The Land Rover Discovery has an unbeatable combination of practicality, off-road ability and on-road manners
First DriveWith an all-new, fifth-generation discovery around the corner, we revisit the current car in special-edition Landmark form
First DriveThe Discovery is an exceptionally versatile vehicle: a grade-one off-roader, proper seven-seater and rapid and luxurious way to cover distances
After all the talk and all the hype, after the parties and the grand unveiling in New York, and the book with which this magazine documented its genesis, our first encounter with a Land Rover Discovery 3 we could actually drive was simple to the point of starkness.
We arrived at Land Rover’s Gaydon headquarters at midnight. Our silver test car was parked alone by the gatehouse under a single sodium light. The security guard gave us the keys; there were no engineers or public relations men explaining it all, saying the right things. No talk now. Just answers.
We know that you’re desperate to read about how the thing drives. But it’s worth waiting a paragraph to recall why that judgment is so important, and why the launch of the Discovery 3 is generating the talk it is. This one car encapsulates the history and future of Ford’s relationship with Land Rover.
Within a month of Ford buying the firm from BMW, work started on the T5 platform on which this car is built and which will give foundation to four cars: this one, the new Range Rover Sport, the new Defender and probably the next Range Rover, too. The car will tell us if Ford has understood Land Rover; its sales will tell Ford if the $2.7bn (£1.5bn) it paid for Land Rover was a wise investment.
Discovery 3 is critical to Land Rover’s planned return to profit, for although the Freelander will sell 10,000 more each year, the new Discovery’s higher price means its 60,000 units will represent Land Rover’s biggest single source of income. It has to be good enough to be a breadwinner for 10 years – off-roaders, and Land Rovers in particular, are longer-lived than most cars.
It has to convince the loyal but idiosyncratic buyers of the old Discovery, who are so attached to this capable-but-grossly-outdated car that sales in the first quarter of this year went up 17 per cent – maybe they thought Land Rover couldn’t possibly build a better car.
But convincing new buyers is more important, particularly in gold-rush China and in America, the biggest of Land Rover’s 142 markets but one which ought to be bigger yet given its obsession with the SUV. The company’s 11,000 employees will be willing them to peel off the greenbacks, as will workers at the Dagenham engine plant that makes the diesel that will power 90 per cent of Discoverys sold in Europe, and the 600 Mayflower employees who stamp out its panels, because this is about as British a car as you’ll find from a global group – designed here, engineered here, built here.
The weight of expectation shows only in its weight. In building what ought to be one of the most versatile cars on sale, Land Rover has also created one of the heaviest at over 2.7 tonnes unladen, a third of a tonne heavier than a Range Rover. It’s the only fact your eye stumbles over in the specification and we were about to discover if it would feel as significant on road as on paper.
But no matter how much you want to drive it, the new styling demands at least a double walkaround. Our car looked sensational under the monochrome yellow lamp. Land Rover learned long ago that, in styling, functionality breeds longevity. There are few details to date: the interrupted waistline and asymmetric tailgate are the two stand-out features, but you feel they’ll become Land Rover hallmarks rather than the silent victims of a mid-life facelift.
Elsewhere, the styling simply does what it needs to. It’s plainly a Land Rover (lamps, clamshell bonnet), it’s plainly a Disco (alpine roofline) and it plainly isn’t a Range Rover (ditto). It’s an appealing, coherent effort, purposeful without looking threatening, important at a time when SUVs need to rebut their undeserved sociopathic image.
And you’ll suppress the desire to drive it for a few minutes longer to play origami with the seats. Land Rover sees the cabin as critical to its new car’s success, and it has stretched the wheelbase by 355mm to package an optional third row of seats capable of accommodating adults in as much comfort as the first two rows, but shorter overhangs mean the new car is only 130mm longer overall than the old Disco. It’s also slightly wider to aid handling and fractionally lower to fit in more car parks.
The third row of seats does just what it claims to, and when not required it folds easily and artfully to leave a low, flat floor to the colossal boot.
The middle row tumbles forward to provide access to the rears as easy as in the best MPVs, and once in you have deep footwells, plenty of head- and kneeroom, an oddments bin, one of the vast cupholders with which Land Rover hopes to woo endlessly thirsty Americans and even an optional sunroof and headphone socket with separate audio controls.
The middle row hasn’t been raided for space, either: it offers more legroom than before and will take a six-foot passenger behind a six-foot driver, although the seats are rather hard and flat.
Things get interesting again in the front. The Range Rover’s cabin was probably its single best-received feature and you’re immediately conscious of its influence in the Discovery, both in the way the new car follows its strong vertical and horizontal lines, but also in its deliberate effort to be different in its use of materials.
Once again, Land Rover has come up with an entirely fresh cabin treatment, this time eschewing any attempt at luxury in favour of an honest functionality that borders on the military.
It really works. There are lots of switches but they’re logically arrayed – if optimised for left-hand drivers – and the central console will easily accommodate two vast drinks and the entire contents of your pockets in its deep, rubber-lined cubbies.
