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The Land Rover Discovery has an unbeatable combination of practicality, off-road ability and on-road manners

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The third and fourth generation Land Rover Discovery had been rolling off the production line in the Midlands for over 12 years, when Land Rover teased the all-new fifth generation Land Rover Discovery to the public at the 2016 Paris Motorshow.

With Gaydon's spotlight previously directed at its Range Rover and Land Rover Discovery Sport models, the Disco was hardly likely to get much of an anniversary party – but now it is getting some much deserved attention.

Only one engine is offered in the current Discovery, a 252bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel that's claimed to be capable of 35.3mpg

This car's square-sided, plush-but-purposeful utility flavouring may be out of step with the direction its maker has recently departed from with the Range Rover EvoqueRange Rover Sport, Land Rover Discovery Sport and the 2017 Land Rover Discovery, but this car has a lot to offer – particularly to those who like their 4x4s large, old-fashioned and unadorned, to serve as genuinely versatile and hard-working pieces of kit.

What the Discovery is got by way of a happy 10th birthday present is an exterior styling update, the addition of a fuel-saving stop-start system for its V6 turbodiesel engine, some new driver assistance systems, a new premium audio system and one or two detail revisions. It's not what you'd call a wide-ranging update but it's enough – just – to keep the seven-seater contemporary and competitive.

The Discovery's history is over a quarter of a century long and it describes the car that propped up the company throughout the 1990s. Launched in 1989, but famously leaked to the press a good deal earlier, the original Land Rover Discovery was a typically resourceful piece of British engineering. Take an ageing Range Rover chassis, stick a spacious body on top and spruce up with a decent diesel motor.

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The end result saved the company and, with the emerging MPV phenomenon, made a serious dent in estate car sales. Corking off the road, acceptable on it, the first Disco soldiered on until 1998 when it was revamped, treated to a five-cylinder diesel engine and given the option of air suspension.

Then, in 2004, Land Rover launched the Discovery 3. This wasn’t a dramatic improvement for the Discovery so much as a galactic leap. The car grew to extra-large proportions but cast an even larger shadow for its incredible breadth of ability. It instantly went to the top of the big off-roader class, being next to unstoppable in the rough stuff yet comfortable and relaxing on it.

The Land Rover Discovery received a heavy update in 2009 that brought with it a larger capacity diesel engine and warranted an upgrade to Discovery 4. While for 2014, Land Rover has dropped the '4', and replaced the 'Land Rover' badge on the bonnet for a 'Discovery' badge.

These were all minor changes made compared to the fifth generation Land Rover Discovery which to all intents and purposes looks very much like an elongated Discovery Sport.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Land Rover Discovery rear

The Discovery must still rank as one of the cleverest reinterpretations ever seen in the car world. The bluff nose, the slab of bonnet, the stepped roof and the wrap of those rear side windows instinctively tell you that not only is this a Land Rover, but also that it’s a Discovery.

Form follows function, however. Every Land Rover must offer a class-leading spread of abilities, and that meant rethinking the car’s basic structure. Two separate chassis emerged which, combined underneath the Discovery, are called Integrated Body Frame.

The Disco is such a leviathan that it barely fits in a standard parking space

This offers the strength of a ladder chassis for off-road performance and, with its unitary body on which the suspension (exotic double wishbones at each corner, and air spheres for springs) is supported, on-road performance to match the best.

The Range Rover Sport moved beyond this structure in favour of something lighter which better reflects its sporting bent, but for the more rugged Discovery, there's still nothing better. 

The spec sheet reveals one important side effect: weight. Even with a magnesium crash structure up front, the Discovery weighs a hefty 2570kg. And as we'll go on to describe, that brings this car advantages and disadvantages.

All models come with air suspension and Land Rover's trademark Terrain Response system – an electronic manager that automatically adjusts throttle response, shift pattern, ride height and stability control through five settings, according to the terrain.

Combined with an electronically controlled transfer box, a computer-controlled centre differential and a locking rear diff, Land Rover continues its central tradition of providing vehicles with capabilities far in excess of what most owners will ever need from their car.

