I’d mentioned to the Land Rover press office that I’d tried off-roading at the Land Rover Experience centre for London and it wasn’t very exciting. Come to Eastnor, they said. So I did.
Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Hertfordshire, is a 5,000+ acre estate of woodland and open country. It’s been Land Rover’s official off-road development centre for decades. And like the cars, it’s a tough as old boots.
It’s a wet dream for enthusiasts of the British marque, filled with every Land Rover and Range Rover model you can think off, ready for customers and those simply interested in an entertaining day out. You get to explore the off-the-tarmac possibilities that you never dreamed were possible.
Pastries and mud
My guide is Mark Frost, a fire station watch commander when he’s not one of the more senior staff at Eastnor. I had driven up that morning from Hertfordshire. It was 140 miles and I saw the best economy to date, 37mpg, with a gentle but decent speed run via Oxford, and Burford for coffee and pastry.
I am concerned about tyre pressures for off-roading but Mark insists there’s no need to touch a thing. Which blows my ingrained idea that pressures need to be dropped when it gets really slippery.
We head out into open country for photographs prior to attacking the real off-roading. The Freelander’s original Terrain Response knob has been replaced by a switch, but the functionality is similar. For road use I leave it in the default setting, but at other times you can toggle between Grass/Gravel/Snow, Sand or Mud/Ruts. We choose the later, stick the automatic gearbox into drive and head off.
It’s a cliché to say it, but few owners of 4x4s ever explore their car’s off-road ability. I’ve always suspected that many competitors for the British brand won’t be as rewarding when push comes to shove in tricky conditions. Simply, why would the manufacturers bother?
But Land Rover does bother and Eastnor illustrates just why you buy into the whole Land Rover philosophy. The Freelander is pretty remarkable in the way it deals with mud, precarious side slopes, loose gravel and deep water. Pretty much anything you throw in its path.
Freelander proves the doubters wrong
There was a time, back in the last century, when experts would argue that you couldn’t go proper off-roading without mechanically lockable differentials, a low ratio gearbox and traditional brakes without ABS. Just like a Defender was then, in fact.
Now, even the Defender has ABS and a degree of electronic wizardry. The poor old Freelander just has that electronic Terrain Response switch – no low ratios, no locking diffs.
The trick, as with most things these days, is the amazing development of electronics that supplant the old technology. So the wheels are braked independently when grip is lost at low speed, forcing the wheel that isn’t spinning to take on more of the tractive effort.
As I quickly learnt, you can’t pussyfoot around either, because it sometimes needs a firm foot on the accelerator to get the systems operating to their maximum.
The Freelander has impressive water wading ability, its 500mm maximum being the same as the Defender I was shadowing for much of the day. And the water looks much deeper from the driver’s seat than it does in the pictures.
The latest Freelanders get an electronic parking brake, which, even if you never use it off road, will hold the car for a moment after you release the footbrake, to ensure you don’t move unintentionally. Not that there’s much risk of that with automatic transmission.
Though there’s the option to drive the Freelander in manual gear selection mode around the Eastnor estate, honestly there seemed little point when the most reassuring way to make progress was to concentrate on the steering, throttle and brakes.
Died-in-the-wool off-road enthusiasts must hate how this new technology has made off-roading as approachable for the novice as it is for them. Whatever the arguments, the Land Rover Experience at Eastnor both impresses and is much fun.
Buyers of new Land Rovers and Range Rovers get a half-day experience included in the price of their car. But anyone can go along – it’s much better than a track day in my view. Check out www.eastnor.landroverexperience.co.uk for more.
PS. Eastnor killed my great economy figures. Off-road I saw it drop to 7mpg!