I love our Big Tests – they can prove to be a logistical nightmare to organise, but you get a tremendous sense of satisfaction when everything comes together.
And preparation for this test started last year, ensuring the right Land Rovers and Range Rovers were available and the LRO team were free to drive them. Then came the logistics of sorting the route.
Numerous meetings at the pub eventually thrashed out what we wanted to achieve and locations were discounted. The Pyrenees would have been good, but how relevant is driving there to the average UK buyer? Or we could go across northern France and into Belgium, but that’s all a bit flat.
So we thought about what we wanted to achieve. A race track would be good, as would some greenlanes. An off-road course was a must and so would some great driving roads. Where could that be, then?
Three areas sprang to mind, but we eventually settled on North and West Yorkshire. Once editor Mike had arranged for us to use Croft Circuit near Dalton-on-Tees, I got on with arranging the off-road site.
The huge Parkwood off-road centre at Tong fitted the bill and was available, and our two extremes were booked. All I had to do was fill in the gaps and plan routes between the venues.
I needed to find locations where we could stage vehicle swaps, roads that would enable us to experience every aspect of the vehicles and, of course, some greenlanes.
A couple of days studying maps gave me all the info I needed – my route included all the aspects I was looking for and a road book was produced for every vehicle with detailed timings, postcodes for meet points, fuel filling stations and the hotels we’d be staying at. Everything was checked and double-checked.
What I didn’t account for, though, were the sat navs fitted to the vehicles – and they were to cause problems over the days we were out.
Come the day, the Defender was loaded with recovery gear, vehicles were fuelled and we set off. I’d calculated how much fuel each vehicle needed as I didn’t want any to arrive at Croft Circuit with more than half a tank’s worth – racers wouldn’t be impressed if we sloshed diesel on the corners.
Chucking the Land Rovers round the track, you can feel the Discovery’s weight. At speed it feels like it doesn’t really want to make corners. It never feels like it’s all going to go wrong, just that its not entirely comfortable being asked to corner quickly. And the brakes take a hammering, having been asked to slow that mass on the approach to corners. We have to back off the throttle a bit to allow the brakes a chance to cool down on the twisty track. The Discovery isn’t sold as a race car, but it does show how far behind the other models it now lags, as far as shedding weight is concerned.
After leaving the circuit we refuel and head across the North York Moors following the sat navs. I’ve planned a route involving a few fords, but the heavy rain has left one of the fords blocked – with a Ford. The Explorer had obviously tried to cross the river when it was too deep and was wedged in the arch, awaiting recovery when the water levels had subsided.
That means I have to re-route across the moors but there’s no obvious meet point, so we drop into convoy to bypass the ford and I lead the group out of Egton Bridge and onto the moors. I pull over to let them pass – I’ve bagged the Defender as recovery/sweeper vehicle and hold back so I can enjoy the moor roads and splashing through fords in the dusk, without headlights filling my rear-view mirror. And it means I can use my local knowledge to navigate the best route to the hotel; I arrive 10 minutes before the others…
I’d set aside the second day of the test for greenlaning, so we swap vehicles again and head off for the lanes. We take a look at the lane along Rudland Rigg. The snows falling sideways and I know that the northern end can be rocky. I’d thrown waffle boards in with the recovery kit, but I can’t risk damaging the vehicles and the weather is against us, so I make the call to turn round and re-group across the A1 at Masham.
I’m last off the lane, yet still arrive at Masham second, three minutes behind Mark who set off 20 minutes before me. We’d bunched up at Sutton Bank and the sat navs chose different routes at Thirsk. I was following Mike for a while before his sat nav decided to take him via Ripon, rather than the direct route. I followed the road signs instead and manage to get in a spot of shopping before the others arrive.
We greenlane across Grewelthorpe Moor and arrive at the end at about 16.45. I’d planned on a coffee stop at the Stump Cross Caverns, but they shut at 17.00. JP sets off first and I wait for to exit the lane before following on.
Now, I’m not saying that Theo is a slow driver, but I catch up with him quickly and choose not to sit behind him. I’m in the Discovery and spot a greenlane off to one side and trundle along it before re-joining tarmac.
Despite my detour, I still arrive at Stump Cross before him. JP has spoken nicely to the ladies in the coffee shop and they’ve agreed to stay open a bit longer so we can grab a coffee.
I notice we’re a vehicle short of a group test and stand outside to flag it in. Owen, our sixth driver, had missed a junction and faced a five mile detour to re-join the route.
Cold winds bring blizzard conditions as we leave. Owen and I choose to go west, then south past Bolton Abbey, while the others follow their sat navs via Blubberhouses. The sat navs provoke some complaints when we re-group at the hotel – as do the auto-dimming headlights: ‘they’re just not quick enough to dim, so it’s easier to do it manually’ is the common view.
There’s less navigation to do when we arrive at Parkwood Off-Road Centre, but we still need to familiarise ourselves with the site and after a couple of laps, JP and I head off in the Defender to find some gnarly, but bodywork-friendly, terrain to test the vehicles. As we’re the only people on site we can go up the downs and down the ups and soon find some suitable routes to put the vehicles through.
The biggest surprise is probably the Range Rover Sport. We thought the lack of low-range may restrict its ability, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Had it been a manual there may have been issues, but it isn’t (it’s not available as a manual), and the autobox keeps you going. And everywhere the Defender goes, the Sport is able to follow.
We sideline the Evoque and Freelander 2 for a time while we drive the more rutted sections, but I decide they’ve sat idle for long enough, so I put the Evoque through some serious axle twisters, the traction control allowing it to crawl through, almost effortlessly, despite the front wheel being a few feet off the ground.
As the day goes on the vehicles get progressively dirtier, both inside and out. The hybrid Range Rover is interesting – off-roading in electric mode gives you a strange out-of-control feeling, just because you can’t hear the comforting mumble of the engine, but it’s as effortless as ever.
We finish testing just before the ever-darkening clouds break. In some ways it would be good to wait and let nature clean the Land Rovers, but you can have too much of a good thing. And anyway, a post-test drink is called for.
Mine’s a pint…
Read the full story in the May 2014 issue of LRO, on sale now – print and digital editions available