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Car reviews - Land Rover - Discovery - HSE 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Off-road ability, features, value
Room for improvement
Outdated engine, outdated chassis

Land Rover logo2 Sep 2003

IT’S not easy to say this, but it appears time is not just catching up with the Land Rover Discovery it has actually caught and passed it.

When you consider the vehicle that has always laid the basic foundations for the Discovery – the Range Rover – just recently morphed into something totally new, it makes sense that the lesser sibling would ultimately be left somewhat out in the cold.

So while Range Rover drives off into the distance with its fully independent suspension system, unitary construction and a new range of engines dominated by an efficient, high-tech BMW V8, the Discovery is left with the now somewhat outmoded elements that date back to the original Range Rover of the early 1970s.

These include the venerable alloy V8 originally bequeathed by General Motors and a much modified but conceptually identical live-axle suspension system hanging off a full ladder chassis.

The latter allows miracles to be performed off-road but, even with all the electronic aids introduced in the late 1990s, the Discovery now lags noticeably behind the bulk of new generation 4WDs on the road.

Really, it’s only the likes of Toyota LandCruiser and Nissan Patrol (and Discovery) that continue to utilise live axles and full chassis in the name of heavy-duty off-road functionality.

But we shouldn’t denigrate the Discovery too much. In fact, compared with the LandCruiser and Patrol it does show a modicum of on-road dynamic refinement.

With – in top-of-the-line HSE versions - electronics looking after things like cornering attitude (Land Rover calls it Active Cornering Enhancement, or ACE) and maintaining a level stance even when fully loaded, the Discovery is still a step or two ahead of the Japanese behemoths.

The rear suspension, like previous and current Range Rovers, uses air springs to control ride height, although the front springs are the same coils as used in lower-end versions.

But take it on a relatively fast gravel road, with the odd corrugation thrown in, and the live axles will lose their composure.

Where a new generation 4WD like the Range Rover – or Mitsubishi Pajero – will tend to absorb the bumps and make some show of maintaining a straight line, the Disco needs a fair bit of concentration, and often a slackening of pace. There’s a lot of unsprung weight under there trying to exert control.

On smooth bitumen the story is quite different. The ACE system all but eliminates body lean and the Discovery feels almost sports car like as it hustles, flat and solid, from one corner to the next. It is certainly free of the top-heavy lurching one tends to experience in other larger 4WDs – even some of the new generation types.

And, of course, there’s the off-road ability. Here the Discovery evens the score, arguably even with Range Rover, traversing rough tracks, ditches and breathtaking climbs and descents with comfort and confidence.

Wheel articulation and relatively soft spring rates help here, and so do things like the newly re-introduced locking centre differential now featured in the latest version.

The ancient, pushrod but at least alloy-blocked V8 is smooth, if not particularly muscular, and is a great consumer of fuel – as always. Like most big 4WDs, the diesel option always seems the more practical.

Any shortfalls in silence or smoothness are usually compensated by dramatically better fuel consumption and, often, by a strong serve of turbocharged mid-range torque (in fact the 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo-diesel available in the Discovery produces as much torque, at lower rpm, as the 4.0-litre petrol V8).

That’s the dynamics. As for the packaging, the Discovery still scores pretty well, particularly since the last upgrade in the late 1990s when it gained extra length in the rear cabin that allowed the fitting of forward-facing third-row seats.

The rest of the cabin is quite spacious, with plenty of leg and shoulder space for adult occupants as well as a more than decent serve of headroom.

The HSE V8 tested here is fully loaded with all the luxury gear imaginable, from an electric sunroof to a roof-mounted Eurovox DVD player that provides plenty of distractions for rear-seat passengers. There’s plenty of leather, plus the odd touch of woodgrain and pile carpeting, to give it that British gentleman’s carriage look.

Electric front seat adjustment, a thumping sound system complete with rear headphone sockets and dual air-conditioning make for a pretty comfortable environment.

And did we say earlier that the Discovery has been left behind by the Range Rover? Well, it may have been in most ways, but a recent rework has at least maintained some sort of visual connection between the two with new, Range Rover-style "twin-pocket" headlights (that’s the way they are described by Land Rover), a new grille and front bumper and hard-to-see changes to the rear tail-light cluster which now locates its indicator lights in the upper section.

Land Rover says the new front bumper design improves the approach angle for off-road driving.

Non-visual changes include improved sound insulation, new brake callipers and a general tuning-up of the suspension. The brakes are four-wheel discs with four-channel ABS incorporating electronic brake-force distribution to apply braking where most grip is available.

The Discovery also gets Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control that enables the vehicle to be driven down steep hills with no braking effort required by the driver.

The price range spans more than $30,000, topping out at $82,000 for the turbo-diesel HSE. The more lowly models miss out on things like active suspension and ride height control, but are otherwise quite well equipped.

To live with, probably the biggest gripe with the HSE V8 would be the fuel consumption, which is usually impressive – for all the wrong reasons. Its general utility, comfort and driveability are quite acceptable for a large 4WD.

It will, however, be interesting to see where the company takes its volume-selling off-roader in the future. As it plans for challengers in the BMW X5 class, way above its current soft-roader entrant, the Freelander, the question is where the Discovery will fit in the mix.

Let’s just hope Land Rover retains its traditional hard centre.

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