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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Crossing 660 miles of the Continental Divide in Range Rovers fresh off the lot

Posted By  @  Motoramic

 
 
 
 
Land Rover Great Divide
                                                                                 
From London to L.A., the Range Rover’s natural habitat might appear to be swanky boutiques and five-star hotels. But Land Rover likes to remind us city slickers that its proper, six-figure SUV can still get down and dirty like a backwoods moonshiner.

We took a long pull of that adventure on The Great Divide Expedition, tackling a grueling 660-mile route along Colorado’s Continental Divide in a caravan of bone-stock Range Rovers.
 
 If it’s been a while since your last geography class, the Continental (or Great) Divide spans the length of the Rockies and Andes Mountains, from the westernmost tip of Alaska to the southern tip of South America. On the west side of the divide, watersheds all flow toward the Pacific; to the east, every drop of water flows to the Atlantic.

The trip followed portions of Rover’s similarly epic Old West journey in 1989, not long after introducing its original Range Rover to America. (We Yanks had long been denied that Range Rover, which helped pioneer the luxury SUV beginning in 1970 in England and international markets). 

Today’s prospectors do need to strike it rich; the 2015 Range Rover starts around $85,000 and peaks at just over $185,000 for the
SC Autobiography Black edition. But where Great Divide aptly describes most luxury SUVs – they’re good at one thing, but not the other – the Rover straddles two worlds like nothing in its class.
 
 It’s ridiculously more capable than city-only softies like the Cadillac Escalade; yet more luxurious, comfy and sharper handling than military-based clods like the Mercedes G-Class or the defunct Hummer. 

 
 
That versatility was spotlighted when our Rover convoy departed the hip Beaumont Hotel in Aspen and began climbing the high-altitude passes of the Rocky Mountains.
 
 Goodbye to single-batch bourbon, plush beds and flush toilets; hello to boulders, freezing tents and facilities marked by, well, the nearest tree.

Our Rovers’ aluminum hoods were adorned with a map of the route from Denver to Telluride, created over months of planning and scouting. Stick to paved highways, and you can knock off that 330-mile run in six hours.
 
 Our route, which included 19th-century stagecoach and wagon paths and cliff-hung mining roads laid during Colorado’s gold and silver booms, takes seven days and covers twice the distance.

That includes stretches so daunting that a hiker could outpace our vehicles. One such section is Taylor Pass, at 11,928 feet, along a grade first carved over the Elk Range in 1880 by the Aspen Town and Land Company – so steep that horse and oxen wagons couldn’t roll up or down, but rather had to be winched up the grade and “snubbed” down the other side. Loaded wagons were held by heavy ropes tied to trees, then gently eased down 1,000 or more feet of incline.

Thinking of those hardy settlers and their monumental challenges, I’m feeling a little guilty as I tiptoe a $120,000 Rover down the slope and into a rocky, rushing streambed. But only a little guilty.

Instead of using ropes to lower this luxurious “wagon,” the automated Hill Descent Control can walk the Rover down the most perilous slope with no need to touch the brakes. The Terrain Response System is set to low range and rock-crawling mode, the air suspension cranked to a maximum 11.7-inch ground clearance. If I get hung up on a rock, sensors will boost the car a touch higher to clear the obstacle.


 
I’m also grateful for the Rover’s heated-and-massaging leather seats that soothe my chilled bones after a night of camping. (If that sounds like roughing it, I must confess that Land Rover hired a winner of the Top Chef reality show, Hosea Rosenberg, to smoke and prepare a savory outdoor dinner of his farm-raised meats and vegetables, as he does at his Blackbelly Market in Boulder).
 
If those modern advantages aren’t enough, I’ve got nearly 100 times more power under my spurs than the typical six-horse teams of the 1800’s: 510 horses, to be exact, from a 5.0-liter supercharged V-8.

But as Land Rover’s intrepid driving instructors remind us, we only need a handful of those horses to do the job. From our fun-loving, yet dead-serious wingmen, we learn that this is more about brains than pure brawn. It’s Tortoise vs. Hare, with the safe, careful plodder guaranteed to beat the hothead who doesn’t look before he leaps.

That message is driven home along one postcard-worthy pass: We spot the rusty bones of an old Toyota FJ in the gorge hundreds of feet below, deposited there after a long and almost certainly fatal plunge to the bottom.

I ask Sean Gorman, my Boulder, Colo.-based instructor, how he knows it’s a Toyota. “Because it’s wadded up at the bottom of the hill,” he says, deadpan. I don’t say it, but I’m glad Gorman is my co-pilot as I tiptoe along the vertigo-inducing trail that’s roughly level with the clouds.
 
But another vintage truck passes this test: A time-warping 1990 Range Rover driven by Rick Allen, a Land Rover technician from Columbus, Ohio. Both Allen and his lovingly maintained SUV – from that original line now known as the Rover Classic – completed the original Great Divide expedition 25 years ago.



The next day, descending Engineer Pass in the majestic San Juan mountains toward Ouray, I jump from my brand-new Rover to ride shotgun in Allen’s special. With its hardy but lightly powered Buick-based V-8 and ‘70s-era cabin, it’s downright primitive compared to the posh new model. (There are power seats, however).
 
 But the vintage Rover is charming as hell, and it conquers the brutal terrain without losing a step to its luxurious descendants: “I like the old ones,” Allen acknowledges. “They’re simple and basic.”
 
That simplicity works to Allen’s advantage when his truck springs a power-steering fluid leak through an original, 25-year-old hose. Allen promptly slices up an old floor mat to create a rubber Band-Aid, wraps the hose and clamps it shut. Well played, sir. Leak solved, we’re on our way.
 
The modern Rovers don’t suffer a single glitch, aside from a few easily-fixed flats. Their 21-inch all-season tires aren’t the best choice for hardcore off-roading, with narrow, stiff sidewalls that can get pinched by razor-sharp rocks.
 
 But Land Rover is out to prove a point: That the Rover you buy in a showroom could drive straight into a desolate wilderness and safely out the other side.

For the handful of owners who’ve secured a spot behind the wheel, this Rover trip is especially exclusive. But you don’t have to own a Rover, or have any off-road experience, to get a taste for yourself.
 
 The brand runs Land Rover Experience schools and Adventure Travel expeditions in America and exotic locales around the world; in North America, Land Rover Experience schools operate in Carmel, Calif., Asheville, N.C., Manchester Village, Vt., and Montebello, Quebec, in Canada.
  
Myself, as I clamber over boulders and avoid raking tree branches across the precious metal, a familiar thought strikes me: If I owned this six-figure SUV, I’m honestly not sure I could subject it to such a trial.
 
It’s a bit like sending a spoiled prep schooler to Marine boot camp: He might well handle it, but it’s still painful to watch. But still, whether or not the typical Rover owner will ever wade through a rushing river is almost beside the point.

As with 200-mph sports cars in which most drivers will rarely top 100 mph, people buy a Range Rover in part for what it might handle, whether that’s unexpected foul weather or that long-dreamed-of wilderness adventure.
 
 In the meantime, they get to drive a Range Rover: A posh, peerless British SUV that makes you dream like Walter Mitty.
 

 
Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article.

 Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.