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First drive: Disco 3 the new benchmark

Land Rover Discovery: Never has square looked so good.

Land Rover’s latest Discovery leaves a lasting impression - on and off-road

5 Oct 2004

FORD has a lot riding on Land Rover, which in turn has plenty riding on the third generation Discovery - the fortunes of which depend significantly on Australians.

Once a stronghold for Discovery sales, Australia is home to more than 40,000 Discoverys, making it the world’s third largest Disco market and the seventh largest for the famed British off-road brand.

But despite a redesigned Series II Disco in 1998 and a subsequent facelift in late 2002, a raft of accomplished SUV newcomers – most notably Toyota’s Prado – have seen Disco fall out of favour.

Although it still represents two-thirds of Land Rover’s sales locally, with just 1388 sold so far this year Discovery remains a long way behind its best year of 4658 sales in 1997.

Enter Discovery 3, the first of a raft of new Land Rovers to be produced under Ford control.

Due to be launched Down Under in April next year, Discovery 3 builds on the model’s unique mix of off-road ability, seating for seven and either turbo-diesel or V8 grunt at a sensible price that has attracted a strong following in Australia over 15 years since the 1989 original.

Throw in a new Integrated Body-Frame platform, new V6 diesel and V8 petrol engines, air suspension and clever new adaptive chassis technology in a clean, functional and instantly recognisably new body, and it’s not surprising that Land Rover Australia says Disco 3 is perfectly suited to Australia.

The local arm expects 2400 sales in the remainder of 2005 and 3000 Disco sales annually thereafter.

This will be no mean feat in a SUV market saturated by the likes of Ford’s cut-price Territory, Toyota’s Kluger and Mitsubishi’s Pajero at one end, and luxury entrants at the other such as BMW’s X5, Mercedes-Benz M-class, Audi Allroad, Porsche Cayenne, VW Touareg, Volvo XC90, Honda MDX and Lexus RX330.

But after extensive testing over varied terrain at the international launch in northern Scotland, it seems Disco 3 is Land Rover’s best shot yet at SUV-crazy Aussies, who have always had a soft spot for Discovery.

Land Rover admits the larger, vastly less expensive monocoque-on-ladder-chassis Discovery offers a wider breadth of ability than the Range Rover flagship

Indeed, if expected pricing of between $56,000 and $91,000 – representing only an incremental price increase over the current Discovery (excluding the basic $49,990 run-out version) – proves accurate, perhaps it’s the much more expensive, BMW-developed Range Rover that should fear the new Disco most.

Interestingly, Land Rover admits the larger, vastly less expensive monocoque-on-ladder-chassis Discovery offers a wider breadth of ability than the Range Rover flagship, which it says will always appeal to a different buyer.

But while it’s true Disco 3 trades luxury for functionality, a 400km-plus loop over the greasy, varied roads of northern Scotland revealed the new Discovery delivers ride quality, steering performance and body control on par with the top-shelf Range Rover.

The range is expected to open under the luxury tax threshold at around $57,000 for the entry level Discovery S, powered by a Ford-sourced 4.0-litre petrol V6 producing 160kW at 4500rpm (13 per cent more than the outgoing 4.0-litre V8) and 360Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

The 4.0 V6 will be an auto-only variant – as with all new Discoverys, meaning an adaptive six-speed ZF unit badged 6HP26 and featuring Command Shift semi-manual mode.

Next up, still under $60,000, will be the Discovery S TDV6, featuring a new 2.7-litre turbo-diesel co-developed with Peugeot that also powers Jaguar’s S-Type (in which it features twin tubochargers) and the 407 sedan in some markets.

Also numbering 24 valves, the oil-burning V6 produces 140kW at 4000rpm and a V8-beating 445kW at just 1900rpm.

TDV6 Discos will also be available with an Aisin six-speed manual transmission similar to that found in some VZ Commodores, as a no-cost option, and together with the diesel auto is expected to comprise 50 per cent of Australian Disco 3 sales.

