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Motoring: Snow patrol

11 February 2012

1:00 PM

11 February 2012

1:00 PM

The American poet Robert Frost wrote memorably of pausing on his pony in the snow and looking longingly into woods that were ‘lovely, dark, and deep’, regretting that he had promises to keep and ‘miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep’. In another poem he described a woodland path as the road not taken; instead, he took ‘the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference’. I felt he was with us in spirit in Finland last week as I gazed into the mysterious depths of snow-clad, brooding conifers and wondered at the fragile, frost-feathered glory of a birch wood. He would have left in disgust, however, when he saw how close we — I — came once or twice to rudely penetrating those mysterious depths and shattering the frosted glory.

Rather than pausing on a silent pony, I was struggling to restrain well over a thousand horses of assorted Jaguar XKR-S, Range Rover Vogue, Sport and Evoque engines, not to mention the awesome plodding power of the almost unstoppable Bigfoot. We were sampling Land-Rover’s Nordic Adventure, a four-day holiday for the paying punter to test what his or her Land-Rover product will do under extreme conditions (with a dash of Jaguar thrown in). They’ve done sand in Morocco and in September–October they’re on safari in Tanzania, but this time of year it’s snow and ice driving in the frozen (minus 22c) north.

All you do is find a snowfield in the middle of the forest, create a circle of ice for drifting the XKR-S, and a slalom and handling circuit for the Range Rovers, add Land-Rover off-road instructors and Finnish world ladies’ champion rally driver, Minna Sillankorva, for the Jags, then stir in the two Bigfoots to see what you can do in deep virgin snow.

No, I hadn’t heard of them, either. Bigfoots are a pair of Land-Rover 110 station-wagons enhanced by about £50,000-worth of suspension, heating, cooling and transmission modifications plus fat 38-inch tyres on 15-inch wheels, with pressures of 7–8lbs. The idea was to show what can be done to a standard Land-Rover if you put your mind to it. The answer is: a lot. If ever you get stuck in sand or mud or snow, seeing one of these things lumbering towards you like some benign mastodon would be the answer to your prayers.

Other highlights included the new baby Range Rover, the Evoque, which proved it’s more than just the environmentally acceptable face of the Chelsea tractor by spiritedly keeping up with its big sisters. With all the safety bits on — traction control, snow and ice mode, etc. — you’ve got to work hard to lose it even on the tightest bend. Switch them off, though, and you can really swing the back out, drifting on full lock and barrelling between snow-banks. I had expected this of the Sport but not of the car that’s tempting buyers out of Minis and changing the make-up of the school run. Land-Rover’s only problem with it is keeping the waiting list down; I’m no longer surprised.

But I was surprised at how well the big girl, the Vogue, performs. A high, boxy  heavyweight with a torrent of torque on tap (up to 700Nm), it’s a car more often seen on motorways than in the rough, where it proved remarkably wieldy. Even with everything switched off, it’s difficult to lose the back and overall I thought it the best of the three. But that’s partly because I was long ago seduced by the elegance, comfort and solid simplicity of that spacious cabin.

The XKR-S is more fighter pilot’s cockpit, of course, but having driven one at the Nurburgring I thought I knew something of what you can do with it. Minna showed me I didn’t as she effortlessly maintained lap after lap of continuous controlled drift around the ice field. The desired juxtaposition of wheel and throttle eluded me for anything more than a few seconds at a stretch as we lurched between straight-line progress and wild, unseemly swings. Where she made tiny, fingertip adjustments to the wheel, I wrenched manically from one lock to the other. All that’s needed, she said kindly, is a little more practice. Make that a week or two.

Even at minus 22c the dryness of the cold means you don’t get the penetrating damp chill of Britain — no need to scrape ice of the windscreens and no salt on the roads either — but they wrap you up warmly, anyway. I’m a sucker for the romance of frozen wastes and the lure of unbroken snow on forest paths not taken, but if you prefer your off-roading under the sun think in terms of Tanzania. Think in terms, too, of eight days and €9,000 for that, or £4,976 for the Nordic Adventure. If that’s off-putting, £99 gets you on to a Land Rover winter-driving course here in the UK. Check them all at Whichever you choose, that first slide on opposite lock will bring a smile to your face.  

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