Some car companies offer a world of adventure
By Jerry Garrett
Copley News Service
SAN ANTONIO DE LOS COBRES, Argentina - It is almost sunset as a convoy of dirt-caked Land Rover LR3's pulls to a stop at a sign that says, "Abra el Acay". This is the summit of the highest road in the Andes Mountains of South America, 16,000 feet above sea level. There's a breathtaking view of El Nevado de Acay, a 19,521-foot peak nearby, plus panoramas of Chile and Bolivia in the distance. The SUVs are running fine at this rarefied altitude, but a team of medics stands ready to administer supplemental oxygen to the gasping humans who are driving them.
Earlier in the day, the convoy delivered donated school supplies to an impoverished village. The school children presented the drivers with finger-painted signs of "Thank you" and "Safe travels". The teachers baked traditional flat breads for a group lunch.
These vehicles are full of Land Rover owners who paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of communing with fellow owners for several days. They are traveling through the lonely interior of Argentina on infamously gnarly Route 40 - almost all of it dirt.
Tonight the travelers will bed down at a hostel near the summit. Last night, they bivouacked in tents at a lower altitude. The previous night, everyone enjoyed the pleasures of a "wine spa" at a four-star resort in the Mendoza wine country. Tomorrow, they will be back basking in luxury, in a Buenos Aires skyscraper.
"Buy a car, get a lifestyle," says Bob Burns, one of the Land Rover-employed instructors on the trip. Each vehicle carries its own equivalent to Burns. Three other passengers - owners, their guests and the occasional news media observer - take turns driving, and receiving technical tips, instructions and hands-on experience learning how the LR3's Terrain Response System can help them climb rocks, descend cliffs and ford streams. They also help with the inevitable repairs, flat tires and even occasionally build a log bridge to cross an otherwise impassable gap.
Land Rover is one of several brands, including Jeep, Hummer, Porsche and BMW Motorcycles, that have seen the value of teaching customers how to enjoy the full performance capabilities of their vehicles. Besides the Argentinean adventure, Land Rover has taken owners on African safaris, treks in the jungles of Belize and Icelandic sagas, to name but a few. There are also driving schools offered in various parts of the United States to teach off-roading techniques and environmentally responsible four-wheeling.
"It's a chance to meet, socialize with and feel a part of a fraternity of fellow owners and people with similar interests," said Tim Watson, a Land Rover spokesman. Burns said that he, in fact, met his fiancee at just such an event last year. A list of available activities is at www.landroverexperience.com.
Jeep, meanwhile, sponsors what it calls "loyalty events" each year. The biggest one is Camp Jeep.
"Approximately 78,500 Jeep owners and their guests have attended since its inception in 1995," said Eileen Wunderlich, a Jeep spokeswoman. "There have been Euro Camp Jeep and Camp Jeep China events as well. Jeep Jamborees, the ultimate off-roading experience for Jeep owners, have a long tradition dating back to 1953. Mark A. Smith's Jeep Jamboree USA currently conducts over 30 Jeep 4X4 trips nationwide."
There are also competitive events, such as Jeep geocaching challenges, where owners use GPS systems to find hidden "caches," provided by the Jeep brand, in remote areas nationwide. A wide range of events are detailed at www.jeep.com.
At www.porsche.com/usa/eventsandracing/, enthusiasts can find a whole range of activities, such as performance driving schools, travel clubs and grass-roots level Porsche Club owners' events. Most of the performance driving instruction takes place at the Barber Motorsports Park, near Birmingham, Ala. There's also a winter driving school at Camp4 Colorado near Vail. And Porsche offers separate instruction just for women.
"Porsche long ago recognized the value of teaching owners to enjoy their new Porsches to the fullest," said Bob Carlson, a Porsche spokesman.
The Hummer Driving Academy, near South Bend, Ind., provides H1, H2 and H3 owners "a positive off-road experience with their vehicle," says Bill Thompson of AM General, which created the academy. Offered are four-day H1 clinics, three-day H2 courses and two-day H3 programs.
They take place on a 320-acre outdoor obstacle course, specifically designed to challenge a Hummer. Participants can look forward to developing their skills in current model H1, H2 and H3 Hummers. The student/instructor ratio is two to one.
"The classes and hands-on driving techniques provided by the academy staff benefit both novices and experienced owners alike," Thompson noted.
More information on the academy is available at www.amgeneral.com under the "Vehicles & Components" category.
Details on BMW motorcycle tours, track days and training can be found at www.boxercup.com/explore.
If you are an aficionado of a certain type of vehicle, year, make or model, it is a good idea to search online for like-minded individuals, clubs or companies. It's a rapidly growing industry, and new opportunities seem to pop up daily.
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