Tales from Topographic Motions: Touring Iceland in a Land Rover

May 6th, 2015


This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Pops Staples, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Fox News senior national correspondent John Roberts, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC MOTIONS: Seen from behind the wheel of a new Land Rover Discovery Sport, Iceland reveals itself as a prog-rock Valhalla.

By Steve Moody

After about an hour in the new Land Rover Discovery Sport, I feel the urge to pull on some tight leather pants, unbutton my shirt to the navel, and run wild into the misty mountains. This is not the typical reaction when driving what some would consider a soccer mom’s SUV, but we are picking our way through a land straight out of a prog-rock music video, a land of ice and snow, from midnight sun where the hot springs flow. We’re in Iceland, an island being created by the hammer of the gods right in front of our eyes, boiling up out of the earth like some visceral, primeval surge of lava and steam, and it is impossible not to be inspired in a tide of Viking testosterone and new-world wonder.

The day didn’t start in such a bombastic way. It was pitch black at 10 o’clock in the morning, and just getting to the car was an adventure in itself as the overnight temperature had plunged deep into minus territory, rendering the snow and slush into hard-packed ice. Skittering across the car park, my only thought was, If I can barely stand up, what hope has a family car got of getting safely to Reykjavik without a few unscheduled visits into some fairly hard volcanic boulders?

Also, we’re driving a car built by the people who are experts at off-roading, but we won’t be doing any of that. Off-roading in Iceland is illegal, because once a car has driven over the loose volcanic surface, the tire tracks will never be eradicated, due to the slow growth of vegetation just south of the Arctic Circle. It’s a bit like footprints on the moon.

Nevertheless, a day on roads doesn’t like seem the simple commute it might be elsewhere. Around us, deep in the Icelandic interior, it was like Dante-esque vision of a Rick Wakeman concert: plumes of hissing steam, climbing from two kilometers beneath the earth surface, poured out of the flues of the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station sticking up from the black rock and snow, while the stench of sulfur filled the air. Yep, it’s the end of the world as we know it. And it stinks.

Fortunately the cabin of the Discovery Sport is snug—luxurious even. The interior is comfortably heated up in an instant, and I think, Well, if we get stacked in a lava field or slide off the road into a ice-encrusted lake, then at least we’ll die in comfort.

This Discovery Sport model is the replacement for the not-especially-loved LR2, which was known as the Freelander everywhere else in the world, but not in the U.S.—perhaps because it sounds like the name of a Neil Young album or some Eurotrash DJ. It also groups the Land Rover model line-up into distinct categories. For those seeking a luxury SUV, then there’s the choice of the mighty Range Rover, Sport, and hugely successful Evoque, while for something more utilitarian and workhorse-like, the Discovery Sport is grouped with the LR4.

The cabin of the Evoque was clearly used as the blueprint for the Discovery Sport’s interior, which can never be a bad thing, as it delivers an abundance of style and quality and makes sitting at the wheel feel very special indeed. When Land Rover calls something “utilitarian,” it doesn’t mean some rattly old backhoe. It just means quite luxurious, my dear old thing, rather than immensely luxurious, and from $37,995 it’s not cheap transport either. That’s the Brits for you I guess.

And there’s some funky stuff inside, too. Key highlights of the onboard gadgetry are a new infotainment system that features Land Rover’s InControl technology, allowing smartphone apps to be mirrored directly onto the eight-inch touchscreen monitor, which works well and delivers decent sound quality.

Happily, and not perhaps happening often enough when big snow hits the eastern seaboard, our Discovery Sport was fitted with studded tires. The tiny little metal pyramids, which look like they were lifted straight from Gene Simmons’ codpiece, seem pretty ineffectual until you get moving. Then, it’s time to recalibrate expectations, because as you hit sheet ice or deep snow it is hard not to tense and grip the wheel a little harder as you consider the disaster about to ensue. But it never happens. The combination of special tires and Land Rover’s famed four-wheel All-Terrain Response System sweep the car across it with barely a hiccup.

This is good, because we are cruising down a sweeping, snow-bound road that looks across the silvery sheen of Iceland’s largest lake, Lake Pingvallavatn, glistening in the moonlight. Between us and it is a drop of 50 feet. That concentrates the mind.

While on paper it doesn’t seem like there’s much punch to the engine, the all-alloy Si4 2.0-liter four-cylinder has 240 hp and direct fuel injection, offering six-cylinder levels of performance in a compact package that reduces weight and cuts CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent, compared to conventional larger capacity engines with similar power output. So it’s more a case of ice road mall shoppers than ice road truckers.

Helping make the most of this lump is a nine-speed auto. The transmission, made by German company ZF, gets used on an amazing number of European cars from this small SUV to supercars, and the huge number of cogs mean the powertrain is always ready to give you everything it’s got at a moment’s notice.

As we head for the spectacular Kaldidalur Valley, we pass vast glaciers and volcanoes that steeple out of the moon-like surface along roads that often seem to start with a big sign that warns Ofært. I guess this means open in Icelandic, but I later discover it actually means impassable. It’s an important distinction that probably should have been made earlier on in the journey, I think. But to start with, the road is far from ofært as long as you stick to the center, where the ice is thinner and snow is less deep, so I keep on moving.

Soon though, it starts to snow on our ofært road, which is hardly surprising but still extremely worrying. New types of weather come at you in Iceland like a death metal intro: hard, fast, brutal, and with very little warning. One minute the sun was finally waking up and giving a grey-blue hue to this barren, fascinating world; the next everything had gone white. The road was white. The sky was white. Whatever was between those two was white. I was very white. The only thing that wasn’t white (yet) were the tops of the yellow poles still visible at 50 yard intervals to denote where the roadside ended and the descent into middle earth started. I picked my way gingerly from pole to pole, ticking each one off, thinking every one reached was a pole nearer to survival.

This is an excerpt from the all-new MAY/JUNE 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on the Bacon Brothers, Pops Staples, Iconic Axes from the Grateful Dead and Others, Fox News senior national correspondent John Roberts, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.