“Go as slow as possible, but as fast as necessary,” cryptically says Land Rover Experience Driving School instructor Phil Sosna as I prepare to pilot a 1997 Land Rover Defender 90 over a steep hill. With both uncharacteristically clammy hands firmly gripping opposite sides of the steering wheel, I release my foot from the brake and begin the bumpy incline. Driving slow helps maintain traction, Sosna explains as we crawl over rocks. This is important, because, as I would learn shortly, the model we’re in doesn’t have traction control.
With the exception of the Defender 90, Land Rover Experience Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California is comprised of a fleet of nine of the most current Land and Range Rover models. But according to Sosna, the vintage Defender still commands respect. “’97 was the first and only year an automatic Defender 90 was produced that was imported to North America,” says Sosna a former flight instructor and racecar driver with over a decade experience at the driving center.
While it may sound like an elaborate sales pitch, no vehicles are for sale at the Experience Center. “Land Rover Experience is a place where both Land Rover owners and non-owners can come to the driving center to learn about the capabilities of the latest vehicles, how to drive off road or simply have a fun and entertaining experience,” says manager Justin Demayo. Visits can be arranged through purchase of a one-hour ($275) or two-hour ($425) session, or as a complementary gift with the purchase of a (slightly pricier) Land or Range Rover. The facility also hosts a quarterly Owner’s Day in which owners and their families are invited to explore 12 miles of trails and obstacles while learning more about their vehicles’ features. Along with day-to-day adventures, the Land Rover Experience offers corporate team building, and has hosted Silicon Valley companies like Google, Facebook, EBay, Netflix and GoPro.
I’ve signed up for the Heritage Program (priced at $1,200 for a half-day and $1,500 for a full day), which includes three models: Defender 90, Range Rover, and Land Rover Discovery. The course, which is nestled on 110-acres at Quail Lodge & Golf Club, includes challenging conditions like hills, mud and ruts. The first half of the day is spent training in the Defender 90, before breaking for lunch at the nearby Bernardus Lodge & Spa.
Next, I get behind the wheel of a 2017 Discovery HSE. Contrary to earlier instructions, both of my feet are firmly planted on the floor, and not on the pedals, as we begin to climb uphill. With All-Terrain Progress Control, which is like cruise control for off-roading, the vehicle is nearly autonomous. Similar to cruise control, you set the speed at which you’d like to climb, then sit back and the car maneuvers over the irregular topography, shifting gears as necessary. The experience is a bit like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, the weight of the vehicle shifting from one side to the other.
Anyone over the age of 21 with a valid driver’s license can participate in the Land Rover Experience. “It’s your time,” Demayo says on creating a personalized experience for guests to enjoy. His favorite time of year is springtime, when the course is lush and green and there are waterholes to cross. But with locations everywhere from Vermont and North Carolina to South Africa and United Kingdom, there’s no limit to the ground you’ll cover at the Land Rover Experience Center.
Images courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover North America