Blue sky and a line of trees on the far side of the valley are all that I can see beyond the orange bonnet of my Land Rover Freelander. Directly in front of me there’s nothing but an aching void, a perilous drop into the floor that’s so steep it drops away out of sight in front of the Freelander’s front wheels. Beside me is Tony, wearing a Land Rover shirt embroidered with the word ‘Instructor’. “First gear,” he commands, “keep your feet off the pedals and let it go.” Clearly, Tony is feeling suicidal today, and has decided to take me and the Freelander with him.
I ease the Land Rover’s automatic transmission selector back to select first gear, release the brakes gingerly with my left foot and then stay well away from the pedals to avoid incurring the wrath of the madman sitting next to me.
The Freelander’s nose bumps over the edge, then slides into what looks like a track left by a mountain goat, which seems an almost vertical drop to the valley floor 20 metres down. As the Land Rover drops over the edge it feels for a moment like the tail of the vehicle is going to bounce right over our heads and take us cart-wheeling to the bottom, but then the Freelander settles on its springs and the Hill Descent Control kicks in. Magically the Freelander descends not in the headlong rush to oblivion that I had feared, but at a calm and controlled walking pace.
If you have the faith to let it do its job, Hill Descent Control certainly works. It’s one of the many systems built into the latest Land Rovers to make off-road driving simpler and more accessible to those without the skill and experience of Land Rover Experience instructors who were guiding us through apparently impossible stretches of off-road track at Eastnor Castle, which Land Rover has used for developing its four-wheel drive vehicles since the 1970s. Those systems have now been brought together in the Terrain Response system on the brand new Discovery, where the driver simply selects a terrain setting using a rotary knob on the centre console and the vehicle chooses ride height, torque response, Hill Descent Control settings and transmission operation to suit.
One steep, muddy ascent proved too much for the Freelander, but it wasn’t a lack of traction which was the problem: the Freelander’s handicap was its lack of ground clearance compared to the bigger vehicles leading our convoy.
This particular Freelander was one of the vehicles prepared for the Land Rover G4 Challenge and carried some tough protection plates which helped it shrug off knocks on boulder-strewn tracks. Unfortunately they also reduced the ground clearance. But a quick pull with a tow rope lashed to a Defender had the Freelander mobile again, and it made the rest of the climb unaided.
Despite that, the Freelander dealt superbly with everything else we could throw at it. Despite its car-like ride and handling on-road, it’s a true Land Rover – and that means it’s remarkably capable off-road.