I love the monsoons. Piping hot chai and pakodas. That sweet fragrance in the air. The hills carpeted in green. The thorough hosing-down that our cities get. The gushing rivers and crashing waterfalls. Splashing through puddles like a child. Breathing clean(er) air like when you actually were a child. Switching the air-con off. It really is the best time of the year, when the country is at its spectacular best, except if you are in Mumbai and have to wade home after having abandoned your car. I’ve done that. It’s no fun.
Today we have no such worries. We are in Chandigarh, behind the wheel of the Discovery Sport, being introduced to the Land Rover Experience (LRE) that I’ve heard so much about. This is where our 6-part Ready to Discover series kicks off where we will be putting the entire range of Land Rover SUVs through their paces at spectacular LRE events across the country. And for a brand that has off-roading in its DNA, what better place to start than the home of the maddest and largest collection of off-road vehicles, enthusiasts and clubs. Chandigarh is where you prep for the challenges that lie ahead – the annual Raid, the road trip to Ladakh, the no less demanding Himalayan foothills of Himachal, the snow drives in Narkhanda and Dalhousie – the majority of my Most Memorable Road Trips have kicked off in Chandigarh. And, oh, Chandigarh is where you discover that Indian cities need not be chaotic, that we can maintain traffic discipline, stop for red lights, keep to lanes and give way at roundabouts. The roads in the city are so good it sends you into immediate depression.
Nothing like climbing into the Discovery Sport’s cabin to cheer you right back up. This is a pleasant and posh ambience. The tan leather seats on the HSE Luxury trim I’m driving feels properly premium. It may sound strange but the rain pitter-pattering on the panoramic glass roof is deeply relaxing, so much so that you forget about the 17-speaker Meridian sound system. The driving position is typically Land Rover, high-set, great all round visibility, a king-of-the-road stance. And then there’s the USP of the Disco Sport, the family-friendly 5+2 arrangement that pulls up two seats from the flat boot floor that can seat kids and even adults, though the latter for short distances.
Thumb the starter and the new Ingenium diesel fires into life with a pleasant thrum. This is the 178bhp spec of the four-cylinder 2-litre diesel and it has enough grunt to pull the near-two-tonne SUV to 100kmph in under nine seconds. If you’re so inclined the Disco Sport can even tow slightly more than two tonnes. And it is mated to the nine-speed gearbox that has a tall final ratio for better fuel efficiency and a very short first gear for off-roading.
To the point then. Off-roading. What we’ve come to do. The LRE instructors have laid out a course running through natural terrain on the outskirts of the city, no artificial ramps and custom-dug holes for these guys. We start with an unmetalled track that reminds me of the Discovery Sport’s great ride quality that we have always praised. Rather than obsessing over unnecessary sportiness and Nurburgring lap times Land Rover have retained the heft, weightiness and unruffled road manners, which makes a lot of sense on our Indian roads. Ten minutes later we are at our first obstacle and I begin to look for how to reverse back out. No way anything is going through this. Overnight rains have turned the track into a gooey chocolate pudding and the axle articulation section is just impossible. Ashish Nandan – one of the three Ashish’s on the LRE – asks me what’s the hold up. Erm, a river over big holes!
Before we progress a bit on the hardware of the Discovery Sport. Everybody remembers that Land Rover were the pioneers of the luxury SUV with the original Range Rover, but not many remember that the original Freelander (the Discovery Sport’s predecessor) pioneered the entry-luxury SUV segment. What we also forget is that Land Rover do not make cars, so unlike its rivals nothing in Land Rover’s range is a car with high ground clearance. A Land Rover without four-wheel drive has yet to be built in India. Nothing rolls out of Land Rover’s factories, including the one in Pune where the SUV I’m driving was built, without an innate Land Rover-ness, an ability to cover terrain its rivals can only dream of.
I stick the Sport in Mud/Ruts mode on the Terrain Response system. Through four different modes this system alters throttle sensitivity, how long the gears are held, how intrusive the ABS is and how the centre diff-lock behaves. Mud/Ruts lock the centre diff and softens the throttle response so I get better control to clamber over the big holes that Abel, one of the LRE lead instructors is guiding me through. This was meant to test axle articulation but after the overnight rains I’m questioning my sanity in agreeing to this shebang. Front right wheel in the air – I can feel it see-sawing – gingerly inch forward and – yikes! – it drops into another hole while the left rear now hoicks itself into the air. I utter a few expletives that will have to be edited out when we cut the video.
The slush is making progress really difficult and the whole SUV is sliding sideways but the heroically named Abel keeps nudging me onwards. Big armful of opposite lock, a shower of mud from the front left as it digs in and we inch forward. Mud/Ruts disables the traction control so you can spin the wheels to find traction, even spin the wheels to turn the SUV in a tight spot. And all this see-sawing is helped by the 25-degree approach, 31-degree departure and 21-degree ramp over angles. We make it. We haven’t grounded out the nose of the Discovery Sport. No damage, except for a few expletives on camera.
Next is the river, but with 600mm of wading depth this is dispatched all too easily. As we carry on into the woods the rain comes down even harder making it impossible to pull out the cameras. We contemplate turning back but Ashish will have nothing of it. Helpfully he also points out that there’s no space to turn around. I thumb a button to activate All Surface Progress Control. You set the speed and the Discovery Sport accelerates, brakes and keeps you at the set speed while all you need to do is steer. It makes sure there’s no unwanted wheelspin, which not only makes for more measured progress but ensures the tracks don’t get dug up by spinning wheels. Tread softly, that’s the unwritten rule here.
An hour of slipping, sliding and marvelling at what the Discovery Sport can do and we reach the final obstacle, a steep 100 metre descent. I engage Hill Descent Control, set the speed right down low, double-check with Abel (who is drenched to the bone playing my spotter, bless him) that I’m not going to die and take my foot off the brake. I’m not being dramatic here, it’s so slippery that Alameen, our film maker, slid half way down on his backside while trying to clamber down to take his shots. But you’re reading this story and I don’t have a big bill from Land Rover, which means the Sport made it down without a problem.
Back at base camp I meet a bunch of enthusiasts experiencing the Discovery Sport’s off-road ability for the first time. The general consensus is the LRE instructors are nuts to allow them to do what they did. The most telling statement comes from Amanpreet who points out that on rain-lashed terrain like this it is really the driver’s bravery that is put to test, not the Discovery Sport because it’s abilities are far ahead of what the brain considers possible.
I ask them now that they’ve discovered what the Sport can do, where they’d like to go with it. Manali, Shimla, all the usual answers spew forth. I pull out my Most Memorable Road Trips handbook and suggest what I imagine being the only place in India where it isn’t raining right now – the highest village in the world; Komic in Kaza; a three-day drive from Chandigarh littered with mountain passes, river crossings and rock trails. Next I know Ashish (Gupta this time, the lead LRE instructor) is being cornered at the coffee machine. “Plan banao paaji”