Stairway to Heaven

We climb above the clouds in what Range Rover claims is the ultimate go anywhere performance car, the 405kW Sport SVR

by SCOTT NEWMAN pics NATHAN JACOBS

THOUGHT heaven would be warmer. Up here among the clouds the mercury reads 1įC, though the wind chill factor feels to drop that by at least 10 degrees, and a thick carpet of ice makes each step a lottery. To continue photography is to risk frostbite, and every possible heat source in our mode of transport, including the seats and steering wheel, is on maximum in the bid to battle hypothermia.

When Jacob, a patriarch of the Israelites, first had his vision of a stairway to heaven in the Book of Genesis, he didnít have these problems. Because he was in Israel. Which is in the desert. But for our purposes Jacobís Ladder is four kilometres of narrow gravel road in Tasmaniaís north. Criss-crossing the face of an almost vertical rock escarpment in the Ben Lomond National Park like an off-road Stelvio Pass, it climbs to a vast plateau, 1370 metres above sea level, which is home to the Ben Lomond ski resort.

But how did we get here?

I ITíS A grey day, the kind of weather that sucks the colour out of everything. Amid such sombre surroundings, the Range Rover SVRís unique Estoril Blue paintwork is all the more vivid, like someoneís gone overboard with the saturation on Instagram. Itís an imposing beast, which is only fitting for the first offering from Jaguar-Land Roverís Special Vehicle Operations, though with the air suspension in its lowest mode it does look a little like itís collapsed on its springs.

With a whir and a growl the 5.0-litre supercharged V8 fires into life, great plumes of steam from the quad exhausts adding to the morning mist. Shared with Jaguarís F-Type Coupe R, the engine produces 405kW/680Nm and makes the SVR the most powerful Range Rover ever, capable of 0-100km/h in 4.7sec despite its 2333kg kerb weight. Range Rover calls it ďthe worldís most capable performance SUVĒ, able to lap the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 8min14sec yet fjord rivers, clamber over rocks and plough through muddy fields thanks to its low-range gearbox and Terrain Response system.

Itís this breadth of ability that makes the SVR the chariot of choice for our Tasmanian adventure.

Scaling Jacobís Ladder isnít likely to be an off-road test in the manner of crossing the Simpson Desert Ė any half-decent four-by-four would suffice Ė but Tasmaniaís incredible road network deserves more than an asthmatic diesel engine, live axle suspension and gripless knobbly tyres.

Brilliant driving roads criss-cross the Apple Isle like a cardiovascular system; venture off the main highways and youíre guaranteed to hit a decent set of corners before too long. As such, there are a number of ways to reach the entrance to the Ben Lomond National Park, depending on how much time you have available. Departing Tasmaniaís second largest city, Launceston, the quickest and easiest route is east on the C401. Within minutes the outer suburbs give way to lush green fields and long, sweeping corners ensure the 42km to the turn-off into the forest pass quickly. But thereís a better way.

Itís a lot longer. To be honest, itís also completely out of the way, but as an enthusiast youíll want to make time. Thirty kilometres north-east of Launceston lies The Sideling, a 20km stretch of the A3, which climbs and then descends on its way to the sleepy rural town of Scottsdale. Itís one of Targa Tasmaniaís most challenging stages with relentless corners, each one different thanks to constantly changing cambers and the broken road surface.

And when itís wet, as certain sections are now, grip disappears completely.

Itís a stern test of any car, let alone a 2.3-tonne

The SVR is the most powerful Range Rover ever, capable of 0-100km/h in just 4.7sec

Range Rover off ers high performance tyres as an option, but it wears all season rubber as standard

off-roader, and despite its Nurburgring-honed credentials, the SVR struggles. Itís handicapped to a certain extent by its tyres. Range Rover offers enormous 295/40 Continental ContiSportContact5 high performance tyres on 22-inch rims as a $4800 option, but given our planned unsealed adventures it currently wears the standard 275/45 R21 Continental Cross Contacts to lessen the risk of a puncture.

Previous experience has shown that even on a dry road with the 22s fitted the SVR can be lively, so on damp tarmac the all season rubber makes it a right handful. The fundamentals are sound: the steering is well weighted, thereís great chassis balance for such a big car and the diff setup is excellent, providing strong traction yet sending most of the torque rearward to help pivot the car out of corners like an oversized all-wheel drive F-Type.

Unfortunately the tyres canít cope with this amount of power or weight. Even with the suspension stiffened in Dynamic mode thereís significant squat, dive and roll so smooth driving is key. The steering goes light and writhes slightly under hard acceleration, while the rear end does the same under heavy braking; the combination of all that weight and the movement in the tyre makes the SVR reluctant to turn in and itís easy for the front end to wash wide. Later inspection reveals the tyres have been wearing not on the shoulders but on the sidewall, which shows how hard the rubber is working.

