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Car reviews - Land Rover - Discovery - range

Our Opinion

We like
On-road handling, off-road capability, breadth of ability, toughness, styling, engine choices, pricing, automatic transmission, ride quality, stability, equipment, interior space, comfort, versatility
Room for improvement
Weight, fuel consumption, fuel range, manual only with turbo-diesel, lack of lateral seat support

11 Nov 2004

THE arrival of the Discovery 3 is the arrival of the most convincing multi-purpose four-wheel drive yet.

This is an off-roader that drives as well on the road as, say, a BMW X5, yet also has enormous abilities off it.

There is absolutely no connection, in terms of driver feel and general road behaviour, with previous Discoverys.

Forget about the primitive top-heaviness that has been a trademark - until now - of serious off-roaders. The only heavy-duty four-wheel drive that comes close is the Mitsubishi Pajero.

It’s been said of some big 4WDs in the past that the gap between luxury sedans and modern off-roaders is narrowing. That might have been so, but where the new Discovery is concerned, the gap is virtually closed.

On the road, the Discovery 3 proceeds in a sure-footed, smooth-riding manner, requiring only light steering wheel inputs to change direction – and then doing so with the sort of precision you’d normally expect in a luxury sedan.

The Discovery feels "planted" and confidence inspiring.

Land Rover says this is its core model – the strongest-selling and the one that best defines the basic essence of the company that started the whole four-wheel drive business.

Despite the fact it has virtually no connection with the BMW-developed, premium-class Range Rover, the new Discovery nevertheless mimics its luxury sibling’s external dimensions, and runs a similar size V8 engine as well as all-independent suspension, full-time, three-differential four-wheel drive and all modern safety aids including stability control and ABS, as well as hill descent control.

Like the Range Rover, it uses a torsionally rigid unitary structure, except that it incorporates a built-in ladder frame for extra strength off-road.

The ride quality, especially with the air suspension that comes as standard from SE upward, is quite similar to the Range Rover. But even though the new Discovery is the heaviest Land Rover at between 2.5 and 2.7 tonnes depending on model (the previous version hovered around two tonnes), it actually seems less bulky.

The wider, lower stance (previously, the Discovery was wider than it was high – not any more) is reflected in the way it feels on the road. Only when it is pushed into a fast, sweeping bend are there any thoughts of excess weight.

Here, the Discovery suggests it might want to run a little wide, but a small correction of the steering wheel shows this not to be the case – it merely has the gentle, predictable understeer that is the most comfortable trait for everyday drivers.

The ride quality is what you’d expect of a heavy, air-suspended vehicle. It handles most surfaces with serenity, lacking completely the heavy thumping - signalling serious amounts of unsprung weight - that could be felt in earlier models.

It’s all quiet too, with an absence of tyre, road and wind noise akin to that of a luxury saloon. And despite the bluff, square-edged shape, there’s no wind noise to mention, apart maybe from a little fluttering around the rear-view mirrors.

The two most significant members of the new engine lineup were made available for the local Discovery 3 drive program – the Jaguar-sourced 2.7-litre V6 turbo-diesel and the Jaguar-sourced 4.4-litre V8 that is a stretched and toughened-up version of the 4.2-litre unit seen in Jaguar sedans.

It’s here that the new Discovery’s weight makes itself most noticeable. The V8 is certainly not short on power, or torque, yet it still needs to be worked to produce decent acceleration, which 8.6 seconds from zero to 100km/h certainly is.

The downside is an appetite for fuel that no amount of engine design efficiency can really overcome. But on test, the figure of 15.8 litres per 100km was probably entirely reasonable, and competitive with other heavyweights.

But even at 86 litres, the fuel tank isn’t as big as it could be, especially for those planning extended off-road trips (the turbo-diesel has a slightly smaller, 82-litre tank).

The turbo-diesel was something else altogether. Mating well with the six-speed ZF automatic transmission, it was ready and willing provided it was kept above 2000rpm.

In fact, it didn’t really start working until more like 2500rpm but from this point, to around 4000rpm, the response was satisfyingly meaty.

The ZF auto should get a mention here too, because it shifts with a beautiful smoothness, slurring the changes so well that in some cases they are all but indiscernible.

Naturally it will also program itself to match the driving style of who happens to be behind the wheel. But there’s always the sequential function to allow a much greater degree of driver control (the sequential pattern is the more universally appreciated configuration in which the driver pulls the shifter back to change down and pushes it forward to change up).

The auto is good enough that it renders the six-speed manual (also a ZF), available only with the turbo-diesel, basically unnecessary.

The Discovery 3 is also notable for its interior space and its versatility.

The split rear tailgate is able to take a couple of adult passengers standing to watch the races, while the three rows of seats can be folded into a bewildering array of configurations.

Even with the third-row seats that are standard in SE and HSE, there is plenty of stretching room. The twin rearmost seats are able to accommodate 180cm-plus passengers with surprising comfort – although, like all other seating positions in the Discovery 3, there is a slight lack of side bolstering to hold passengers firmly in place.

We discovered this when seated right up the back during the off-road section of the drive program where radical cross-slopes had us sliding around uncontrollably.

It was here that the Terrain Response system showed its worth. The tight but demanding off-road loop contained a number of seriously steep climbs, as well as carefully arranged ruts and humps, that tested the suspension travel to its maximum while also challenging the Terrain Response system to react appropriately to the conditions.

The track was limited in terms of its variety of surface conditions, but it did show how easy to use Terrain Response actually is. With its simple, dial-up operation, plus the rare ability to shift in and out of low range on the move, off-roading becomes almost ridiculously easy.

The main reservation is the weight, but Land Rover’s global managing director Matthew Taylor is on the record as saying he would like to see weight taken out of the Discovery 3.

A lot would need to be lost to make any real difference, but anything would be appreciated.

Notwithstanding, the next trip into the high country is something to look forward to.

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