In the past month, I've spent a couple of days up a Spanish mountain with survival expert Ray Mears. The jovial, kind-hearted adventurer has devoted his life to rediscovering ancient traditions and civilizations, while living off little more than his wits. Give him two slugs and a thimble of water and he'll probably call it a feast.
We'd met in Barcelona to test the off-road virtues of the new Discovery. Mearshas a long standing relationship with Land Rover but his chariot of choice is the age-old Defender, of which he has four. He admitted to "never having been interested in the Range Rover or the old Discovery," which is Mears-speak for saying they're fit only for cheese-eating surrender monkeys.
Mears' is concerned about their complexity. "A Defender has never left me stranded in the wilderness," he told me. "When it goes wrong you're able to improvise. I've been known to use a tomato puree tin as a hub cap. That's thse beauty of having a simple vehicle." Technology, he reckoned, "always lets you down."
But he also had a more philosophical worry. If people learn to drive in complex vehicles with 101 electronic gizmos, they'll fail to master the basic art of off-roading. "A man with first-aid training but no first aid kit can still do some good, but a man with a first aid kit and no knowledge is useless," he said, "and it's the same with driving."
Critics will no doubt smear him as a Luddite who's spent too long in the jungle, but I think he's got a point. And it doesn't just apply to off-road driving. Two weeks after my sojourn with Mears, I found myself on a soaking wet race circuit in northern France with a bunch of Audi owners. Most of them were track virgins and their reaction to the experience was fascinating.
Rather than hail the genius of their natural car control abilities or the benefits of the quattro drivetrain in such treacherous conditions, they all proclaimed the genius of ESP. When the youthful owner of a tuned 420-bhp S4 Avant returned to the pits, all he could say was, "I never realized ESP was so good."
This was as alarming as it was surprising. Their faith in their electronic stability gizmo was absolute-if I'd told them the tiny button was a hotline to God himself, they'd probably have believed me. But by placing so much trust in the electronics, they were giving absolutely no thought to how they should drive.
Later in the afternoon, I took to the track myself and witnessed some scary scenes. People were banging on the brakes mid-way through 80-mph sweepers, lifting violently at the first sign of trouble and using the throttle as an on-off switch.In many instances, it was only the ESP that kept them out of the bushes.
Back in the pits, S4 man told me that he hadn't dared turn off the ESP because he'd no doubt have spun immediately. Given the way he was driving, he might have been right. But I couldn't help feeling that if he'd turned it off, backed off two-tenths and thought about what he was doing, he'd have driven faster and safer when he switched it back on again.
It worried me that he seemed to think that he could do what he liked as long as he didn't turn the system off. When he finally exceeds the parameters of the ESP, he'll have a mighty big moment and he won't know how to react. One only hopes it will be a soft landing.
If we're not careful, this will end up in a vicious circle. As new electronic aids are introduced, so driving standards will fall and we'll need more driver aids to cope with the consequences. All of which will increase the cost and complexity of the cars that we drive, and upset Ray Mears.
Contrary to his own expectations, Mears actually ended up liking the new Disco and he even declared himself a fan of the trick Terrain Response System. "Many of these systems make life easier and safer," he explained. "But I believe that someone who's learned to drive on something simple like a Defender will make better use of them. Sometimes, we have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater." Couldn't have put it better myself.