That new Land Rover looks great sitting in your driveway, but you've just purchased a freedom of mobility denied to most vehicles. What's stopping you from getting out there? Traverse the Kalahari's ancient dry riverbeds, winch your way through the Darien Gap, or ford glacial streams as you follow the Ice Truckers into the Himalayas.
Then again, have you checked out the cost of replacing a front fender and headlamp assembly? Sure, crawling the Rubicon Trail in your new Land Rover would be cool, but think about the damage inflicted by the boulders of the Sluice Box. And as much as you want to leave the well-trodden path, seriously, who'd pick up the kids when you're stuck somewhere outside Katmandu on the way to Mt. Everest?
A better way to explore your LR's off-road abilities and hone your dirt-pounding skills is by driving a Land Rover at one of the 30 Land Rover Centres around the world. By traversing specially designed obstacle courses, fledgling off-roaders learn the basics, while graduates can participate in two intermediate levels of full-day instruction that might, depending on location, include a night drive or jaunts through snowdrifts or across sand dunes. Those bitten by the off-road bug can advance to a "professional" course that teaches proper winching, towing, and GPS navigation. Want more? We did, so we jumped at the opportunity to attend the ultimate in Land Rover's world of off-road training: a multi-day, fully outfitted, and not inexpensive adventure program.
Catalonian Escape at Les Comes near Barcelona is one of several LR Centres where drivers can hone their offroad skills on some of ...
We joined up with Land Rover's Catalonian Escape 2011, based at Les Comes, the Land Rover Centre near Barcelona, Spain. Catalonia was the first of two adventure programs scheduled for 2011-- the other was an eight-day Botswana Expedition in September. There will be two different destinations next year.
Catalonian Escape 2011 was Land Rover's first so-called "compact adventure." The four-day frolic offered a mix of activities typical of a Land Rover expedition, from pretty tough off-roading in the mountainous terrain surrounding the spectacular Montserrat range, to stays at luxury hotels (and a luxury tent!). In between we enjoyed lots of good food, the amiable companionship of Land Rover's experts, and a deeper appreciation for Land Rover technology.
The program started with a chauffeured ride from the Barcelona airport in one of the Discovery 4s (called LR4 in the U.S.) our group would drive over the next three days. Each Disco 4 was powered by a really terrific 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 and was modified with a factory-optional electronic differential as well as a number of factory-approved accessories: a Warn 9.5XP winch with synthetic ropes and stainless steel fairleads, Goodyear Maximum Traction Reinforced tires, extra underbody protection, and Hella bi-xenon spot lamps. We were equipped to head to a dinosaur dig in the Gobi instead of an upscale boutique hotel in the Parmedés wine country.
The ride to Can Bonastre hotel and winery let us again appreciate the Land Rover's exceptional behavior on the tarmac. Ignore an LR's off-road capabilities entirely, and all that's left is a rock-solid luxury SUV. Our driver was one of the group of professional instructors who would assist us along the way, hooking up winch cables and changing flat tires as needed. You know, the things pampered clients prefer not to do. We were, of course, all too happy to play along.
Our destination was a zip-line set up from a nearby ridge top. Having never zipped before, we zipped. We liked it. We shall zip ...
An hour later, we arrived at Can Bonastre for a night's stay. The beautifully restored farmhouse sits on a hilltop with a commanding view of the surrounding vineyards, forests, and, in the distance, the sawtooth profile of Montserrat, Spain's famous "serrated mountains." A tour of the winery and a wine tasting was followed by a gourmet meal, after which we retired to our rooms in well-fed anticipation of the off-road adventure to come.
After a short morning orientation and safety lecture, we embarked on a day of driving, beginning with wide-open runs over winding mountain roads. Even through tight corners, body roll was kept well under control, yet the air suspension provided plenty of compliance over the occasional rough surface. Aside from somesinging from the Goodyears, the cabin was quiet enough to appreciate the lack of noise from the diesel engine. Strong, quiet, and economical, a version of this current V-6 should make it to North America in 2014, when emissions regulations become standardized around the world.
We soon reached the first off-road trail of the day, and the first indication the going would be very slippery. Heavy late spring rains had saturated the ground and turned low spots into muddy bogs, but, except for a couple of really deep holes, the Discos easily dealt with the lack of grip. This came as no surprise to those of us who had driven Land Rovers off the road, but still it was fascinating to observe the four-wheel-drive mechanicals and electronics at work, and to watch the dashboard display of the suspension's articulation as each wheel found its way through the quagmire.
