When I was young my father drove me to watch the World Rally Championship, deep in the Welsh forests, aboard his 1993 Jaguar XJR-S. After the race finished, we returned to the car park, hopped into the Jag, and prepared to drive home. It was dark and raining, the parking lot was a field of mud and a rushing river was just ten feet to our left.
Every time my dad touched the gas pedal to pull forward the car's wheels spun, splattering mud, and sliding ever closer to the riverbank. Eventually, just a couple of inches from plunging into the freezing water — the car now sliding down the bank unassisted — we opened the windows and prepared ourselves for the inevitable. If it weren't for a few Welsh blokes staging a last-minute rescue, there is no doubt we'd have taken the XJR-S for an embarrassing swim. Their rescue plan involved a sturdy winch, and an even sturdier Land Rover.
It's cars like Land Rover that rescue fools like me.
For most people, a dusty dirt road would be considered hardcore off-road. But in reality, hardcore is more like descending a 60-percent grade, two-feet deep mud paths and driving through icy rivers — all of which is something I have never attempted. To see how feasible this kind of off-roading really is, I didn't pick a '93 XJR-S. I learnt from my father's mistake and chose a 2013 Land Rover LR2, instead.
At $37,250 for the base LR2, jumping to $42,350 for the HSE LUX, the LR2 is a compelling choice in the luxury compact SUV segment. The exterior receives minor tweaks for 2013, with revised head and taillights. It's a good-looking car and appears more elegant than the chunkier LR4.
The interior comes with leather seats and dual sunroof as standard, and the center console boasts a seven-inch touch-screen, controlling the optional navigation unit. The HSE model sports a rear-view camera with hitch assist, and the handbrake is replaced by an electric parking brake button to minimize clutter.
In general, the interior feels comfortable and airy with a sense of understated class, more business casual than black tie. The downside lies with the tacky looking buttons on the center console; the big lettering and bold, boring font looks like a kindergarten's "learn to read" book.
The biggest change for 2013 is a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, lifted directly from the Range Rover Evoque. The new engine replaces the 3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline six. Not only is it 88 lbs. lighter than the old motor, but it also produces more power at 240 hp (up 10) and 250 lb-ft of torque (up 16).
The engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission that has a sport mode to hold each gear for longer. The gearbox also features a remote breather located above the LR2's water wading depth of 19.7 inches. And, of course, the transmission is coupled to Land Rover's excellent AWD system.
Driving the car to our challenging off-road course meant navigating the highways and country roads around Montreal. What impressed me the most is how solid and poised the platform felt during regular activities. It was agile and precise. Body roll was far less than I expected (given its rock traversing notoriety) and the car was engaging and fun to drive.
As I arrived at the trails — somewhere in the middle of nowhere — I readied myself for the true Land Rover test. I put the car's Terrain Response system into the Grass/Gravel/Snow setting (other modes include Mud/Ruts, Sand and General Driving). Immediately I entered narrow, rutted paths filled with slimy mud that covered rocks the size of melons.
Despite the un-passable-by-foot conditions, the LR2 breezed through each section, allowing an uninterrupted conversation with my ride partner about whether moose really do exist (I remain skeptical). A few times I wished I'd had slightly more ground clearance than 8.26 inches, but despite a few big bangs, the LR2 soldiered on without complaint.
Next I came to what I was told was a 60-percent decent (all I could see was what appeared to be a sheer cliff). A man with a funny accent told me to switch on the 'hill-descent' to its most aggressive setting, drive off the edge and release the brake. Despite not knowing whether there was indeed a slope, or if it was a 40-foot vertical drop, I decided to trust this random man in the woods.
I rolled over the edge of the precipice, released the brake and plunged forward. For a moment I was convinced the man with the accent had lied and I was about to die, but no sooner had the thought crossed my mind, the 'hill-descent' kicked in, slowing the car as I gently descended down the ludicrously steep slope, stopping serenely at the bottom.
Next I had to test the LR2's wading depth by driving through a 200-yard river filled with ice boulders. With my confidence bubbling, given my triumph over the cliff, I dove in. I swear I was deeper than the 19.7 inches advertised, but the LR2 never faltered.
Anyone who has owned a Land Rover will not be surprised by these accomplishments. It's what made them famous, after all. The 2013 LR2 is, like all Land Rovers, brilliant at what it is designed to do. But as I discovered on my drive to the seemingly impassable, moose-less trails, it is also excellent at what it was not primarily designed for.
While it may not be quite as fun to drive as the old XJR-S, it did save my ass back in the Welsh forests. And if I were going back there today, unquestionably, I wouldn't take the Jag.