I thought heaven would be warmer. Up here among the clouds the mercury reads 1°C, 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 didn’t have these problems. Because he was in Israel. Which is in the desert. But for our purposes Jacob’s Ladder is four kilometres of narrow gravel road in Tasmania’s 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?
It’s a grey day, the kind of weather that sucks the colour out of everything. Amid such sombre surroundings, the Range Rover SVR’s unique Estoril Blue paintwork is all the more vivid, like someone’s gone overboard with the saturation on Instagram.
It’s an imposing beast, which is only fitting for the first offering from Jaguar-Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations, though with the air suspension in its lowest mode it does look a little like it’s 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 Jaguar’s 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 “the world’s most capable performance SUV”, 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.
It’s this breadth of ability that makes the SVR the chariot of choice for our Tasmanian adventure. Scaling Jacob’s Ladder isn’t likely to be an off-road test in the manner of crossing the Simpson Desert – any half-decent four-by-four would suffice – but Tasmania’s 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 you’re 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 Tasmania’s 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 there’s a better way.
It’s a lot longer. To be honest, it’s also completely out of the way, but as an enthusiast you’ll 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.
It’s one of Targa Tasmania’s most challenging stages with relentless corners, each one different thanks to constantly changing cambers and the broken road surface. And when it’s wet, as certain sections are now, grip disappears completely.
It’s a stern test of any car, let alone a 2.3-tonne off-roader, and despite its Nurburgring-honed credentials, the SVR struggles. It’s 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, there’s 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 can’t cope with this amount of power or weight. Even with the suspension stiffened in Dynamic mode there’s 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 it’s also quite good fun.
It’s a bit like riding one of those mechanical bulls; you’re sort of in control and yet never quite sure what’s going to happen next – whoever set that 8min14sec Nurburgring time is an absolute hero. The DSC cannot be deactivated completely, which is probably a good idea, but it’s 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, there’s 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 ZF’s eight-speed auto with its smooth, rapid gearchanges.
It’s an entertaining drive, though more for its unruliness than its finely-honed dynamicism. There’s the nagging feeling that this F-Type-spec V8 might be a step too far for this SUV chassis. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a 2.3-tonne behemoth to shine on a road that would tie many sports cars in knots, but this is “the most dynamically focused Land Rover ever produced”.
Getting sidetracked by The Sideling has been a morning well spent, but it’s 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 – half the distance but slower according to the nav – will be the better bet?
It proves an inspired choice. Wide, fast and well-sighted, Camden Hill Road could’ve been plucked from the route of Rally Finland. The SVR’s high-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 it’s clear I would’ve finished a lot further up the leaderboard had I been driving a Range Rover Sport SVR. It’s 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 I’ve ever experienced and we beat the sat-nav’s estimate by…an undisclosed amount. More by good luck than good management, we emerge directly opposite the entrance to the forest that will take us to Jacob’s Ladder.
It’s just under 10km to the entrance to Ben Lomond National Park and you’ll 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 Jacob’s 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 SVR’s panoramic glass roof.
At first glance there’s little evidence a road exists at all; you almost wouldn’t 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 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 ‘The Ladder’ 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. Jacob’s Ladder was widened, resurfaced, guard rails added and the rock slope stabilised, and in the words of Harvey “is now a highway compared to what it used to be”.
A highway it may be, but it’s 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 SVR’s Terrain Response System has been locked in ‘Dynamic’ – even on the gravel – but now I click it around to ‘Snow and Ice’.
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.
It crawls with ease across a surface you couldn’t 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 SVR’s 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, it’s still ultimately hopelessly compromised – a jack of all trades, master of none.
As tested, it’s 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 would’ve 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. It’s also so much cheaper than the SVR you’d have enough left over for a BMW M2 Pure for when you really wanted to attack some corners.
Range Rover’s PR hype may have created a rod for its own back, all the talk of Nurburgring lap times and “world’s most capable performance SUV” creating a mountain of expectation that even the SVR’s Terrain Response System couldn’t climb. It may have successfully tackled the stairway to heaven, but for performance car nirvana driving gods are going to want to look elsewhere.
3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS
Body: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Engines: 5000cc V8, DOHC, 32v, supercharged
Bore/stroke: 92.5 x 93.0mm
Power: 405kW @ 6000-6500rpm
Torque: 680Nm @ 3500-4000rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Front suspension: Struts, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension: Multi-links, anti-roll bar
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