Review: The 2020 Range Rover HSE Is Perfect for Off-Road Adventures
A perfect SUV for any garbage Mother Nature wants to throw at you
Although I’m not planning a trip to the Arctic any time soon, driving daily around New York City in winter poses certain hazards. I don’t mean the canyon-sized potholes — sometimes only visible by the tip of an orange traffic cone placed there to warn drivers — but how winter storms can be so severe that within hours, roads are barely passable. Even airports shut down. In my twenties, late-night driving to ski resorts on icy roads was exhilarating, but as a middle-aged family man, anything that puts my wife and child’s lives in jeopardy is exciting in a different way. Like when you hear growling outside the tent on a camping trip.
So when Land Rover offered me the opportunity to visit one of their off-road driving schools, I saw it as a chance to learn the art of extreme winter off-road driving, but also test out a new Range Rover. Adventure and luxury don’t always go together — but the driving school, located in Manchester, Vermont, is also home to several luxury hotels, including the Kimpton Taconic, where I was housed for two nights. In winter, the landscape resembles an Alpine resort, while in summer, it’s obvious why the state was named for “green mountain” in French.
Unlike many New England towns, Manchester Center has always been somewhat prosperous. About 200 years ago, thousands of sheep grazed the hills. Then, after the Civil War and introduction of railroads, Manchester began developing into what it is today: a resort town. There are now several outlet stores in the town, a fly-fishing museum, Rablogan Castle of Scotland (purveyors of, surprise, everything Scottish), the headquarters of Orvis (founded in the town in 1856) and arguably one of the best independent book shops in the country, Northshire Bookstore. It’s also Vermont, which means long-haired locals in growling monster trucks with Bernie stickers and Pride flags on the bumper.
The Kimpton Taconic is a boutique hotel modeled on the grand inns that developed in the late 19th century. With only 87 accommodations, however (including three cottages), the atmosphere is cheerful and cozy, rather than aloof and formal. For a New England winter weekend, it felt like a natural spot.
We arrived in Manchester on Saturday evening, crawling through the first hour of snow storm that would blow all night. This meant my appointment for Sunday morning at the off-road driving school would involve a ton of fresh powder. If you’ve never driven off-road (on purpose), it’s rather like being in a three-dimensional puzzle. Roads are designed for vehicles, while nature presents obstacles most drivers will never encounter, such as water crossings, ice-coated boulders and impossibly steep, rutted hills. Although I grew up in the mountains of North Wales, I was too young to drive — and crumpled vehicle wrecks at the bottom of snowy chasms warned of the perils that lay in wait for the inexperienced driver. Luckily, I had David Nunn, Land Rover Experience Location Manager and expert driver, to point out my bad habits and help me develop potentially life-saving winter driving hacks.
Our vehicle for the experience was a white 2020 Range Rover HSE well endowed with a super-charged 5 Liter V8, providing an output of around 518 horsepower. Sitting before the first stage of the snow-covered course, David explained that they never plow. Where would be the fun in that? I imagined what my instructor would look like upside down. Then he explained the importance of weight transfer. It’s something, he explained, that most people don’t think about when driving to the grocery store, but weight transfer has a major effect on how a vehicle handles.
“Imagine the cabin full of water,” he says. “The harder you brake, the more water, or weight is being transferred to the front of the vehicle.”
I soon learn how this affects traction, as the weight of the vehicle has been transferred from four wheels (which is ideal) to two wheels (not ideal). David explains that terrain can also affect weight transfer, and though advanced technology in vehicles can make up for what drivers don’t know, David believes that technology should be seen as an aid, and not a crutch.
In winter, when roads can be slick, it’s vital to keep the vehicle weight distributed on all four wheels. David explains how this can be achieved by gradual accelerating and braking. Anyone driving in severe weather should also be aware of the relationship between traction and momentum. To help maintain traction, the obvious rule is to slow down — except when climbing, as slowing down could cause the loss of traction. David also suggests that drivers learn how to use gear paddles (if they have them), as using the gears to slow down can prevent slippage from foot braking. Rollovers on winter highways, David tells me, are often because of sudden and aggressive weight transfer — usually because momentum (speed) was too high.
