Get That Ute Off The Highway

THE 4X4 IS THE EPITOME OF suburban chic. One in seven cars sold in the United States today is a sport utility vehicle, but we all know Americans aren't buying them for rugged, outdoorsy reasons. Take Michael Egan, 36: he got a Range Rover for his wife to use on the madhouse highways outside Boston when ferrying the kids to day care. His cousin Kevin Fitzgerald, 35, discovered that a Ford Explorer was the perfect place to store his golf clubs and fishing gear. Indeed, a mere 10 percent of 4x4 owners ever test terrain rougher than a gravel driveway.

But last week the cousins discovered what ""utes'' are really made for - and how much fun they can be. At the Land Rover Driving School in Manchester, Vt., the two navigated steep climbs, tree-flanked curves and muddy ditches. Land Rover's is the nation's first year-round, manufacturer-sponsored off-road school. Since it opened in April at the Equinox resort, more than 300 students have taken lessons on a man-made course and old logging roads - paying from $120 for an hour tutorial to $995 for a day's excursion.

Head instructor Jonathan Slavin, 34, a Brit cloaked in khaki and aviator Ray-Bans, has four-wheeled it across the Sahara seven times, so he makes the course look easy. He guides a Range Rover up a steep hill until the windshield reveals only clouds. The beast hovers atop the peak before Slavin eases it down the other side. Then as he scoots sideways across a hill - the Rover at a nerve-racking 30 degrees - Slavin reassures: it can tilt ""another 10'' without toppling. But even he steers gingerly through a tunnel of trees. ""The last thing you want is an arborial stop,'' he notes.

Next he turns the wheel over to his student. Using low gears and the recommended two-step technique (left foot on the brake; right foot on the gas), a novice can achieve a smooth ride on terrain as rutted as the surface of Mars. The trick is speed, or lack thereof. The school slogan is ""As slow as possible, as fast as necessary.'' Then, with the Rover in first gear and aimed straight down a rocky slope, Slavin orders, ""Take your foot off the brake. All the way off.'' Though it appears headed for a dusty oblivion, the vehicle glides gracefully downhill, relying on the engine to keep it in check. Maybe the best thing about the school: it provides the utes. Said a relieved Egan: ""I was just happy that it wasn't my car.''

Get That Ute Off The Highway | News