Until this week I’ve never been completely sold on the need for the electronic gimmickry – ESP, DSC, ASTC, TSC, call it what you will – that steps in and holds our hands when the roadgoing gets tough.
My Luddite-like distrust isn't an all-encompassing one, because clearly anti-lock brakes, to pick one example, have been an effective and logical safety development.
In fact, I’ve warmed to the potential of driver aids. In deepest Finland yesterday I discovered a new respect for our cars’ electronic trickery (while at the same time uncovering a previously untapped level of incompetence to my driving).
I was taking part in Land Rover’s Nordic Adventure, which involved driving in a convoy of Evoques, Range Rovers and Range Rover Sports through the beautiful snow-covered Finnish countryside to an ice field near Pukinpellontie, a small and brilliantly named settlement about 65 miles north of Helsinki.
On the ice field a variety of courses had been laid out for us to sample the capabilities of Land Rover’s fleet in temperatures as low as minus 23 Centigrade.
Given that the previous time I drove in a snow-bound country I ended up putting my hire car on its roof, I should have felt more secure with Land Rover’s modern driver aids to assist me. With very little to hit on the desolate ice field, I was curious to do some on-the-hoof research into how much of a help they actually are.
The first test was an icy handling course which I tackled in a Range Rover Sport HSE with Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) switched on and L-R’s Terrain Response system on the ‘grass/snow/gravel’ setting, which optimises the engine, transmission, suspension and traction for those surfaces.
In that setting you get a high level of traction control to reduce the chances of wheelspin, an extra slug of torque when you pull away, a more progressive throttle response and sharper gear changes.
While I over-reacted to every hint of understeer or oversteer, I could feel the car’s electronic brain working to moderate a lot of my frantic inputs. Progress around the ice course was almost exclusively in the intended direction.
Next time, I turned off all of the Sport’s electronics. Sure, I could scrabble around the lap, but with all the grace and poise of a drunken puppy on polished lino. It was just as well I had soft snow banks to arrest my progress – if I’d been on an icy stretch of twisty public road, there would have been a substantial chance of being pitched into the scenery.
Drivers with plenty of experience in snow and ice – like most of the five million Finns – would probably make less of a fudge of driving in those conditions without driver aids. However, I’d hazard that many Brits without years of regular ice driving on our roads would struggle.
Curiously, the Range Rover felt quite stable to drive with the Terrain Response set to the desert-friendly ‘sand’ mode. With that system, designed to maintain constant momentum, the traction control system is desensitised to prevent bogging down and all-wheel-drive is locked on, so perhaps it was fairly well suited to the mix of ice and snow on our course.