Also important is hand position on the wheel. Shuffle-steering is far more effective for off-road driving, and has the added benefit of keeping arms out of the way in the event of an airbag deployment whilst steering. As David went through the necessary basics, I couldn’t help but fiddle with the Rover’s air springs, elevating the vehicle to almost 12 additional inches of ground clearance. You might not notice sitting in the cab, as the transition is silent and almost undetectable. But once you open the door, it’s a matter of climbing down rather than getting out.
As we start the course, I notice the road ahead rises sideways at a severe angle — one that seems impossible to negotiate in a car with such a high center of gravity. David explains that keeping the wheel centered is the first rule when going into a rut of this kind, as it improves traction. He also tells me to line up the left wheel with where I think the deepest part of the trench is. This is the opposite of what my intuition tells me is sensible, which would have been to avoid the deepest part by driving on the rut walls.
As the car begins to lean sideways, David admits that he bought his first Range Rover in 1987 because the Queen drove one, and he was impressed with its versatility. It’s a luxury SUV, but, as I find, it’s also rugged.
We are now leaning so far to the left that without my seatbelt, David would be on my lap. Next up are a series of snow-coated boulders, David says that “overlanding” successfully is about looking after the mechanical aspects of the vehicle by creating traction efficiently. When passengers are steady and comfortable, the car usually is. (“If heads are knocking against windows, you might want to slow down,” he advises.) On the highway, David suggests that drivers should alter their style to match the conditions outside. Many accidents are largely due to drivers ignoring the changing conditions.
Our next obstacle is a series of deep, snow-covered ruts. David advises we keep the vehicle in “Low Range” and adjust our “Terrain Response” setting from “Auto” to “Grass-Gravel-Snow,” thereby preloading the “electronic infinitely-variable locking differentials and traction control,” which maximizes torque to all four wheels so that when a wheel loses traction, power reverts to the ones that still have purchase. When it comes to gear selection, David reminds me that first gear and other low gears are used for control, while high gears are for creating and maintaining momentum.
Adjusting my approach angle, I straighten the wheel as we enter what now feels like a gorge. Ice begins cracking under the snow.
“Where does gravity want you to be?” David asks as the car starts slides sideways. “Always look for the deepest point of the hole for where the tire runs. If you don’t, gravity will put you there anyway.”
A graphic in the vehicle’s HUD (head-up display) shows me which wheels have traction and which don’t. It also shows the articulation of the suspension, and a picture of the front wheels — sometimes it’s hard to tell from the steering wheel alone if they’re perfectly centered.
When the vehicle stops sliding, David tells me that gravity has corrected my tire line. But when I accelerate slowly, the tires spin against jutting rocks. “Reverse,” David suggests. “And then find a slightly different line. Sometimes just the rolling momentum is enough to get you over.”
The most exciting part of the course is the hill. As we sit at the very top, all I can see are clouds.
“Crest and assess,” David says. “When in doubt, get out and get a clear line of sight. The same goes for ruts or water crossings — check the water depth with a stick if you have to.”
Although the hill seems impossibly steep for a vehicle, I remember that it is part of the driving school’s course, and so tap the gas just enough to get us over. Suddenly we’re bouncing and accelerating rapidly. I tap the brake, which makes us slip slightly to the side as we hurtle towards the bottom.
“Take your foot off both pedals,” David says quickly. Reluctantly, I obey, and the vehicle goes into autonomous Hill Descent Mode, automatically slowing itself with the gears; our momentum and traction are soon under control, and we coast to the bottom of the hill over a series of moguls.
By the end of our two-hour session, I feel like I’ve had the most exciting physics and geometry lesson of my life, which will almost certainly make me a safer and more confident on a snowy FDR — if only in those rare moments when traffic moves faster than 5 mph.
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