you, despite the obstacle you’re taking on, allowing the driver to focus on where the wheels are and steering the vehicle.
As our adventure progressed and I became entirely comfortable with the Discovery, I started to look beyond the dashboard and began to notice the same thing that the rich businessmen who built the club at Montebello did about this region way back in the 1930s: how idyllic and peaceful it is.
Thick spruce forests mixed with bare maple tree groves offer a stark juxtaposition to each other in the winter, while the movement of chipmunks and squirrels through the branches shakes a light sprinkle of snow to the ground.
This part of the experience is unique in each country, but there is a common element to every program, regardless of the location. These off-road lessons prepare anyone to become comfortable with off-pavement driving, allowing them to stress less about the vehicle making it through and letting them truly soak in what’s around them, whether it be the massive sand dunes of Africa, the frigid north of Finland, or the picturesque frozen Ottawa river.
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