Land Rover's Discovery 4s managed the Monserrat course with minimal body roll and compliant air suspension, while offering ...
Then, rounding a corner of the road, we came upon one of the more exciting aspects of Catalonia 2011: an orange streak called the Bowler Nemesis. Based loosely on a Range Rover Sport and bred for such brutal cross-country rallies as the Paris-Dakar, it was brought to Spain to give the Catalonia clients a taste of desert warfare, automotive-style. We were the first to jump in next to the driver for a couple laps and got out thinking there aren't many better ways in the world to have fun.
After our juices got good and Bowlerized, we headed for lunch at the program's base location, the grand estate of Les Comes. Owned by a former off-road motorcycle champion, the immaculately restored villa and surrounding acreage form a huge playground for outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to Spain's Land Rover Centre, Les Comes plays host to myriad outdoor activities, from kart-cross racing to cliff climbing.
We could either drive to the villa for our well-earned lunch of local specialties, or slide to our destination on a zip-line set up from a nearby ridge top. Having never zipped before, we zipped. We liked it. We shall zip again.
The afternoon took us deeper into the dense forests of Les Comes and the toughest runs of the entire trip. Instructors guided us through the more troublesome gulleys and bogs, using ropes and winches a couple times to get us along. We jumped out once to observe another truck in trouble and snigger a little at their predicament, but after ticks were sighted, we remained in the Discos' cabins, content to let the pros play in the mud.
Instructor guides winching process, as we watch from sidelines -- before we saw the ticks.
Near dusk, we stopped for a brief meeting around the head instructor, who threw a ragged pup tent on the ground and told us it was time to learn how to put one up, because that would be our night's accommodation. The joke became funny when we drove up to our real digs, a group of platform tents with all the amenities of a luxury hotel. A violent rainstorm during the night and the chirping of birds at dawn made our stay in Land Rover Camp all the more enjoyable.
The final day of the Catalonian adventure included more off-roading, though of a less rigorous nature, and the drive back to Barcelona for a final night's stay in a cozy room at the Mandarin Oriental, spectacularly situated along the main shopping drag in one of Europe's most fascinating cities. In the hotel's shower, we eliminated the effects of two grimy days off the road, then took a walkaround to marvel at Barcelona's amazing architecture, enjoy another gourmet dinner in the hotel restaurant, and spend another night under fine Egyptian cotton. We did lose some sleep, however, trying to come up with a way to afford the Botswana adventure. Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, luxurious game lodges...all in someone else's Land Rover.
racer trucks along the rough.
LET'S GO BOWLER-ING
The most exciting element of Catalonia 2011 was a ride in the Bowler Nemesis, a race truck designed to take on the toughest cross-country races. Based loosely on a Ranger Rover Sport, the Nemesis was developed by Bowler Off Road, Ltd., a veteran outfit established by a British blacksmith and known for such projects as the Tomcat and Wildcat off-roaders, each of which was built around a Land Rover Defender. More recently, the firm expanded its line with the Nemesis EXR street truck. (Check out Nick Hall's review of the EXR at www.motortrend.com.)
The Nemesis is pure competition technology. Race engineering is all about adding lightness, so Nemesis began by throwing out lots of Range Rover stuff (about 40 percent of the truck remains Rover). The body is constructed primarily of Twin-tex-a thermoplastic-glass-reinforced material said to withstand impacts better than standard glass-reinforced plastic-along with smatterings of carbon fiber to reinforce certain high-stress areas. The only Range Rover components to be seen are the windshield, door handles, headlights, grille, and taillights. Underneath the body are a tubular space frame, bespoke springs and anti-roll bars, hydraulic bumpstops, and long-travel three-way-adjustable shock absorbers. Nestled within the frame is a Jaguar supercharged 4.2-liter V-8 that sends some 500 horsepower (and 414 lb-ft of torque!) to all four wheels through a six-speed gearbox. The four-wheel-drive system is tweaked for a 40/60 torque split and sports three limited-slip diffs.
The cockpit is, of course, stripped of all things related to creature comfort, but riding in the Nemesis is anything but uncomfortable. The long-travel suspension almost magically flattens out the topography. Gulleys, ruts, bumps, ridges -- whatever passes under the wheels is dismissed nonchalantly, and going airborne and coming back to Earth is about as harsh as jumping up and down on a box-spring mattress.
It goes like hell, too. Bowler achieved an extra measure of performance from the Jag engine by converting it to run on an E85 bio-ethanol mixture, and the result is a violent roar, 0-60 mph in less than 5 seconds, a top speed around 140 mph, and tremendous fun behind the wheel.