Going Off-Road in Napa Valley With the New Range Rover Fleet
A road trip through California wine country in the newly redesigned luxury SUV provides some unexpected twists and turns
It’s not every day you find yourself chatting with one of the world’s leading automotive designers before dinner. I was in Northern California to test drive three new Range Rovers (the V8 First Edition, a long-wheelbase version and top-of-the-line SV model), and the chief creative officer for Jaguar Land Rover, Gerry McGovern OBE, had a few minutes to spare.
Sweeping into the Montage Healdsburg lobby bar with a just-back-from-Miami suntan, he’s in Napa for the final wave of the new Range Rover’s global launch. But where to begin with the man whose dramatic update of the esteemed British carmaker’s flagship model (only its fifth, in 50 years) has turned heads and got everyone talking? The design, obviously.
“The driver for all our designs is a modest approach that some interpret as minimalism. It’s not minimalist, it’s reductive. It’s clean and free from over ornamentation,” McGovern says in response to my probably predictable question. “It’s about hierarchy. Everything is pared back and beautifully surfaced. Because of that, you can see what it is — it’s a Range Rover.”
With a more diverse client base than ever, McGovern says that Range Rover today is about creating something new while keeping true to the brand’s ethos. “When you look at this car compared to the previous model, it’s still clearly a Range Rover, it’s got that DNA, but it’s defined by the technology that enabled us to achieve it,” he says. “Before, we didn’t have the capability to produce vehicles with this amount of reduction. Paring things back exposes any imperfections. There’s nowhere to hide.” Some details are still celebrated, though. “It’s got the floating roof, the continuous beltline and formality at the front. It looks like the Queen drives it, because she does, so it’s got the royal seal approval too.”
Day 1: Driving Miss Daisy
With clouds rapidly closing around our helicopter, the pilot decides to make an impromptu landing at Ukiah Municipal Airport in Mendocino County. It’s only a few miles from the Timber Lodge hillside, where Land Rover has a fleet of Range Rover P530 First Editions lined up for us to take off-road. The team scrambles and convoys them to Ukiah instead, where, after a short wait inside the terminal, we dash out to claim our cars. I hop in one with my driving partner and follow his seasoned lead, adjusting my seat while he turns on the sat-nav system and an umbrella-wielding Land Rover rep speaks to us in British through the window (“would you mind awfully,” “sorry about that,” “thanks ever so much”). With the off-roading bit scrapped due to weather, our next route is a section of the Redwood Highway to State Route 128 in Sonoma County, with lunch at a winery so exclusive it doesn’t pop up on the map.
Modern-looking and gorgeous, the First Edition we’re driving is all Sunset Gold Satin on the outside and Perlino leather and natural ecru walnut veneer on the inside. My only prior Range Rover experience was being chauffeured to and from SFO airport in the SV model in the last 24 hours (I played with the executive-class seats and looked for but failed to locate the fridge or Dartington crystal glasses) so everything feels new, sophisticated and exciting.
Back home in the real world (the one where I’m not being flown around wine country in a helicopter), my daily driver around San Diego is a 1988 Toyota 4Runner. It’s got over 280,00 miles on the clock, the side-view mirrors don’t stay up, and there’s some play in the steering, but driving it (and the retro ’80s TRD-inspired paint job) always puts a smile on my face. Which means by the time it’s my turn to get behind the wheel of this car, I’m at a bit of a loss.
There’s a digital instrument cluster and floating central touchscreen infotainment system. I press something hopefully on the steering column and realize I wasn’t paying proper attention to anything my partner had done earlier. He kindly and patiently points out the Start/Stop button from the passenger seat and explains the rear-view mirror is in ClearSight, a mode using a rear-facing camera. I press start, the engine comes to life (although it’s so whisper quiet in the cabin you can barely hear it), then lead-foot the accelerator. “Whoa, okay there, Driving Miss Daisy!” he laughs as I make an inelegant left onto Highway 128 somewhere between Jimtown and Kellogg.
This primarily two-lane stretch of country road is all bucolic vineyards, gentle curves and bright red barns. It’s also dotted for several miles with big-name wineries and smaller boutique tasting rooms. There’s no time for sightseeing, but I do start to get a feel for the car, which positively floats along in Comfort mode. For a rolling luxury behemoth, the ride is silky smooth.
After a fantastic lunch (the chef had connections to Meadowood, the food was straight from the farm and delicious), we set off again along Highway 128. Causing a slight ripple of envy among the group, my partner had scored the only spa appointment at Montage Healdsburg, and we had to make haste to the resort, which was just under an hour away. En route, my partner discovers the First Edition also has a superb turning radius, which he happily demonstrates by making a series of consecutively tighter and faster circles on Montage Way.