On corner exit a healthy dose of throttle slews the rear end sideways, smearing the tyres across the road. If itís wet, all four tyres will spin, which makes it interesting trying to guess in which direction the car is going to go next. This might all sound a bit alarming, but to be honest itís also quite good fun. Itís a bit like riding one of those mechanical bulls; youíre sort of in control and yet never quite sure whatís going to happen next Ė whoever set that 8min14sec Nurburgring time is an absolute hero.

The DSC cannot be deactivated completely, which is probably a good idea, but itís lenient enough to let the SVR slide around while always keeping a watchful eye on proceedings.

Of course, at the centre of all this is the awesome V8. Throttle response is brilliant, thereís power everywhere and it never sounds anything less than completely anti-social. Range Rover claims a 0-100km/h time of 4.7sec but it feels faster than

that, and the overtaking force is brutal. The perfect accomplice to this awesome power is ZFís eightspeed auto with its smooth, rapid gearchanges.

Itís an entertaining drive, though more for its unruliness than its finely-honed dynamicism.

Thereís the nagging feeling that this F-Type-spec V8 might be a step too far for this SUV chassis. Perhaps itís unfair to expect a 2.3-tonne behemoth to shine on a road that would tie many sports cars in knots, but this is ďthe most dynamically focused Land Rover ever producedĒ.

Getting sidetracked by The Sideling has been a morning well spent, but itís time to press on to our destination. The sat-nav is adamant the fastest way to achieve this is a 60km loop back to Launceston, however surely in a supercharged Range Rover the unsealed option Ė half the distance but slower according to the nav Ė will be the better bet?

It proves an inspired choice. Wide, fast and wellsighted, Camden Hill Road couldíve been plucked from the route of Rally Finland. The SVRís high

Jacobís Ladder is a treacherous place; towards the top the hard-packed gravel turns to sheet ice

speed stability on loose surfaces is incredible and the tyres that struggled so badly on wet tarmac are now biting into the damp gravel with relish. I did some of my first miles in a rally car on roads near here and itís clear I wouldíve finished a lot further up the leaderboard had I been driving a Range Rover Sport SVR. Itís an absolute weapon, absorbing potholes, ignoring ruts and exiting corners in delicious four-wheel drifts. On more than one occasion cows scatter in alarm as the SVR thunders past; if you live in Launceston and your milk is lumpy, blame Range Rover.

Those 30km are some of the best Iíve ever experienced and we beat the sat-navís estimate byÖ an undisclosed amount. More by good luck than good management, we emerge directly opposite the entrance to the forest that will take us to Jacobís Ladder. Itís just under 10km to the entrance to Ben Lomond National Park and youíll need a pass to legally enter, which is best bought online. The road is narrow and well-trafficked, so care is needed, but also smooth enough that any vehicle should manage with little difficulty.

The moment you break above the tree line and Jacobís Ladder rears into view is guaranteed to induce a sharp intake of breath. It fills the windscreen, while an enormous valley stretches out to your left and massive stone fingers loom from your right, visible through the SVRís panoramic glass roof. At first glance thereís little evidence a road exists at all; you almost wouldnít believe it were it not for the unlikely sight of a dump truck crawling horizontally across the slope, an apt metaphor for the amount of work it took to create the road in the first place.

As far back as 1945 the Northern Tasmanian Alpine Club had lobbied the local government to

Mountain climbing One epic road

ITíS difficult to drive more than a handful of kilometres in Tasmania without bumping into an epic stretch of road and the route below is no exception, all within a 30 minute drive of Launceston.

The Sideling is one of the best bits of road in Tasmania, 13km of constant cornering, with plenty of traps for the unwary. Beware of log trucks and locals.

Camden Hill Road was a happy accident, 30km of flowing gravel road thatíll have your inner McRae itching to get out. Ignore the satnav time estimate.

The climb to Jacobís Ladder is around 13km of narrow forest road.

Chains and care will be required in winter months as snow and ice are a certainty.

build a road to Ben Lomond, however it quickly became clear any government project would be many years in the making. The NTAC took it upon itself to create a road to Carr Villa Chalet at the base of the mountain, which was completed in 1953, however skiers still faced a 3km walk and 300m ascent to the slopes.

