9 April 2004

Land Rover this week unveils its all-new Discovery off-roader, first of a brilliant new family of Solihull-built models which will eventually encompass the Defender, Range Rover Sport and the existing Range Rover’s replacement.

As revealed in our exclusive gallery pictures, the new Disco, Land Rover’s first model to use the new T5 platform, is both far better built and more efficiently packaged than its predecessor, which was launched at the 1988 NEC show, and has roots reaching back to 1970.

According to managing director Matthew Taylor, the new Discovery is designed to dominate the sector it helped invent. Its task is to maintain the versatile, family-friendly spirit of the original Discovery, while introducing new technology to broaden the model’s appeal.

Land Rover is pushing the Discovery a little upmarket in its new guise, with launch prices starting at just under £29,000 and rising to £47k, keeping it separate from the £50k-plus Range Rover flagship.

Land Rover expects to start making cars in July, in time to meet a first-delivery schedule late in October.

Design

Discovery 3’s imposing, architectural shape is deliberately intended to emphasise its utility, according to Land Rover design chief Geoff Upex. It also stretches the cabin capacity.

The new shape cleverly echoes the old model’s stepped roof, adding to rear headroom, but the ‘Alpine light’ glazing in the rear roof has gone.

As a result of its extra size, the cabin has room for three rows of seats, each capable of carrying a full-size adult. Yet the Discovery is only about 10cm longer than the outgoing, cramped model, and still 10cm shorter than the Range Rover.

However, the wheelbase is a mighty 35.5cm longer than its predecessor’s, a layout that allows much better rear-door access and improved legroom for middle-row passengers. Second- and third-row seats fold into the floor, Zafira-style, giving the Discovery a huge, uncluttered load bay with class-leading carrying capacity.

Construction

The T5 platform introduces a new construction method which Land Rover calls an Integrated Body-frame. In essence, this places a self-supporting steel monocoque on top of a modern-design ladder chassis to provide a massively strong structure with the refinements (tight panel gaps, fine surface finish and excellent vibration suppression) of a modern monocoque.

The technique was first used on the Freelander, which also has a mono body atop a simple chassis frame, but the company says the Discovery 3 moves the technology on a long way.

All this strength and stiffness does nothing to save weight, however. The Disco weighs in at a cool 2400kg, around 150kg more than the outgoing model, itself no lightweight.

Engines

There will be two engines in the UK, both new to Land Rover. The petrol option will be a stroked, 4.4-litre version of the recently expanded all-aluminium 4.2-litre Jaguar V8, with many ancillaries shifted to the top of the engine for good access and better protection from off-roading damage. The engine produces a healthy 295bhp at 5500rpm, plus 314lb ft of torque at 4000rpm.

The diesel option – strongly tipped to be UK buyers’ favourite – is a 187bhp, 2.7-litre V6 built in Ford’s new Dagenham diesel plant to a Ford-PSA design. Its spectacular 325lb ft torque peak is developed at just 1900rpm.

Suspension and brakes

Big news here. The new Discovery gets all-new independent suspension by double wishbones. All but the lowest-spec models have height-adjustable air springs, similar to those in the Range Rover. Base models make do with coil springs.

Air springs – a compact, easy-to-package design which is new to Land Rover – allow simple height adjustability. This means the vehicle can be raised to traverse extremely bad roads, or lowered for loading and restricted-height car parks.

Brakes are all-disc, with an integral drum handbrake cast into the rears. All models have anti-lock with electronic brake assist and brakeforce distribution. Most also get DSC stability control. Steering is by power-assisted rack and pinion, and the latest Disco improves considerably on its predecessor’s oil-tanker turning circle.

Drivetrain

Land Rover engineers are proud of their new Terrain Response system, which lets drivers customise the car’s sophisticated dynamic systems – traction control, anti-lock, transmission settings, locking diffs, hill descent control and suspension height – through one easy-to-use control. Drivers simply set the rotary switch between the front seats to match prevailing road conditions.

Five settings are available: normal driving, slippery conditions, mud and ruts, sand, and rock crawl. The system self-selects the correct traction, height and even throttle sensitivity for the job in hand.

There’s more. Discovery 3 comes with electrically controlled clutch-type centre and rear locking differentials, which decide for themselves when locking is appropriate. All the traction systems use an advanced central wiring system, which notably smooths the response and cuts the required ‘thinking’ time.

Cabin

The new Discovery’s cabin is designed for maximum utility and flexibility. It can hold a maximum of seven adults, but there’s also a more spacious two-two-two seating layout if needed. This also raises the seating height of the rear-most passengers to give them good visibility over occupants in the centre and front rows. If the buyer wishes, the Disco can also be specified with no fewer than three separate sunroofs.

The third row of forward-facing seats endow the Discovery with its party trick. They are operated with one light touch and disappear completely into the floor like those in a Zafira. What’s more, Land Rover claims that 95 per cent of adults can fit in them comfortably.

The fascia design is reminiscent of the Range Rover’s much-praised treatment, especially its vertical mouldings and round eyeball vents. The overall ambience represents a massive jump from today’s ageing cabin.

Testing

Many manufacturers do their testing by computer simulation these days, but Land Rover, which sells in 140 world markets, insists on testing real Discovery prototypes in the harshest conditions. Field tests are reaching their climax now, but engineers have already taken 75 prototypes to Arizona for high-speed tests on the Baja proving ground, and to US cities, the Middle East, Scandinavia, Australia, Alaska and South Africa.

Among Land Rover’s engineers, there’s an acknowledgement that this platform will be the basis for many Land Rovers to come, and it must be built as tough and wrinkle-free as possible right from the beginning.

As one test veteran told Autocar: ‘Unless we prove these vehicles to the limit, and deliver the class-leading production models we promised, those letters across the bonnet will be merely a badge. We want them to be a promise.’

Steve Cropley

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