I prefer to try out a new model 4WD on my home turf. Generally, it is easier to make a balanced judgment if you put the vehicle through known conditions - and that means everything from simply reversing out of the driveway, to negotiating a rugged mountain trail.
However, I once received an invitation that not even I could refuse - a first-class air ticket to Los Angeles, limo all the way from the airport to San Diego, and a totally new, super-secret 4WD to run around in for a week!
The PR business making the arrangements stressed that there was a strict proviso. The manufacturers wanted me to try out the vehicle and give them a detailed report of my impressions. However, I would have to give a written undertaking that I would not take any photographs of the vehicle and, to the best of my ability, not allow anyone else to photograph it.
If you haven't traveled first class in a jumbo you haven't lived. It is nothing like riding up the back in cattle class - tons of room, free booze and the ultimate in personal service. For me, air travel will never be the same. The stretched limo was also a new experience. Yet, even though it feels luxurious sitting down the back, I'd much prefer to be up front beside the driver, talking about engines or something.
It seemed as if I'd only left home a few hours before, and here I was in the plush reception area of Light Industry, Automobile & Recreational Services Inc., a business specializing in the development of totally new products, with the aim of selling the manufacturing rights to major corporations.
Chuck Storey introduced himself, organized coffee, went over the conditions of the road test, gave me a quick peek-a-boo at the non-restricted sections of the plant, and then took me along to where Project-X was stored. (I'll call it Project-X because no name had been decided upon and Chuck explained that the group was hopeful of securing the rights to re-use one of the famous brand names that had long gone out of production - although, if a big company like Ford or GM took it on, that wouldn't be necessary.)
Wow!! I was expecting to see something that looked like a revised version of some other model currently available - perhaps a full-blown American variation of a Range Rover or a concept bob-tail like those on display at the recent Detroit Motor Show - but this was over the top! In front of me sat a wide, squat, four-door 'wagon' with a huge tire at each corner and an aerodynamic body reminiscent of a beach buggy. The steeply-raked line from the front bumper to the windscreen, and the high boxy rear made a clear statement that this was a rear-engined beast.
Chuck Storey told me that the idea for the design stemmed from the military version of the Hummer. Project-X was similar in concept - 8.0 litre turbo-diesel engine, hydraulic independent suspension at each corner, 'dropped' axle hubs for maximum running clearance, 7-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel disc brakes. Plus, a smorgasbord of incredibly well-thought out features: recovery hooks that fold flush to the body when not needed, twin-beam driving lights (front and rear) with adjustment from tiny 'joysticks' on the instrument panel, aerials imbedded in the window glass for the full complement of communications and satnav etc, DVD screens and plug-in head phones for all passengers, and much, much more. However, the things that first caught my eye were the wheels and tires - huge custom-built 20-inch, 15.00 wide, run-flat, Mud Terrain radials on 12-inch wide alloy rims. Chuck explained to me how the super-aggressive tires could become absolutely perfect for sand running. We'll get to that, later....
The cabin, or glasshouse area, of the vehicle was also a cunning piece of design. The two-section roof and each of the upper door frame areas could quickly be removed to convert the closed vehicle to an open sporty, or anything in between. With just the door tops removed, you get an open vehicle with shade from the summer sun; with only the roof removed, you can soak up some winter sunlight but still be reasonably protected from the wind. All of the removable panels, and the body itself, were made from high-strength Kevlar. The panels are attached to framework that not only supports them but is strong enough to protect the occupants in the most violent roll-over. In effect, whether you have the cabin panels on or off, you always have the security of a full roll cage. Eight of the ten airbags were actually fitted into the rollbar structure.
Chuck gave me an hour or so of tuition. I needed it! All I could think of for the first half hour was the value of the beast - and my tense actions must have broadcast the fact. Chuck assured me that if I wrote the vehicle off it was unlikely that I would ever be able to repay the millions of dollars that had been spent on development
ProjectX put a new meaning on the word 'response'. I couldn't believe it - a four-wheel drive that felt like a Ferrari when you pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The turbo came in at around 1200 rpm and if you didn't lift the right foot it felt as if you were sitting with your back to a cyclone.
With the great forward visibility, whirr of the tires on the expressway, healthy V8 rumble from the pipes out the back, and the absolutely secure feeling the vehicle imparted, it was not hard to imagine spending the rest of my life four-wheeling the world. This, surely, was the only way to go.
The next day I headed west across Southern California to the Colorado River. Just outside Yuma there are some giant sand hills that are part of a declared recreational vehicle area, and it is an ideal place to test a vehicle's capability in the soft stuff.