24 center image The most powerful Discovery S will be motivated by Jaguar’s new 4.4-litre 32-valve V8, which by 2006 will replace the similar capacity BMW V8 that powers Range Rover. Displacing an under-square bore like the TDV6, the new AJV8 delivers 220kW at 5500rpm and 427Nm at 4000rpm.

Expect to pay an extra $9000 to step up to the mid-spec, air-sprung SE version of each engine variant, meaning the base Discovery S sticks with traditional steel springs and will not be available with the optional third row of seats and its extra associated airbags.

Similarly, S variants eschew leather trim but still score items like dual-zone climate control and a six-speaker 4x17-watt CD sound system, although SE Discos get nine-speaker, six-CD 6x50-watt Harmon Kardon audio.

The premium HSE equipment level will continue and also comprises three engine options. The Discovery HSE V8 tops out the range at a little over $90,000 for extras like satellite navigation, adaptive Xenon headlights and a 14-speaker Logic 7.1 seven-channel digital surround sound system with MP3 player.

Available from SE level upwards is Discovery 3’s drawcard, Terrain Response, which is part of the Range Rover-sourced air suspension system.

Comprising the choice of five modes via a central rotary dial (distilled from 50 surface "footprints" researched worldwide), Terrain Response adjusts ride height, differential locks, traction control, hill descent control, throttle response and transmission performance to ensure the correct set-up and maximum performance over a variety of surfaces. An electronic rear diff called E-Diff is also available.

Longer (4835mm), wider (1915mm) and taller (1887mm) than before, Discovery 3 has a car-like monocoque body that wraps around a steel ladder chassis like that of traditional off-roaders.

Dubbed Integrated Body-Frame, it’s a similar construction to that of Pathfinder and Explorer and affords a 380mm longer wheelbase (2885mm), wider front and rear wheel tracks (1605/1612mm), a big 240mm of ground clearance (with air suspension) and 255/330mm of front/rear wheel articulation.

Wading depth increases to a Land Rover best of 700mm, there’s 3.3 turns of steering lock and the turning circle reduces to a tight 11.45 metres, towing capacity rises to a hefty 3500kg and the approach, departure and ramp-over angles are 37.2, 28.1 and 27.9 degrees respectively.

Land Rover claims a descent and ascent angle capability of 45 degrees, plus the ability to traverse side slopes of up to 35 degrees.

Land Rover claims its 0-100km/h targets were met, with the V8 completing the sprint in 8.5 seconds but the TDV6 taking considerably longer at 12.8 seconds.

While maximum interior loadspace increases to a huge 2558 litres (via two metres of flat floor and excluding four gloveboxes and 17.5 litres of cupholder volume!), a downside of the increased size is a drag co-efficient of just 0.41Cd.

And, although Land Rover says it hit all its weight and fuel consumption targets, kerb weights range from 2486kg for the 4.0 V6 S to a bulky 2718kg for the 2.7 V6 HSE. The current Discovery weighs 2075kg, while X5 weighs 2200kg and even LandCruiser V8 is lighter at 2588kg.

Disco 3 was designed to achieve a maximum five-star European NCAP crash rating

Discovery 3 chief engineer Steve Haywood said he would have preferred to have made the final product lighter, but side impact and rollover protection necessitated the use of heavy boron steel in the A and B-pillars.

The bonnet and tailgate were already aluminium and the fascia magnesium, and that final weight was still in the ballpark of its SUV rivals, Mr Haywood said.

As it stands, he said, Disco 3 is almost as rigid as X5 and more rigid than any full-chassis vehicle with torsional stiffness of 20,000Nm per degree, while the lighter but less rugged Range Rover is stiffer again at 32,000Nm/degree.

Disco 3 was designed to achieve a maximum five-star European NCAP crash rating and affords both upper and lower frontal crash paths, the latter to prevent riding over smaller vehicles, thus making it "friendlier" than most large SUVs in a collision.

Described as the most advanced Land Rover ever, Discovery 3 was subjected to what is claimed to be the toughest development program ever conducted for a Land Rover, if not for any vehicle, by covering four million test kilometres in Scandinavia, the Middle East, US, Australia and even the Nurburgring’s northern circuit in Germany.

Evident in the finished product are traditional Discovery styling cues combined with a clean and modern, geometrical look that’s unmistakable both inside and out.

