Copyright 2001

[ November 10th 2001]

They can carry you through the swamps of South America or the rugged foothills of Afghanistan - but they're mainly used for dropping the little darlings off at school. Love them or loathe them, four-wheeldrive vehicles are now everywhere in all shapes and sizes.

Once they were the packhorse of the working countryman and green-welly brigade but these days you can't step off a kerb for fear of bouncing off someone's bull-bars. But experts say most 4x4 drivers haven't got the faintest idea of the potential of their powerful GBP30,000 cars. So driving instructors are now running special short courses in basic 4x4 skills - and etiquette, of course.

The GBP99-a-time "dirty weekend" at Castle Combe race track in Wiltshire offers a chance to go 'off-roading' and - horror of horrors - get some mud on shiny new paintwork. Drivers will also get training in what all those funny levers and knobs in the air conditioned, leather upholstered interior actually do.

The three-hour course teaches vehicle safety, hill climbing and descent, how to use off-road features, tackling obstacles and off-road etiquette. The track has a man-made hill and a "water splash" to simulate all terrains and hazards under the watchful eye of an instructor.

Driving instructor Max Tyler said the course was not designed for experienced "green laners" (off-road drivers) but novices.

"It's a very exciting course. It will open up a whole new world they hadn't realised even existed. "It's a bit different an experience to driving down to the doorstep at Sainsbury's. It's a bit nerve-wracking in places and will test the vehicles to their very limits. There has been a huge surge in the amount of 4x4 vehicles available and the manufacturers are very good at the luxury end of the market with air conditioning and so on. That's fine but a lot of people aren't aware of their capabilities."

The weekend courses use turbo-diesel Land Rover Discoveries and are approved by the British Off-roading Association. Drivers are taught how to go through water hazards - up to the bonnet, without stalling or getting into trouble.

Interest in Land Rover's offroad Discovery was fuelled this summer with the release of the action film Tomb Raider, based on the adventures of computer character Lara Croft. They created limited editions of the Discovery with special additions - minus the rocket-launchers.

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