There are 648 scissor lifts – cherry pickers, access platforms, call ’em what you will – at the new Jaguar Land Rover factory in Nitra, Slovakia. Not ‘about 650’, not ‘more than 600’, or – God forbid – ‘647’, because that would, logistically, be one too few. No. There are 648. Precisely.
This place is overwhelming. To me, anyway. Perhaps not you. Maybe you build car factories for a living. But to me, it’s bewildering. As I write, there are 4000 people working through the Slovakian summer, making a new factory on a site that was, this time last year, flat ground.
It’s overwhelming because it’s a car plant. I’ve seen those before, and very impressive they are too, but, not to put too fine a point on it, once they’re up, they do the same thing every day. You put in some metal and plastic at one end and, although mechanical and electronic wizardry occurs along the way, you get an appropriate and understandable number of cars out of the other. It’s like that episode of Bagpuss where the mice make the same biscuits over and over again: material in, material out. Easy enough to grasp.
A car factory under construction, though, is something else. Honestly, where do you start? Apparently, in correspondence with the Slovakian government, who say they’ll give you £125 million if you build your new factory in their back yard rather than in Mexico. Then you look down the back of the sofa to find the rest of the £1 billion the factory might cost. The EU is looking into that government grant, in case it was the reason JLR said ‘no’ to somewhere else within the EU, because that’s not the point of such grants (although it does prompt the question: “What is the point, then?”). But apparently, such toothsucking is inevitable. Besides, Volkswagen, the PSA Group and Kia already make cars in Slovakia. It is not an unusual business decision.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The factory visit is for three days’ time and will be the destination after I’ve spent 1300 miles or more at the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery, which is so far the only vehicle JLR has confirmed it will build in Slovakia.
There are other reasons for taking this trip in a Discovery. It’s Land Rover’s newest car, and although we’ve tested it before, never quite like this. When we last tested it, only off road, I figured it was probably one of the most capable cars on earth. So here I want to see the whole breadth of abilities: between London and Nitra, I want to try it flat out on a motorway, squeeze it around a city, and push it off road.
So I’ve got a plan. Get into France, and then get out of it as soon as possible, because the last time I was travelling through it, we were stopped by Le Fuzz Chaud on the autoroute and told we’d been speeding when we hadn’t. We argued the toss and they shrugged, said “Okay”, and let us go on our way, but it’s hard to imagine it happening on the M20. Anyway, I like France but it’s funny how incidents play on your mind so my plan is to get into Belgium sharpish, then Germany, put the hammer down, get lost in a German city and then look for a place to do some off-roading.
Then I meet photographer Luc Lacey at gawd o’clock on a Monday at our London office, and he tells me his plan, which is to spend more than a day in France, including shooting in a French city, and only then move on to some fabulous roads, and eventually towards Slovakia.
So naturally I agree to do that instead. As an old art editor of ours once said: you can make up the words, but you can’t make up the pictures. So the photographer always wins.
The car? It’s a Discovery in a flavour I haven’t tried before. The people at Land Rover tell me – because they would, wouldn’t they? – that this (at least) 2230kg Discovery is quite easily powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine that makes 237bhp and 369lb ft from 1500rpm; and that you barely need to worry about having the 3.0-litre V6 instead unless you tow heavy things. This one does 0-60mph in 8.0sec and 121mph on the flat and, honestly, how fast do you want a Discovery to go?
This is the perfect chance to find out. It arrives in HSE Luxury specification, which means that there’s a four-cylinder SUV on sale today at £62,695. Or, by the time you’ve added some options you’d probably pick, like a tow bar (£895) and metallic paint (£830), and some you probably wouldn’t (park heating and a head-up display, at £1035 each), this is a £74,355 car. A lot? You betcha. But apparently, more than half of Discovery Sports, the next model down the range, are sold with top specification trim, taking them, as a rule, to a list price of over £50,000. It’s no wonder JLR thinks its ranges can take ever increasing expansion upwards.
Perhaps justifying that elevated price is why it has made the Discovery look 50% more Range Rovery; from the front, at least. From the back, it’s 100% more ‘Sloth from The Goonies’, in an effort to retain some cues from the Discovery 3/4, which looks more like a design classic every day
But it still does what a Discovery should when it comes to ride quality and sits you, if not quite as imperiously as before, comfortably in an armchair. Material quality is good, and if the infotainment is still not quite the equal of BMW’s iDrive, it’s pretty well improved. It makes a journey to Nancy – the kind of distance that most people drive in a fortnight but we cover in a morning and half an afternoon – feel like a short run to the shops. The engine’s inaudible at speed (refined enough if you work it) and wind and road noise both hushed.
Nancy is pretty. And, in places, tight. This is the city experience I wanted to give the Discovery: squeezing into parallel and rightangled parking spots; creeping through width restrictors. Its large glass area, low door tops and big mirrors are a tremendous help in a 4.97m-long, 2.22m-wide car. The reverse monitor sometimes can’t quite decide which of its myriad of cameras to display, and I suspect the offset dropped rear window of the Discovery 4 would make life slightly easier, but this Discovery 5 is more smoothly manoeuvrable than any other big SUV.
No sooner have I said “do I really have to reverse park this damned thing again?” than the city box is ticked and we head towards Germany. Baden-Baden is so good they bathed it twice, and also pretty. The B500 (I like that the Germans give their good roads the same prefix as ours) is twisty and fun but is not what Germany is about for me, so we don’t dwell long. But you should.