This is a car you can live in. The flip side is that the rejection of wood and leather means the entire cockpit module is made of umpteen different grades of plastic, few of which match the standards seen in a BMW X5 or Volvo XC90. And we wonder if more traditional buyers, particularly Americans, expecting a traditional British premium cabin, will react against the Operation Enduring Freedom look.
Key in ignition, finally. The cockpit lights up a gentle green, but the main dials in the binnacle look thin, mean and lost. But you’re soon distracted by the fact that the optional bi-xenon headlamps have turned night into day.
They can be specified, as ours were, with an adaptive function which throws extra light on the inside of corners. They have such range and power that they feel almost antisocial to use, but subjectively they’re the best headlamps we’ve ever tried.
Turn the key and, even from cold, you’ll be staggered at the refinement of the 2720cc diesel V6. Regardless of revs or temperature there’s simply no vibration through the control surfaces. At idle or a steady cruise it’s effectively silent; under full acceleration there’s a mighty, non-fuel specific turbo’d whoosh, but under light load at low revs there’s a very distant diesel clatter which you don’t get in Jaguar’s twin-turbo take on this engine. It’s almost as if Land Rover engineered it back into its slightly torquier single-turbo version to remind us of the Discovery’s utilitarian roots.
So how does 188bhp at 4000rpm and 328lb ft at 1900rpm cope with the heaviest car on sale? Not terribly well. The Discovery is such a big car that you’re not inclined to drive it particularly quickly, so up to around 60mph the acceleration feels adequate and, as we’ll see, the chassis allows the car to carry what pace it can summon. But on the motorway the deficiency shows.
It will kick down a gear at 70mph, but the climb to 80mph is eternal. From a steady 80mph there’s no kickdown and no appreciable acceleration, though with time it will manage a 90mph cruise. The faster you go, the more the lack of power shows, but the less relevant it is to UK use. But it is relevant in the European markets where people drive fast and buy diesels, and we wonder how far this failing will hamper sales.
We managed 60mph in 12.5sec but this diesel auto is one of the few cars now on sale incapable of hitting 100mph at Millbrook’s mile straight. Top speed is just 109mph. At least the brakes are strong, if lacking in feel, and the now near-ubiquitous ZF six-speed auto makes the most of the torque with its usual fluent, intuitive shifts. An 82-litre fuel tank also makes for a very acceptable 500-mile range.
The new platform is aimed at making this and future Land Rovers as capable on-road as off; the old Disco’s talents were almost exclusively dirty. The new car naturally gets the full range of off-road hardware: a low-range gearbox, adjustable ride height, Hill Descent Control and the new Terrain Response system which tunes these aids and the throttle, traction control, differential, brake and gearbox mapping to suit one of five types of terrain.
We’ll examine the new car’s off-road ability in the group test on page 54; but for now we’ll concentrate on how the double wishbones, air springs and the ‘integrated body frame’ construction (which mates a monocoque body to a traditional off-roader ladder frame) coped with the Welsh roads we headed to and the motorways and A-roads that took us there.
You notice the cats’ eyes first. Or rather you don’t. Even on the biggest, optional 19-inch rims there’s enough sidewall compliance in the tyres, so much weight and so much material between you and the road that you can just about hear them as you change lanes on the motorway, but you just don’t feel them. The Discovery rides them, minor scars and coarse surfaces better than just about anything else, despite its air springs which often transmit, rather than absorb, this sort of nuisance.
It handles the biggest obstacles almost as easily, riding long crests and dips with impressive body control for such a tall, heavy car. Body roll is far more pronounced but you can predict it and deal with it – these cars get into trouble when the body gets out of synch with vertical undulations in the road. It happens noticeably less in the new Discovery than the old car or its off-road-optimised rivals.
But what it fails to deal with is the stuff in between: the bigger craters which blight B-road and urban street alike and which are too deep to be smothered by the Discovery’s simple mass. These seem to show that the ‘integrated body frame’ isn’t quite as stiff as a monocoque, setting off noise, jolt and trim rattles you wouldn’t witness in an X5 or XC90.
But the steering is the real surprise. The hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion system is mounted directly to the chassis rails for stiffness and precision. And it works. Almost uniquely in this class, input equals reaction. The Discovery will never be much fun to point down a B-road, but the confidence with which you’ll do it is down to the speed and accuracy of the steering rack as much as the body control.
But there’s a payoff on fast multi-lane roads: the car’s weight and wheelbase give it great directional stability and it will never, in normal use, get much above 90mph, so you’ll seldom need to correct its trajectory. But the steering is so sharp that deliberate movements like lane changes have to be carefully measured or the car will start to pitch and roll as well as turn. It feels odd in a vehicle which ought to knock out 500-mile motorway journeys with utter composure. It will feel odder still to German and American buyers.
When the Range Rover was launched we were astonished by its breadth of ability. With two more seats, ride and refinement at least as good, much of the image and a significantly lower list price, the Discovery is at least as impressive – even if its weight is a worry.
It proves that Ford has understood the brand it bought four years ago, and most importantly it offers a combination of talents which, individually, its rivals will struggle to match – impressive when the rivals are some of the most capable cars in the world. Seems all the talk was justified.