Back on the everyday-use side of the Discovery's offering, however, the addition of automatic stop-start for the 252bhp 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engine has brought CO2 down to 213g/km, and while that does nothing for benefit-in-kind tax, it does at least move the car out of the £475-a-year road tax bracket. It was the only engine option that Land Rover offered as the Discovery was slowly phased out.

Land Rover's 2014 changes to the car consist of new headlights, a more glossy radiator grille and foglight surrounds, more rounded door mirrors and a few other touches besides. To our eyes, the grille in particular is something of a feminine affectation on this stark, granite-like design.

For 2017 Land Rover has used the same design language that has stood the Disco Sport in such good stead, and proclaim the new Discovery is faster, lighter and more economical than before. To achieve this JLR is using its new 2.0-litre Ingenium diesel engine, while reducing the big 4x4s drag coefficient and reducing the overall chassis weight by 20 percent with its new riveted and bonded aluminium monocoque.

But then to our eyes, this car never looked better than at its simple, undecorated 2004 best.

 

INTERIOR

Land Rover Discovery interior

Some 17.6 centimetres were added by Land Rover to the length of the Discovery for the 2004 version, but this transformed it from a cramped five-seater with two occasional seats to a seven-seater of unparalleled space and comfort.

Though the 2009 revision to the car added some much-needed perceived quality to the cabin, Land Rover still chooses to throw some hard, durable plastics in among the soft-touch stuff. Some buyers may not welcome such utilitarian touches, but they work superbly and lend the Discovery a useable edge.

The Discovery is impressively practical, as you'd hope given its substantial size

It isn’t perfect, though. The centre console and trip computer look a bit dated and over-complicated and it’s a shame the speedometer is hard to read. Still, with the upgrades came a high-grade touchscreen multimedia system that noticeably betters the system fitted to the Discovery 3 in terms of its usability and graphics quality.

However, if the Discovery doesn’t offer enough space, quality, comfort and things for children to twiddle, then nothing will. The three individual chairs in the second row have excellent support, and the foldaway third row is brilliantly well executed, simple to erect and big enough for adults.

The Land Rover Discovery’s 2.5 tonnes make it a somewhat intimidating device to drive, but factor in the enormous body structure, the individual three-point belts, the twin front airbags, full-length curtain side airbags and optional curtain airbags for the third row and you have a car that should ensure the safety of those on board.

As the Discovery was slowly phased out its trims were limited to just Graphite and Landmark. The entry-level model includes xenon headlights, parking sensors, roof rails, electric folding wing mirrors and 19in alloy wheels as standard, while inside there is cruise control, a reversing camera, keyless entry, a Meridian sound system, leather upholstery and heated front seats.

Upgrade to the range-topper Landmark adds 20in alloy wheels, all round heated seats, electric sunroof, heated steering wheel, rear TV screens and an uprated Meridian audio system. For those after a Disco to use and abuse as a workhorse, Land Rover created a Commercial version, which provided more plastic mouldings and easy-wipe materials inside.

The fifth generation Discovery will come in four main trims - S, SE, HSE and HSE Luxury. The entry-level model will get 19in alloy wheels, halogen headlights, a powered tailgate, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning and 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system. Upgrade to SE and you will find leather seats, LED headlights, an enhanced audio system, sat nav, rear parking sensors, and folding and heated wing mirrors fitted as standard.

The HSE models will gain premium Windsor leather seats, 16-way electrically adjustable front seats, 20in alloy wheels, a rear-view camera, keyless entry and JLR's InControl Pro infotainment system complete with a 10in touchscreen display and Meridian sound system. While the range-topping HSE Luxury trim adds 21in alloy wheels, adaptive headlights, rear TV screens, electric sunroof, 360-degree camera and uprated Meridian sound system.

For those after a more exclusive Discovery have the option to opt for the unique First Edition models which adds a fixed panaromic glass roof alongside the sunroof and 22in alloy wheels over the HSE Luxury trim.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Land Rover Discovery side profile

It’s to Jaguar’s credit that Land Rover’s loss of BMW petrol and diesel engines at the beginning of the last decade actually granted it access to even finer in-house powerplants for this car.