Instead, I want to know what the Discovery is like, fast, for mile after mile – because German cars are sensational at this. Wind the Discovery up and it’ll hit 121mph, and not a jot more, which might not sound like a lot, but you don’t really want to go faster, even on the autobahn. There’s less stability while rounding bends at very high speeds than there is, I suspect, in something like an Audi Q7 or BMW X5 because both are more road biased. But the 2.0 Discovery gets up to speed surprisingly easily. At lower speeds, I find myself leaving the gearbox in ‘S’, rather than ‘D’, to give a less hesitant response. If it were me and if it were a few quid extra a month, I’d tick the box marked ‘V6’, but if you don’t, you’ll make progress briskly enough.
We do, enough to arrive at the entry to Grossglockner High Alpine Road at 8.30pm. Which is just as well, because it seems the last time you’re allowed to enter through the toll booths is 8.45pm. “This is a test car, yes?” asks the fella on the toll booth. Who, I can only imagine, must have an encyclopedic knowledge of UK press office vehicles. Still, everyone needs a hobby, I think.
But it turns out he just knows a new Discovery on UK plates with the right prefix when he sees one. Because it turns out that Grossglockner is full of industry types testing new, some disguised, cars. Or, at least, it was in the hours before we arrived, ’cos they’re all leaving as we get there.
That means the road’s empty, apart from a passing lightning storm and a sunset like Mordor in high season as the sky closes in for the night.
And the next morning? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photographer so contented. Grossglockner is, truly, fabulous. Fancy a driving holiday? Just, please, go. It gets busy, but if you’re up early, you’ll experience one of the world’s best roads. And, later, among the motorbikes and the classic tractors and the tour buses, you’ll see the engineers back, testing cooling systems and brakes, hauling heavy trailers to the top of the sort of hill that Frodo & Co would have found quite hard going.
But I haven’t had a single dose of off-roading yet. So we explore. And blow me, the photographer is still happy. We find a river. A waterfall. There’s a riverbed we can discreetly drive across, where the Discovery’s tyres present a big footprint, and its gentle power delivery and high ride option mean you’d never know we’d been there.
Look, I know, strictly speaking, it’s quite easy to drive to Slovakia without offroading, but if you wanted to wild camp, mooch, relax and drink Alpine water, the Discovery is the car to take you there. It’s photogenic enough here to stay for days. But we’ve got a building site to look at. It’s another good half-day’s drive from one of the most restful places I’ve been, to Slovakia, and it is, again, credit to the Discovery that this phase of the journey just eases by beneath its wheels. Before you know it, another hotel has lost our booking, we’ve eaten badly, the sun is up again and we’re there, at last. We’ve reached… well, there’s a certain Camp Bastion vibe to the khaki temporary buildings that’s currently the build HQ at JLR’s hot and dusty Nitra plant.
We’re given a tour. This place is vast, you know. The first phase, which will allow for construction of 150,000 cars a year, is 300,000m2. A second phase would double that output.
It’s a sister site to JLR’s Solihull factory so will make “aluminiumbodied SUVs”, whether Jaguar or Land Rovers, but “won’t be making sedans,” according to plant director Alexander Wortberg. The Discovery is confirmed for production here but others might be in the pipeline. It takes “years, not months or weeks” to prepare the factory for a particular model (box, right, explains why) but JLR isn’t saying yet. But let’s say it’s all Discoverys. Let’s say, very conservatively, they have an average purchase price of £50,000. JLR is establishing a £7.5bn-a-year business here.
But trying to get a sense of where each building fits together from down here is like watching a sports match from the touchline. What you need, to gain a sense of perspective, is elevation.
Having said our goodbyes, we just about find it. The factory is overlooked by a small hill but you’d want to get higher again to get a full sense of how the body-in-white hall flows to the paint hall, then final trim and assembly, and to see how the myriad of supporting ensembles all flow into it. But it’s late, and time is pressing on, and we’ve one more bad hotel to stay in, so it’s back to the car.
You’d pick this car, you know, for this job. Its abilities are so broad. Yes, at times I’d have rather been in a Porsche 911, at times a MercedesBenz S-Class, and at times a Renault Twizy. But the list of cars that could have done everything, with such ease, and still been appealing for a 1300-mile trek home, is a small one.
HOW TO BUILD A CAR FACTORY (USING A HELICOPTER)
The ground wasn’t broken at Jaguar Land Rover’s new Nitra plant until October last year. The first pile went in in November and at times during the winter it was -20deg C and the ground was frozen a metre deep; yet they’re still on track to hand over the building at the end of this year, ready for production.
It’s being put up quickly: a Russian heavy-lift helicopter has been commissioned, twice, to lift equipment up to the roof. Using it, it took an hour and a half to shift equipment that would otherwise have taken three weeks.
Bill Patrick, the project construction director, is the bloke who has to make it all happen and the hall we are in is where the car’s bodies will be constructed. They’ve started delivering the robots: there’ll be 588 of them, with 342 rivet guns, 18 weld guns and 106 turn tables.
They’ll sit on a totally flat floor. There are only a couple of places where the floor is broken, to install isolated test and calibration rigs. In total, this hall is 90,000m2 alone, with 398 columns holding up 5300 tonnes of steel. From the roof will hang a conveyer — the fastest in Europe — to move car bodies down the line. And everything else — power, water, air — is delivered via the roof, too.
They might want to rearrange things on the floor in future, see, so they can’t afford systems that run underground and need to be dug back up. As for power, there’s a power sub-station under construction for the factory. As well as a railhead.