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 valley floor that’s so steep it falls 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.

The five-cylinder diesel Defender is rough and noisy. But it's also unstoppable, given the right approach to driving it

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.

The little Freelander proved remarkably capable, though one steep, muddy ascent proved too much for it. Lack of traction wasn’t really the problem: the Freelander’s handicap was its lack of ground clearance compared to the bigger vehicles. This was one of the vehicles prepared for the Land Rover G4 Challenge (see ‘The Ultimate Challenge’) and carried some tough protection plates helped the Freelander shrug off knocks on boulder-strewn tracks, but which reduced the ground clearance. But a quick pull with a tow rope lashed to the Defender leading the convoy had the Freelander mobile again, and it made the rest of the climb unaided.

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Freelander proved capable offroad, but lacked the ground clearance of bigger Land Rovers.

After the very car-like Freelander, driving the Defender is a bit of a shock to the system. Despite the introduction of modern refinements – the heater is now standard, unlike the old days where Land Rovers had nothing you didn’t absolutely need – there’s still an old-fashioned feel to the Defender. The windscreen is upright and uses flat glass, the light and thin door close at your elbow, the ride unsettled and vintage in feel. After the refined Freelander, the five-cylinder diesel Defender is rough and noisy.

But it’s also unstoppable, given the right approach to driving it. It does without some of the fancy electronic aids of the other vehicles, so descending a steep hill calls for technique rather than technology: the two-speed transfer box is put into low range, and first or second gear selected in the main gearbox. The Defender then rolls down using the enormous engine braking of the diesel motor, rather than with the driver trying to use the brakes.

The Defender’s go-anywhere ability stems from this two-speed transfer box and a locking centre differential. Without the latter, a loss of traction at one end of the vehicle will stop you: with a locked centre diff the axle which still has grip can help pull you through.

It’s a similar story on the silver V8 Discovery which also forms part of out convoy. Here there’s real refinement and road-car levels of ride quality, coupled to off-road ability that few rivals can match. And in V8 form there’s not only a fine soundtrack, but also the power to cope with any situation be it climbing a steep hill or pushing out a bow-wave of muddy water when wading door-handle deep.

The Ultimate Challenge

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In April 2003, men and women representing 16 nations embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, the inaugural Land Rover G4 Challenge. Set against some of the world’s most spectacular backdrops, the ultimate global challenge tested skill, stamina and mental agility in four separate stages, each in a different time zone.

The Challenge tested both man and machine, as the competitors took part in a host of tough multi-sport activities including kayaking, surfing, skiing, abseiling and biking. A second G4 Challenge was run in 2006 but the event was cancelled in 2008, a victim of the global economic crisis.

Even more power, and even greater levels of refinement, are apparent in our G4 Challenge Range Rover, which must be one of the most comfortable ways to traverse a rutted track yet devised. In air-conditioned splendour the driver can focus on his course and read the terrain, the Range Rover’s air suspension (with selectable ride height) dealing with everything the track can throw at it. The downside is mammoth fuel consumption, though few people with enough money to buy and Range Rover are likely to be worried by its running costs.

Land Rover pulled no punches about the third-generation Range Rover on its launch in 2002: Bob Dover, Land Rover boss, called it ‘the world’s most capable vehicle, with the greatest breadth of ability of any vehicle ever made.’ As our day at Eastnor Castle proved, the Range Rover has lost none of its forebears’ ability off the road, and has even improved upon it in certain areas. Certainly the latest iteration of the air suspension system delivers an off-road ride quality which is streets ahead of any rival.

On the road – in a standard-specification car – and the Range Rover continues to impress. The L322 third-generation Range Rover is the first with a monocoque chassis/body – previous models had a box-section chassis frame and separate bodyshell – and one of the biggest benefits is in the structure’s stiffness. That helps on-road handling and ride, which are also improved by the adoption of independent suspension all round, where previous models stuck with big beam axles to improve off-road ability. And that air suspension delivers a smooth, well-controlled ride.

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Range Rover is as impressive on the road as off it.

Though a vehicle this big and this tall will never drive like a sports car the Range Rover is fun to thread down a winding lane, with sharp steering response and plenty of power from the BMW-derived 4.4-litre V8 engine.

It’s easy to see why Land Rover believes this car has such all-encompassing ability. It cossets passengers across every terrain, deals with on-road and off-road dramas with equal aplomb, looks terrific and is easy and fun to drive. It’s difficult to fault.

All the Land Rovers impressed with their ability on the rough, and the Freelander which demonstrated that even in this illustrious company it still has what it takes to compete, in most situations at least. It’s when you realise that Land Rover’s products – apart from the specialised Defender – are equally at home in any situation on-road, from country lanes to city streets to the outside lane of the motorway – that the true breadth of their ability becomes apparent.

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