With darkening skies and heavy rain now falling while he departs for the spa, I’m happy to hand over the keys and head to my room. Getting the fireplace going and making a cup of tea, I reflect on the fifth-gen drive experience while prepping some pre-dinner questions for McGovern.
Day 2: Dynamic Mode, Getting Muddy
The next morning, the sun is back and the Montage driveway is filled with Range Rover’s P400 long-wheelbase model in Charente Grey with a butter-soft Caraway-colored leather interior and artful matte wood trim. I scroll the touchscreen and look over the route that will take us south along Redwood Highway through Windsor, before making a left on Mark West Springs Road. The final stop: Robert Young Estate Winery for the rescheduled, rained-out off-road experience from yesterday and our helicopter ride back to San Francisco after brunch.
I’m surprised how immediately at home I feel driving the longer wheelbase. It ably handles the corners and instills me with more confidence when accelerating on the straights. About halfway up the hill between Mark West Springs and Porter Creek roads, we pull over to swap out — my partner then puts the car into Dynamic mode for a brisker drive that hugs the tighter twists and turns along Petrified Forest Road. We don’t have time to stop and check out the 3.4 million-year-old forest, but you can smell that ancient aroma in the air, and it’s wonderful.
We’re soon back on Highway 128, where the elevated seats afford commanding views as we head west toward the Robert Young Estate. After a quick stop for the ‘gram, there’s barely enough time to grab a mini croissant before heading straight back out, this time to put the P400 through its off-road paces and get a feel for Range Rover’s “go-anywhere” reputation.
When Range Rover owners want to get their wheels muddy, the Terrain Response 2 system provides handy settings for different surroundings (think: sand, rock crawl, mud-ruts). Another useful off-roading feature is a camera that shows what’s going on underneath the car. We play with the hill-descent mode and low-speed cruise control on a muddy track, which, considering I’m driving a six-figure SUV, provides a tremendously reassuring sense of traction on the way down.
Introduced in 1970, the boxy first-generation Range Rover Classic was agricultural, highly off-road capable and lauded by the Louvre as an “exemplary work of industrial design.” The no-frills four-wheeler was equally at home covered in mud on the farm or polished up and parked in front of an opera house. Half a century later, McGovern’s iteration fuses a pared-back sense of luxury with capable on-road performance and off-road prowess. Stately, plush and popular with royalty, rappers and the Hollywood set, Range Rover’s brand heritage is a subtle status symbol that whispers rather than shouts about having made it.
McGovern has been quoted as saying of luxury products that “you might not need it, but you want it.” After two days of getting a taste for all things Range Rover, despite the expected eye-watering price tag (not to mention the now one-year waiting list), I totally get the appeal.
Where to get (further) off the beaten track…
Whether you’re in wine country for the Cab Sav, Michelin-rated restaurants or hot springs resorts, Napa — with its rolling hills and sweeping roads — also rewards the driving enthusiast. From an afternoon itinerary to a longer cross-county affair, there are two classic scenic drives to put on your to-do list.
One of the region’s most notable routes is the Silverado Trail, a 30-mile stretch between Napa and Calistoga. Peppered with wineries and destination restaurants, it also makes a picturesque starting point for heading to Lake Berryessa in the Vaca Mountains. Grab coffees and pastries at Ritual Coffee Roasters and swing by Lake Hennessey, where you can lace up the hiking boots at Moore Creek Park. Next, rejoin Highway 128 and keep cruising until you see signs for Sage Canyon Road, which leads to Lake Berryessa. While there, make an afternoon of it with a picnic and rented kayaks or SUPs at the Oak Shores Day Use Area.
For a more thorough exploration of wine country, wind your way through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties along Highway 128. The 100-plus-mile drive highlights some of the prettiest countryside in NorCal. Start in Rutherford and plan overnights in Geyserville (for the geothermal springs), Cloverdale (there’s a sculpture trail and historic cobbled downtown) and Boonville (a tiny town in Anderson Valley and a jumping-off point for the Mendocino redwoods).
What you’re listening to…
Integral to any road trip, playing music on the move these days is less mixtape (or mix CD) and more wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto or asking Alexa. Take a break from your own tunes with Napa’s BottleRock 2022 Spotify playlist, which opens with Metallica before eclectically spanning Silversun Pickups, CHVRCHES and The Wailers.
Audiophiles behind the wheel of the new Range Rover will undoubtedly nerd out over its 35-speaker Meridian surround-sound system and clever noise-canceling headrest technology. Something to do with tiny speakers in the wheel arches creates “anti-noise” in the car, which not only makes the music sound crispy and high-def but creates a meditative driving experience too.
If you’d rather ponder the intricacies of life in silence than sing along, simply take solace in the silence and get your back and shoulders kneaded by the “hot stone massage” seat function (note to other automakers: all cars should have this!) as you watch the Napa countryside whizz by.
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