Mud, rocks and robots: The Land Rover Experience and factory tour

Land Rover offers a factory tour and off-road driver training in England. Here’s what it’s like to drive $60,000+ SUVs through mud and muck.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

"OK, so we're going to create that bow wave we spoke about earlier," my instructor, Dave, tells me as I stare at the muddy pool beyond the hood. "When we go into the water, nice and positive on the accelerator." I've never driven through deep water before. For that matter, before today, I've never driven off road. But here I am, at the wheel of the iconic Land Rover Defender, on the "wrong" side, about to try to not water-lock the engine, get us stuck, drown us, or since I'm recording the whole thing, make a fool of myself.

Of course, none of that happens. I'm safely thousands of miles away from any jungle, deep in the heart of England. In fact, I'm in the middle of the Land Rover factory in Solihull. The Jungle Track is a manufactured off-road test course for trucks and drivers, one of several on the 308-acre property.

As a recent buyer of a Land Rover (an '88 Classic), I headed here to see the factory where it was built. Or at least, the new factory that stands in its place nearly 30 years later. I ended up adding an off-road drive to my visit, and I'm glad I did, despite the cost.

Here's how it went, mud and all.

Beautiful British boxes

I arrive on foot, having stayed in town and taken the bus out to the factory. This didn't seem to confuse them too much, and soon I'm picked up at the entrance and driven to the Experience center.

After a series of introductory videos, four others and myself, plus our guide, drive across campus to the first of the manufacturing buildings. Our ride is an extended Defender, once intended for safari duty in Africa, and now tasked with this less adventurous role.

The first building makes the actual chassis of the cars, and it's downright eerie. I'm sure you've seen pictures of robots making cars (there's several in the gallery above), but I wasn't expecting how quiet it would be. There's mechanical noise, of course, but you can talk at a normal speaking volume and be heard perfectly well. Meanwhile machines spin aluminum (sorry, aluminium) panels in a programmed ballet, missing walls, ceilings and each other with just centimeters to spare. Only 200 or so people work in this massive building, on hand in case one of the robots registers it's having a problem. This is just one of many buildings on the campus, though most aren't open for tours.

We move to the museum, which tells the story of my new-to-me baby, and the most famous of the Land Rovers, the Range Rover. Each room tells a different part of the story, starting with the chassis design, a replica of the studio that styled it, and finally the celebration of the final product. It's really interesting to see the progression.

Next we see the assembly building. Here there are many humans at countless stations, installing seats, tires and more. 

As fascinating as the factory tour is, the afternoon is far more fun. I sign up for a 3-hour, half-day experience. Full-day courses are available too. Dave asks what trucks I'd like to drive, and we decide that the old-school Defender suits my mindset, but we'd also swap in a new Discovery so I can see the difference (and what a few decades of development has done at Land Rover).

The Defender is white, for now, and fairly new. Not that you can tell from the outside, since they didn't change much in their 67-year manufacturing run (which ended in 2016). We head across the street to the Jungle Track, and I take the wheel. I've driven manual transmission cars on the right before, but the clutch on this truck is radically different, not to mention it's my first time driving off road. Ahead of me deep ruts beckon like muddy mythological sirens.

Dave patiently waits for me to set up my 360 camera, and then explains how to drive off road. I listen intently, as it's actually quite different. Basically, the cadence of coming on and off the clutch and brake is nearly backwards from street driving.

The Jungle Track is incredible. There's no sense that you're not in the jungle on a far different continent. As I start to get comfortable, we head to a flooded part of the course for my first water crossing. Even though I know it's perfectly safe, I'm a tiny bit anxious (but a lot excited). I set off hard on the gas and watch with child-like glee as a bow wave forms in front of the Defender. 

Suddenly I'm not in Solihull, but conquering some previously undiscovered equatorial jungle. Epic.

After some hill climbs and more mud, we switch over to the Discovery. It's like stepping out of the '60s and into the future. A massive glass touchscreen sits in the middle of the console. Digital gauges radiate cool blue-white light. A heads-up display projects my speed seemingly onto the road in front of me. Amazingly, this nearly $60,000 model of modern technology is more capable than the more rugged-looking Defender. It's also faster, more fuel efficient, quieter and more comfortable. I prefer classic cars, but the modern ones are pretty amazing.

Case in point, there's a feature that uses the Discovery's built-in cameras to create what is essentially a top-down, birds-eye view of the truck, allowing you to navigate narrow rocky forest paths… or more likely, crowded parking lots.

In my second favorite moment of the day, Dave has me beach the Discovery on the side of a rutty track. Yep, as in get the $60,000 SUV stuck in the mud. He's not worried, as he knows the capabilities of this machine. Sure enough, we rock it back and forth, going from Drive to Reverse, and letting the truck's brains and trick four-wheel-drive system figure out where to send the 3-liter diesel's 443 pound-feet of torque. After a few minutes, we were free.

Free, and sadly, headed back to the Experience Center. My time is up. I had a fantastic day, but an expensive one. The Range Rover Story and Factory Tour is £49 ($65). A half-day, 3-hour, off-road adventure is another £275 ($355). A full day (7 hours) is £375 ($485). Plus there's the cost of staying in Solihull or the price of the 90-minute train ride from London. So yeah, it's an expensive day out.

geoff-and-a-muddy-defender

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

But then, there aren't many other places where you can thrash an $85,000 Range Rover, or the slightly less expensive Range Rover Sport, Disco or Defender, all under the tutelage of off-roading experts.

Still not sure I'll take my delicate Classic flower off-road, but I like that I now know how, and love that I could.

On the other hand, have you seen how cheap used Discoveries are? Maybe I need a different Rover just for off-road. Hmmm…


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmedieval castlesiconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel

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