Adventure, on four wheels
WH Dep Ed Alice Ellis goes off the beaten track to try her hand at extreme driving
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.
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.