Land Rover LR3Click to enlarge picture

We spent several days criss-crossing the Calchaqui River on our way up to South America's highest road.

Land Rover LR3

Of course, a squadron of Land Rovers would instill that sort of excitement even if pursuing a Holiday Inn. But since Salta resides in Argentina's northwest corner, we were bound for the Andes, and South America's highest navigable mountain pass.

Photo Gallery: Land Rover LR3 in the Andes

The LR3 was all-new in 2005, and arrived with V6 and V8 engine choices. For 2008, the 4.0-liter V6 has been dropped, making the sole engine a 300-horsepower 4.4-liter 32-valve V8 in SE or HSE trim. The LR3 interior has also been polished and features new walnut trim, plus new finishes on the center console and other interior pieces.

The chair-like front seats, which appear ready for a moonshot, are capped with headrests that seem familiar in a Volvo sort of way, and are now available in posh, pleated leather. The passenger seat gets an eight-way power adjustment, and a powered, tilt-telescoping feature has been added to the steering column.

The dolled-up interior is a tasteful complement to the already sharp exterior. Cruelly described as slab-sided, the LR3 sports the kind of polished, granitic curves that must haunt the dreams of Welsh quarrymen, and could not be more effective at conveying a sense of solidity and substance.

The blunt nose and chunky lines appear perfect for shouldering rhinos from your path, or deflecting the occasional shopping cart. In Argentina's arid, desolate, and puma-infested northwest, the LR3 proved a luxurious conveyance in truly formidable conditions.

Have No Fear, Traction Is Here

The main purpose of our Andean trek was to re-highlight the capabilities of Land Rover's Terrain Response System; a feature first introduced on the LR3, and now available across the lineup on the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and LR2.

When Terrain Response was introduced with the Discovery-replacing LR3 in 2005, its arrival was tempered by all the iDrive hysteria—even though it shares nothing with BMW's much-maligned interface but a center-console-mounted dial. Terrain Response is a massively comprehensive but exceptionally simple way to preset the vehicle for all sorts of driving conditions.

Flanked by switches for the electronically controlled high- and low-range, ride height, and hill descent control, the large Terrain Response dial has five positions: General; Grass/Gravel/Snow; Mud/Ruts; Sand; and Rock Crawl. Each mode has been optimized for the particular conditions, varying the parameters of (among others) throttle response, start-gear selection, traction and stability control, ride height and differential lock.

In General mode, the LR3 remains a supremely capable all-wheel-drive machine, and its traction and stability systems are always active, adapting to whatever conditions you encounter—Terrain Response simply presets the vehicle for a particular surface.

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With the Andes beginning to fill more of the view out the windshield, and the Terrain Response dial clicked to the appropriate setting, we clawed our way through mudded tracks, miles of deep sand, and boulder-strewn riverbeds. From the helm, the only sense was of control and consistent forward motion.

While many owners will never find a need to leave the General notch, the Grass/Gravel/Snow setting can be a boon in slippery conditions, and can also prevent embarrassing gaffs. No one wants to scar the turf after the polo match is rained-out, or paint the ski-lodge valet with a stream of slush. The Mud/Ruts, Sand, and Rock Crawl modes may be for the slightly more adventurous owner, but each is tuned to keep you moving in diverse and adverse conditions.

Our trek also provided plenty of wide-open spaces. Traveling at a pace that had us surfing contrails of dust down gravel-strewn tracks, the cabin remained a calm enclave for easy conversation. This serenity requires a solid platform, and in the LR3, the bedrock is provided by a combination of hydroformed-steel frame rails and a monocoque body shell.

Though wary of llamas, we were unperturbed by the flurry of suspension articulation beneath us, and of the furious power and traction allocation required to maintain such a swift cadence in loose conditions.

Contact High

Ruta (route) 40, which runs the length of Argentina, holds the same mythic persona to Argentineans as does our own Route 66. Between La Poma and San Antonio de Los Cobres, Ruta 40 snakes its way up to the Abra el Acay (Acay Pass), where it crests 4,895 meters (16,059 feet), one of the highest navigable tracks in the Western hemisphere.

Cycling through each of its Terrain Response modes, in both high- and low-range, we spent two days in the LR3 taking the long way up to the pass. From Cafayate, through Molinos and Cachi, we forded back and forth across the Calchaqui River, constantly hopping off the main dirt route to further test the LR3's off-road chops.

Navigable is a pliant term when behind the wheel of a Land Rover, so when we reached the 4,895-meter pass, 105-meters shy of the 5K-mark, we simply hung a right and headed up the ridge, crawling over and around sharp, deeply stained rocks until we topped out at a nice round 5,005 meters (16,420 feet).

Having just popped in with little time to acclimatize, the LR3's were faring far better than us—the altitude had many feeling a bit hazy and oddly detached from the Martian landscape. After a short stay, we hopped back into the LR3's for a descent into much-needed thicker air.

What's the point of traversing staggering terrain on such a tortuous route, conquering obstacles you'd never encounter while rescuing the kids from soccer practice? After spending hundreds of miles off-road, we realized that if these vehicles can handle such a trek without so much as a creak, the LR3 is obviously graced with a solid platform.

And if Land Rover's transparent and effective Terrain Response system can help get you to the top of the world and back, it should have no trouble delivering you and your brood safely through a daily grind of rhinos and shopping carts.

A Boston native covering motorsports and consumer electronics for the past 17 years, Paul Seredynski has been the Editor of Sportbike magazine, press officer for Kawasaki's World Superbike Team, Senior Editor at VIDEO magazine, and Leader of Automotive Media Relations for Porsche Cars North America.

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