The need for an extension to the summit was clear, and in 1960 Bill Mitchell had the ambitious idea of blasting ĎThe Ladderí into the rock face. A year later, a small government grant allowed road contractor Roy Bugg to begin construction. It took five years for the road to be accessible by a standard car and it was hazardous work. In his book The Ben Lomond Story, David Harvey explains that Bugg would do the shot blasting of an afternoon, lighting the fuses as he left the area. One day, Bugg and his offsider set the charges and lit the fuses, only for the ute to not start due to a flat battery. The pair then faced a race against time to run back and remove all the fuses before the blast blew them off the mountain.

Constant rock falls and inclement weather meant the road required constant maintenance, and in 1974 responsibility for this task was passed from the NTAC to Parks & Wildlife. Jacobís Ladder was widened, resurfaced, guard rails added and the rock slope stabilised, and in the words of Harvey ďis now a highway compared to what it used to beĒ.

A highway it may be, but itís still a treacherous one. Jacobs (the one taking pictures) is adamant the entire mountain is about to fall on us and towards the top the hard-packed gravel turns to sheet ice. For virtually the whole trip the SVRís Terrain Response System has been locked in ĎDynamicí Ė even on the gravel Ė but now I click it around to ĎSnow and Iceí.

The changes are dramatic. The air suspension lifts the body substantially, low-range is engaged and the digital instrument display informs me that all three diffs are now locked; first gear is locked out and throttle response has gone from crisp to comatose. motorof ficial motor_mag 81 It crawls with ease across walk on, though downhill way to keep speed in the brakes instantly causing grab individual wheels. abilities have been virtually safety margin they provide In many ways, the Range incredible car. It accelerates regardless of surface, loaded with gadgets go-anywhere ability thanks gubbins. But like all these itís still ultimately hopelessly of all trades, master of As tested, itís also $253,280.

HSE Dynamic TDV8, with twin-turbo V8 diesel, to tackle The Sideling, every other facet of the and with considerably the 18.21L/100km we averaged Itís also so much cheaper enough left over for a really wanted to attack Range Roverís PR hype for its own back, all times and ďworldís most creating a mountain of SVRís Terrain Response It may have successfully heaven, but for performance gods are going to want A big thank you to David with this story.

It crawls with ease across a surface you couldnít walk on, though downhill engine braking is the only way to keep speed in check, the slightest brush of the brakes instantly causing the ABS to ineffectually grab individual wheels. Until now the SVRís off-road abilities have been virtually irrelevant, now the safety margin they provide is welcome.

In many ways, the Range Rover Sport SVR is an incredible car. It accelerates like a rocket almost regardless of surface, sounds like Armageddon, is loaded with gadgets and still retains most of its go-anywhere ability thanks to the clever off-road gubbins. But like all these high-performance SUVs, itís still ultimately hopelessly compromised Ė a jack of all trades, master of none.

As tested, itís also $253,280. The Range Rover Sport HSE Dynamic TDV8, with its 250kW/740Nm 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 diesel, might not have tempted us to tackle The Sideling, but it wouldíve completed every other facet of the journey in greater comfort and with considerably better fuel economy than the 18.21L/100km we averaged over almost 800km.

Itís also so much cheaper than the SVR youíd have enough left over for a BMW M2 Pure for when you really wanted to attack some corners.

Range Roverís PR hype may have created a rod for its own back, all the talk of Nurburgring lap times and ďworldís most capable performance SUVĒ creating a mountain of expectation that even the SVRís Terrain Response System couldnít climb.

It may have successfully tackled the stairway to heaven, but for performance car nirvana driving gods are going to want to look elsewhere. M A big thank you to David Harvey for his assistance with this story.

The Range Rover Sport SVR remains hopelessly compromised Ė a jack of all trades, master of none

RANGE ROVER SVR

BODY 5-door, 5-seat SUV DRIVE all-wheel ENGINES 5000cc V8, DOHC, 32v, supercharged BORE/STROKE 92.5 x 93.0mm COMPRESSION 9.5:1 POWER 405kW @ 6000-6500rpm TORQUE 680Nm @ 3500-4000rpm POWER/WEIGHT 174kW/tonne TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic WEIGHT 2333kg FRONT SUSPENSION Struts, anti-roll bar REAR SUSPENSION Multi-links, anti-roll bar L/W/H 4856/2019/1780mm WHEELBASE 2923mm TRACKS 1690/1685mm (f/r) STEERING electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion FRONT BRAKES 380mm ventilated discs, 6-piston calipers REAR BRAKES 365mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers WHEELS 21.0 x 9.5-inch (f/r) TYRES 275/45 R21 (f/r)Continental Cross Contact PRICE AS TESTED $253,280 PROS Awesome engine; off -road ability CONS Expensive; SVR badge questionable STAR RATING 11123