Essentially the same engine as fitted to the Jaguar XF saloon, and revised once again in 2011, the 2993cc V6 turbodiesel in the Discovery now produces 252bhp at 4000rpm and 442lb ft at 2000rpm. It is the only engine available in the UK market and comes with a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard.

The latest Discovery has as much accelerative thrust as you'll ever need for towing and for open-road driving

Mass inflicts large compromises on the Discovery’s straight-line performance potential. This isn't a quick car, or a quick-responding one. You won't, for example, be squirting it into gaps in traffic with abandon.

All is not lost, though. Land Rover has countered by providing unparalleled refinement and a transmission capable of wringing maximum efficiency from the last turn of the crank. 

So despite taking 9.6sec (claimed) to hit 60mph, the impression is of a car that has enough grunt if not an indulgence of it, combined with impressive deportment for one so large. The gearbox choses ratios intelligently, too, making what performance is available feel more ample than it might.

At idle the Discovery’s engine emits only the faintest noise and no vibration. It is occasionally perceptible on the move, but only as the pleasant hum of a cultured V6. Throttle response is good and, crucially, it has much more step-off thrust than the original 2.7-litre car.

RIDE & HANDLING

Land Rover Discovery rear cornering

Despite weighing the best part of three tonnes, the Discovery’s suspension manages the car’s mass – and height – with unerring precision, consistency and control. However, the almost sports-saloon levels of roadholding and agility found in the likes of the Range Rover Sport, BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne remain beyond the capabilities of the Land Rover.

Ride comfort is everything in this car. Both large and medium-sized intrusions are dismissed with silent disdain, and the Discovery's motorway ride is excellent thanks mainly to the sheer mass that's moving down the road.

The Disco's roll rate and steering rack speed seem perfectly matched; you never end up scraping the door mirrors on walls

Only very sharp, small irregularities catch the car off-guard and send a shimmy through the bodyshell, and you will of course have the characteristic wallow of a big, heavy SUV – but for most this will be an expected trait rather than a negative observation.

More difficult to pin down is the way the Discovery seems to always be at a saunter, regardless of where the speedo needle is pointing: this is a chassis that never allows itself to be flustered on-road and whose limiting factor is grip.

There’s a margin of stabilising understeer and on wet asphalt it doesn’t take too much effort to have the DSC stability system chiming in. But overall, the car’s imperturbability is mightily impressive. More impressive still is how manageable Land Rover makes this car for one so massive.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Land Rover Discovery

The scope of available specifications for the Land Rover Discovery is extensive despite there being just two mainstream trim levels: Graphite and Landmark.

Fuel consumption isn’t a Disco’s strong point. You’ll struggle to beat 28mpg in everyday use, but at least the 82-litre tank will manage over 450 miles between fills. An acceptable 30mpg is now just about achievable on a longish, conservative run.

ZF's eight-speed 'box has made a big difference to economy, as has that stop-start

Running costs will be reasonably high, as you’d expect, and unfortunately Land Rover has yet to solve some of its reliability problems – particularly with electrical glitches. It is, however, slowly improving in this respect.

Depreciation is acceptable, with demand for used examples remaining at a steady high. We would recommend going for the Landmark model; it comes with a large ranging spec, and majors on comfort and negating depreciation.

The low-spec model is tempting but demand is higher on the used market for better-equipped models when it comes to vehicles such as this.

 

VERDICT

Land Rover Discovery rear quarter

Accepting life in swayed by the Discovery’s compelling blend of character, refinement, practicality and – next to the latest breed of brash, super-sporting 4x4s – its quiet classlessness.

The next generation Land Rover Discovery has some rather large tyre tracks to follow in, and while it may not have the blocky character of its outgoing sibling, it is built on some pretty solid foundations.

It can tow and carry an impressive amount, deal with all kinds of road conditions and seat seven. SUVs don't get more useful

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Land Rover Discovery 2004-2016 First drives