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Land Rover Experience @ Luton

I’d heard a lot about Land Rover Experience, some good, some not so good. To make up my own mind I’d tried to organise a proper press visit but that didn’t happen, for various reasons including my own terrible planning. Then circumstances conspired to leave me with a spare Saturday, and a quick web browse on Friday afternoon revealed there were last-minute special offers for an Experience the following day. Irresistible really, and so I rolled into the Luton Land Rover Experience facility to spend the day with a MY2012 Range Rover Vogue.

Initial impressions were good. There were several Land Rovers, at least one of every model, neatly lined up and ready to go with instructors fussing over them. We were ushered into a pleasant reception with tea and coffee presented by a girl whose sole function appeared to be offering beverages but not including smiles – why would you if your job was that exciting – and while we waited for the off a selection of magazines to browse which by an odd confidence all carried positive reports about Land Rover. As a full-day Experience, my session was to start with a theory presentation, so upstairs we went and down we sat for a Land Rover lowdown.

To be quite frank, the theory was a near total waste of time and should be entirely re-thought from first principles. I was actually shocked a company of Land Rover’s stature created such a presentation. That’s quite a strong statement, so let me explain.

Just about everything in the presentation was correct, bar a couple of minor points here and there. Most of it was pertinent, but there were arguably some things missing such as any depth on environmental impact, dangers of recovery, general difference between 4X4 driving and road driving so the focus should change for best effect given the audience.

But the biggest issue I had with the theory was the same one most organisations make, which is diving straight into technical subjects and using jargon without explaining it. For me that’s a crime meriting an instant black mark during instructor assessment time. As an example, the audience barely knew what low range was, so when the instructor asking “Is everyone clear on what a diff is?” a quick scan of faces indicated most of them were thinking about calculus, and it takes a rare student to admit they have no idea, especially the blokes. Unless the average Brit is far more clued up on vehicle design than the average Aussie I reckon most of it went over their heads and I only followed it because I already understood the content. It’s also not a great idea to actively discourage questions either at the start, regardless of the time available, especially if you’re getting into technical things such as how 4WDs work.

So the improvement point here is think about what’s relevant, and then present it in a way that Joe Average has some hope of following it. There were some good points, such as the Look, Risk Assess, Drive process and that would be better explained in more detail than bamboozling people with talking about locking diffs if you don’t have the time to do the subject justice, and it’d help if the diagrams were accurate too. Use of gears, slow smooth control, video on traction control..so much can be done in twenty minutes. I’d like to do a comprehension check on the students after that session and see how much they retained. And by the way, no Land Rover has a Tiptronic gearbox as none are made by Porsche. Landies have Command Shift.

So theory done, and out into the Range Rover. There were three of us for the day plus an instructor, and we started with an nicely paced introduction to the vehicle, its recovery points and the gear stowed in the back. All goodness. Then in we got, and off we went to the demonstration area. The instructor was knowledgeable, friendly and really you couldn’t ask for more. The road to the grounds was a dirt track, and we drove with wheels out of the wheeltracks, and we were told this was because it was smoother. True, but this offset running just makes the track wider (environmental responsibility and all that, hey Land Rover isn’t that your thing?), you’re not driving in the area of maximum traction and you’re more prone to punctures and sidewall damage. This brings me to the next point – this is an Experience, not Training, so there’s a bit of a gap between what happens on the day and what you’d want to do in real life. That gap was not bridged, and if you go driving out of the wheeltracks on a real dirt road you’ll be making an insurance claim sooner rather than later.

We stopped to demonstrate the difference between acceleration in Grass/Gravel/Snow and Sand, with the latter permitting more wheelspin and a high shift point. Didn’t see the difference myself, but I know from prior experience it’s there.

Down into the offroad area, and our instructor skilfully guided the Rangie around a curved bowl at a steep sideangle, before heading off up and over some small rocks. All this was done smoothly and quietly, and the other two car occupants were thrilled, as people are when they get on their first sideangle and see their first rocks. Then we went across the cross-axle humps, up and over “Pilot Hill” and down. Everything was calm, controlled, precise and with clear explanations of what’s going on where, and the instructor even made sure to turn around to make eye contact. Whatever else you say about Land Rover Experience, you can’t fault the instructors. I was a bit surprised by the reliance on radio to make sure someone wasn’t coming up the hill when you were about to descend, radio being provably not to be relied on in such circumstances, but each to their own. That was pretty much the offroad course done, and so we switched drivers.

I was first up behind the wheel and replicated the instructor’s line around the concrete curves but when we came to Pilot Hill I thought I’d crawl it and see how well Hill Start Assist worked on the MY2012 model as I’ve not been a fan in the past. Really should have mentioned I was going to do that to the instructor. Didn’t really get to test HSA as the hill isn’t very steep, so I’ll leave that for another time. Pretty uneventful drive, but my turn was over all too soon and the first of my companions was next up. Neither of them had any offroad experience, but I have to say they both were superb drivers, exhibiting that natural touch and calm control you see in the best. It also helped that they listened to the instructor and followed his advice, which by the way has a lot to do with why women are easy to teach and blokes are not. No wonder Britain keeps winning the F1 WDC if everyone here can drive like that.

So the morning was spent cruising around the course, such that it was. Luton is a pretty new ground, and to be quite frank there’s not a huge amount of offroading to be done there, but there’s enough to play with for half a day and four of us had a lovely sociably fun time playing with the car and chatting. We all got a decent amount of driving time in before lunch, which was at a nearby hotel that served a lovely meal which our group enjoyed together. Then back to the Rangie and more offroading, which began by stopping the car and analysing a flat track with some man-made ruts and a bit of mud.

