Ad­ven­ture, on four wheels

WH Dep Ed Alice El­lis goes off the beaten track to try her hand at ex­treme driv­ing

Women's Health Australia - - NOVEMBER 2017 - WH

Our Dep Ed Alice got out of her com­fort zone and into an SUV driver’s seat

Once upon a time, 4WDS were a ru­ral-australia thing – the only city slick­ers buy­ing them were ex­treme week­end war­riors or se­ri­ous soc­cer mums. But now, for the first time, SUVS – the mod­ern-day ver­sions of 4WDS – have out­sold reg­u­lar cars here in Oz. And it’s us girls who’ve driven this change – more women than men are now behind the wheel of sport utility ve­hi­cles.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why have SUVS be­come so pop­u­lar? And should I get out of the sta­tion wagon and into the SUV my­self? To find out, I take a trip to the Holden Prov­ing Ground in Lang Lang, Vic­to­ria: more than 875 hectares of ex­treme off-road con­di­tions, wind­ing country roads and speed tracks where all ve­hi­cles are tested and tuned for Aussie con­di­tions.

Trying ter­rain

First the Holden en­gi­neers get me behind the wheel of a Trail­blazer and take me about as off-road as you can get. When I see that

I’ll be driv­ing up and down what are ba­si­cally ver­ti­cal dirt hills, through muddy lakes and over boul­der-size crags, I start to freak a lit­tle. “I don’t think I can do this,” I say.

“You can. I’ll guide you through it, and you’ll be amazed at what the car can do,” replies the engi­neer. Re­luc­tantly, I put my foot down on the ac­cel­er­a­tor. But soon, I’ve pretty much turned into one of the guys from Top Gear. The car makes get­ting over this ter­rain ut­terly ef­fort­less. My adren­a­line kicks in – what a buzz! Who knew driv­ing could be so much fun? To top it off, we drive to a wet gravel skid track where I weave, fast, through witches hats in a com­pact SUV, the Holden Trax. Yew!

A speed de­mon is born

Next I’m taken to a 5km cir­cu­lar track to test for my­self how an Aca­dia (a model com­ing in 2018) can han­dle speed. Tra­di­tion­ally, SUVS weren’t made to go as fast as pas­sen­ger cars. “But SUVS have devel­oped a lot with time, and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has al­lowed them to be­come more ‘con­fi­dent cars’, to use en­gi­neer­ing speak,” says Jeremy Tas­sone,

Holden’s ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment man­ager. “It’s been the changes to sus­pen­sion and tyres, and the lat­est chas­sis con­trol sys­tems, and a fo­cus on tun­ing these sys­tems that make the lat­est SUVS drive and han­dle sim­i­larly to pas­sen­ger cars.”

The engi­neer drives me around the track at 180km/h. Yowser. Sure, I’m ner­vous, but I trust his mad skills. Mine, not so much. So when I’m told it’s my turn, and that I can take it up to 160km/h, my ter­ror re­turns. To make mat­ters worse, the car is a left-hand drive be­cause it’s a pro­to­type from the US, and I’ve never driven on that side. Plus,

I’ve got a pas­sen­ger who I re­ally don’t want to kill – Lee Carsel­dine from Aus­tralian Sur­vivor (pic­tured with me, left), who’s also here to test out his driv­ing skills. The guy’s been through enough in a Samoan jun­gle al­ready, I reckon.

The engi­neer calms me down by telling me I’m un­der no pres­sure to get up to high speeds. “Hey, you can just stay at 80 kilo­me­tres if that’s all you feel com­fort­able with.” Cut to me gun­ning it at 134km/h.

I start slow, and then I just keep putting my foot down harder. It’s the fastest I’ve ever driven, and it hardly feels as if I’m even going at 80. Again, I ex­pe­ri­ence a rush, and take the car around the track twice, cov­er­ing a total of 10km in a flash.

Watch out, wal­la­bies!

After un­der­tak­ing a few more driv­ing ‘chal­lenges’, I get behind the wheel of a pro­to­type Holden Equinox on the Prov­ing Ground’s wind­ing country roads. I feel as if

I’m in a Bond film, speed­ing up, then slow­ing down to take crazy cor­ners. Wal­la­bies hang by the side of the road and one leaps in front of me, test­ing my brakes. The brakes ex­cel.

Apart from the fact that I’m now hooked on what an SUV can do – they can drive well on good roads, bad roads and no roads – I come away from the Prov­ing Ground more con­fi­dent in my driv­ing abil­i­ties. And even in my­self, thanks to the number of times I told my­self, “I can’t do that” through­out the day, and the number of times I proved I actually could. Self-dis­be­lief, smashed.

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