Off-roading in the Land Rover LR2 and LR4 in Oman.
Land of the free
The Land Rover's origins are well known - created in 1948 on the island of Anglesey by a man inspired by military Jeeps - as is the oft-quoted factoid that more than 70 per cent of all Land Rovers produced since 1955 are still on the road.
But in the ensuing 55 years, four-wheel-drive vehicles have become less agricultural and more technologically advanced. Luxuries, such as leather seats and GPS, have found their way into hitherto practical machines, which eventually have gained popularity in the Middle East not just as an off-road vehicle but also as a status symbol.
Land Rover is no exception. From humble beginnings, we now have cars like the LR2 and LR4 with leather, electric seats and sat/nav. Off-roading functions such as locking differentials, adjustable air suspension and hill descent control can all be done with the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial. But does this mean they've gone soft? Are they really as tough as their predecessors, as the company says?
There's only one way to find out - give them a thorough thrashing. And a perfect place to truly test their toughness and adaptability is in the Wahiba Sands and rocky mountains of Oman.
The first day's driving was just a taster of what the newly facelifted LR2 and the 2011 LR4 are capable of - wadi crossings and gravel tracks were a leisurely drive; even the sandy track to Desert Nights, our luxury camping accommodation located somewhere near the middle of nowhere, didn't even required deflating the tyres.
The Desert Nights campsite is part of the travel trend towards glamorous camping, or "glamping". Although we certainly weren't roughing it - our tents were equipped with solid walls, a bathroom, king-size bed and a sitting room - we still had just a piece of canvas over our heads, we were privy to a symphony of bleating goats at 2am and going to the dining room involved a shoe-filling walk across sand. Indeed, for some on the trip, the lack of TV and Wifi in our tents was rougher than they would have liked. We had just enough of a taste of a Bedouin camping trip with none of the real hardships, such as having to milk a camel before breakfast or actually pitching a tent ourselves.
This form of "glamping" is reflected in Land Rover's stable mate, the Range Rover. Although the brand is certainly capable off road, it has definitely veered squarely into "lifestyle" territory, complete with Victoria Beckham being a brand ambassador for the Range Rover Evoque. While she is very glamorous, she is not exactly renowned for her love of rugged, off-tarmac adventures.
So it is up to Land Rover to provide a more rugged alternative. The brand already has the heritage of off-roading excellence with the time-honoured Discovery and Defender badges - the LR4 picks up where the Defender left off and the LR2 takes the place of the Freelander.
After a lovely sleep under the Oman stars, the soft sand of the desert beckoned. For the dune drive, I was paired with Richard Thomas, a self-confessed off-road novice, and we started off in the LR2. With a 3.2L V6, it is not quite as powerful as the V8-powered LR4 but it is not be underestimated off-road. On the small, undulating dunes at the start of our jouney, the LR2 gave a constant feeling of connection with the terrain with enough bounce to soak up any harshness. Clearly, this is more than just a car for soccer families.
Soon we were climbing some steep slopes, which the LR2 and its 230hp made short work of, and nosing our way over angular dunes thanks to the high clearance and large approach angles, making it streets ahead of similarly sized but useless-in-the-desert crossovers.
"Take off in first, knock it into second, give it some beans!" were the brief but effective sand slope-climbing instructions from Fraser Martin, one of our instructors, reminding us that it is always a more rewarding and effective off-road experience if you shift the automatic gearbox yourself.
A few of the LR4s had to be towed out but this was largely down to inexperienced drivers and churned up sand - one of many reasons why it is not wise to go off-roading alone, especially somewhere in Oman uncharted by sat/nav.
Low-tech tow ropes were packed away and, for the final sand descent, we went hi-tech again with the hill descent control activated. It seems counter-intuitive to not brake on a steep downhill but, in this case, it is far safer to let gravity and the technology do the work for you - the LR2 steadily made its way down what could be described as a wall of sand.
For the rocky climb up a 2,000m ascent for lunch, Richard and I switched to the LR4. Everything about this vehicle is sturdy and heavy-duty, especially the 5.0L V8. Its 375hp made the climb up the rocky track of Mount Tiwi steady and sure-footed. Which was a good thing, considering the barely hewn trails with steep dropoffs and no barriers.
Over the course of the two days of driving, it was great to see Richard become more comfortable on the rugged terrain, and he began to enjoy the wonderful driving that lies beyond the tarred roads. The LR2 and LR4 both proved to be excellent cars for those new to off-roading, too.
In fact, Richard took the reins of the LR4 for the rocky downhill drive. He stayed behind the wheel when we eventually reached the smooth tarmac that led us back to our start point in Muscat, and this is where we truly appreciated the luxury and mod cons.
The entire two days proved that although today's Land Rovers don't have the rugged sardine can looks of days gone by, they are still built for some serious off-road thrashing. The little luxuries are all very nice when you are cruising about town, but churning up the sand in the middle of nowhere or negotiating a challenging rocky mountain climb, a capable vehicle makes off-roading thrilling and rewarding. Strong yet engaging suspension, hill descent control and a great gearbox might not be of much interest to those who buy a Land Rover for show, but they are the drivers who are truly missing out.