Our instructor got the group out and we, or rather they, had a chat about which lines to take, when and how. This is good as it got people into the habit of analysing lines, and while the Rangie would have walked it no matter how it was driven the students aren’t to know that, so appeared to learn a great deal from the exercise.  We also watched a Defender come through, with rather too many revs for the conditions, sounding like it was in first low.  Perhaps that was for demonstration purposes only as it seems higher gears are preferred for that terrain, as they should be.

We then got back into the Rangie, through the course and then we each had a turn driving around some tight but easy forest tracks that scraped both sides of the car. Which I took a bit too fast as and folded the driver’s side mirror in, not damaged but I still shouldn’t have hit it. Wide things these Rangies, but that’s no excuse. One of our drivers did manage to get the Rangie kind of stuck in a place where I wouldn’t have said it was possible, so a special talent there. But he did the right thing and drove out without too much drama, thanks also to the Rangie’s electronics which, I’ll say again, Land Rover have tuned very well for shallow mud. When we’d all had a crack at forest driving it was time for a water crossing which was a few minutes drive offsite.

The crossing was two public fords at Redbournbury, neither of which looked to be ever remotely deep enough for concern but both were of sufficient depth and breadth to give an pretty good idea about water crossing techniques, and again good fun was had by all, even the passers-by that stopped to look. I think everyone particularly enjoyed me getting out of the car for a low-level photo and timing my escape from the bow wave! Often I do get wet in the name of photography but that day I wasn’t all that keen. An interesting point was that they obviously don’t teach people to switch the car off to let it cool before water entry, nor do they pause if possible after exit to let water drain from the car instead of dragging it along the track. Given Land Rover’s focus on the environment you’d have thought they’d be all over such details.

We then returned to the offroad site for more driving around the same obstacles as the morning. Somewhere along the way we did a failed hillclimb and the Land Rover way to do that is simple – stop the car, hold it on the brake, flick into reverse and let Hill Descent Control do it all for you. Which is lovely if you don’t mind hurtling back down at a HDC rate of knots, but in the sort of hills I’m used to HDC is way too quick so I think I’ll stick to driving through the brakes.

We then had a good play on the concrete bowl, and by this time we were driving around the inside of it at an extreme sideangle, then over the top. I referred to it as a Wall of Death, but apparently one doesn’t call it a Wall of Death. However, the name stuck. We also drove through the watery bottom then up and over. All this was great fun and is sure to impress potential customers, but I do have a concern that people will see that and then try and replicate the feat in the real world. And they will fail. Here are some reasons why you cannot drive around in the real world as you would the bowl at Luton:

  1. Traction. The bowl is made of high-traction concrete, the real world has earth, rocks, grass and other less-high-traction surfaces. Particularly when you’ve got the downhill wheels wet.
  2. Smoothness. The bowl is smooth. Real-world surfaces have undulations, which reduce the effective sideangle the car can take.
  3. Strength. The bowl can take the entire weight of the car on one wheel. Real surfaces shear, slip and otherwise deform.
  4. Weight and tyres. The car was stock and unloaded, whereas your offroading vehicle typically has aired-down tyres and a fair bit of gear which increases its centre of gravity.

So while the bowl was great for the Experience, and an Experience is not meant to be training as such, there needs to be a gentle reminder that it is not representative of a real-world surface. It should also be pointed out that whilst all the Experience cars are showroom-standard, that’s showroom-standard with options, notably the E-Diff, the cross-axle locker. This makes a big difference in many offroad situations, including climbing out of the bowl when the front wheel is high in the air and there’s different weights on the rears. Again, another reason that the Experience may not match what your own car can do in the real world.

I don’t know about the other centres, but Luton could and should do some high-speed work as they have the space. Some stability control demos, split-traction braking, traction-transition braking and more…part of the allure of a modern Landie is its ability to handle high speed as well as low-speed and I know that impresses customers no end. We clearly weren’t allowed to drive the car onroad, as the instructor took over for that. Shame, as I know what that V8 diesel can do in fourth gear and was dying to let it loose…but I guess I just worked out the reason why the instructor always took over! I’d also like to see some deep sand or loose gravel, and the hills could be a lot steeper than they are, really give people a proper thrill. Must admit I was redesigning the course as the others were driving around!

If there’s a choice, I think two half-day sessions in different cars would be better than a full day as certainly towards the end there was a sense of been there, done it all twice. As with any manufacturer-run session you’ll get the manufacturer way of doing things, which means using all their gizmos, and that’s not always the best way to drive in a given situation.

So, how to summarise? Well, I’m glad I went and would recommend it. It will be a very pleasant way to spend the day for anyone interested in cars, Land Rovers or offroading. You get to drive the latest and greatest Landies with a highly knowledgeable instructor, there’s plenty of drive time, it would be a lot of fun with like-minded individuals and the day was professionally and efficiently run. You do get a decent feel for how the car works offroad, and I can tell you that you don’t need drive it to its offroad limits – it’s how a car deals with obstacles within its limits that gives you an idea of how good it is. And come on…is bimbling sociably around a forest behind the wheel of a brand new Range Rover such a bad way to spend your afternoon? Sounds good to me! But don’t be going to an Experience centre, or this one at least expecting hardcore offroading, or even training as opposed to an experience. Do go along for the fun and love of it, and like me you’ll have a great time. I’d do it again.

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