Operation desert swarm
Eight Land Rovers, ranging from a ute to Range Rover’s Vogue luxury liner, set out in a convoy to conquer the Northern Territory, writes BRUCEMcMAHON
THE arrival at El Questro in the heart of the Kimberley is every bit as elegant as you would expect of a British luxury flagship.
The $ 153,000 Range Rover Vogue glides to a halt, still trailing red dust and miles of memories.
A Range Rover Vogue and Sport, Freelander, three Discoverys, Defender wagon and ute have been comfortable, reliable and capable in this long, dry run from the Alice, up through the Tanami Desert.
Through corrugations and bulldust, chill desert mornings and goldred sunsets, the troop has run easy through a rugged and remote piece of Australia.
Yet at the end of the trek, heading for the first shower for five days, there are few more suitable — and suited — vehicles than a Vogue to roll into the El Questro oasis.
That mighty turbocharged diesel V8 powers on, six-speed sequential transmission slurring through the changes, helping round up 50m-long road trains or pushing on through talcum-soft bulldust.
For the 2009 model year the Range Rover Vogue has seen minor changes, including a four-zone airconditioning option and Bluetooth phone connectivity. But the basics remain the same in a majestic offroad machine that starts at $147,990. Y THE time I slide into the driver’s seat the Vogue and its Land Rover mates have already crossed the Simpson Desert from Birdsville and moved on to Alice Springs.
This next leg — Alice to El Questro — is a further 1700km, and part of a 60th anniversary drive across the continent.
Yet the fleet is free of rattles and loose bits for, among improvements under BMW and then Ford’s ownership of the iconic British brand, is attention to build quality. Plus pressing ahead on all-new machines such as the Range Rover Vogue and Sport, Discovery 3 and Freelander.
The Vogue is — surprise, surprise — the pick of the Land Rover bunch, because it is so elegant and effortless.
The Range Rover Sport is very good, but for desert tours the Discovery wagon is probably a better bet. The Sport is quite capable, but with a bent towards on-road handling. The Discovery also sits on a longer wheelbase.
If the Vogue is the flagship of the fleet, the much-acclaimed Discovery is the battleship and the Defender the mine-sweeper, a tough wagon to send out if the going turns really gnarly and some forward scouting is needed. The 2.4-litre, square-jawed machine is hard to stop.
BWhere the Defender loses is in cabin ergonomics, ride comfort and noise levels on rough roads. The wagon, these days starting at $48,990, is OK if the sweet spot can be found — up the Tanami Track that was about 90km/h.
That leaves the convoy’s surprise packet, the Freelander. This is the patrol boat, quick and game for anything. Unlike the Range Rovers or Discovery, there is no low-range gearing or suspension height adjustment, yet this diesel Freelander, with six-speed transmission and clever four-wheel-drive system, tackles both high-speed dirt road runs and off-road crawls.
As with its mates, the Freelander has Land Rover’s All Terrain System which sets different engine and transmission parameters to suit the work involved — more torque and lower gearing for rocks, more power and quicker changes for sand.
On all Land Rovers (aside from the Defender) this system is best proved by setting the centre console dial to the wrong spot. Try to slip through sand and mud with the rocky road setting and the machine bogs down, try to climb a rock-strewn hill with the sand setting and you bounce around with too much ground speed. NYWAY, the system does help the Freelander (from $ 49,990 for the petrol, $52,490 for diesel) get further than may be imagined. This is arguably the best of the premium compact SUVs for combining good road manners and rough paddock ability with a deal of comfort.
All the while the Freelander’s 2.2-litre diesel is returning better than 10 litres/100km of scrub. The Vogue can achieve close on 10 litres on a run down the track, and out to a reasonable 13 litres when it has to work harder down a bush track.
Storming: the Land Rover Freelander is arguably best of the premium compact SUVs for good roadholding and rough paddock ability with comfort.
Fording: the Freelander makes short work of a river crossing.