Discovery’s trademark stepped roofline with three sunroofs continues, as does the low window sill line and the split-level rear window, which now opens separately.

Also new is a shoulder crease that runs the entire length but excludes the doors, rear side windows that extend onto the roof (but this time only on the outside), a Range Rover-style single-slat grille, twin-pocket headlights and, most strikingly, an air inlet on the right front quarter panel.

Disco 3 will be supported by the largest accessory program ever offered by Land Rover, including a snorkel that attaches to the air intake, bullbars, roofrails, light guards and winches.


NEVER has square looked so good. In an automotive design world that introduces ever rounder shapes, the unashamedly boxy, geometric shape of Discovery 3 stands out as a product of both purpose and individuality.

Shouting its function-over-form mantra from the rooftops when others tread an entirely different route, the gen-three Disco is uncompromising in its quest to deliver simple solutions to motoring’s problems.

Take the tailgate, which continues with Discovery’s hallmark split-level glass but is altogether cleaner and lighter because the spare wheel is mounted underneath.

What’s more, it is now split horizontally, with the large window opening separately to aid quick loading and to provide temporary shelter, while the shorter tailgate section also helps rear loading and can handle the weight of three adults to form a viewing platform.

Of coarse, hard-core off-roaders may lament the underbody-mounted spare, which could make wheel changes messy in the mud - but hands up who’s done that recently? But a spare wheel release ratchet location that requires the removal of luggage may be cause for more concern.

Similarly, the front quarter air vent is positioned to draw the freshest air possible without reducing wading depth and, although it’s on the right side only "because one on the other side would be unnecessary", forms a brand-new, Range Rover-style design element.

The functional theme extends inside, where the trademark low shoulder line continues but no longer are the occupants left feeling vulnerable by sitting virtually on top of it.

Gone are the too-tall seats of previous Discoverys. This time there’s plenty of stretching room in all directions for all seven seating positions, despite the fact they are arranged theatre-style, with each row taller than that in front to provide good vision for all. This is aided in no small part by thin A-pillars and three overhead sunroofs (although only the front one opens).

Further, the ultra-flexible interior is as practical as many people-movers, thanks to a second row that’s split 30-35-30 in seven-seat guise (50-50 in standard five-seat mode) and can transform the middle position into a footstool, or fold its outboard seats to accommodate long items like skis while still offering seating for six. In all, 108 seating combinations are claimed and maximum space is now available without removing seats.

Third row passengers no longer enter via the tailgate, with the quick-release middle row folding easily to allow quick access. The rear seats offer a surprisingly deep footwell to accommodate full-size adults with relative ease.

Disco 3 might not be as luxurious as Rangie, but it is far more flexible and accommodating

Of course, all seats fold flat into the floor, delivering two metres of flat load space, and there’s still room for suitcases behind the third row.

Overall, Disco 3’s interior design leaves its forebears for dead, with a comfortable yet commanding driving position, highly ergonomic location of controls and bold but functional switchgear including chunky, rubberised finishes.

Disco 3 might not be as luxurious as Rangie, but it is far more flexible and accommodating.

Cleverness is evident even in the new integrated keyfob, which is self-charging, shock-poof enough to withstand a 25-metre drop and waterproof to 10 metres. There’s also a handy electric park brake that disengages automatically in auto versions.

Disappointingly, only top-spec HSE examples were made available at the global launch, so we have no idea how the steel-sprung, entry level Discovery S handles, but the air-suspended cars we sampled were outstanding, even by Range Rover standards.

A world apart from even the variable stabiliser-bar equipped current Discovery, Land Rover’s clever new Terrain Response air suspension system delivers levels of body control even Range Rover can’t match.

Carrying more weight and a bigger body, Disco 3 simply refused to become ruffled by the many obstacles encountered on Scotland’s less than perfect northern roads.

Maintaining a flat stance even during the most enthusiastic cornering and making light work of tight steering situations via a tight turning circle and well balanced weighting, Disco 3’s weight and size became apparent only in long, uphill situations in upper gears.

Relatively easily overcome by the free-spinning Jaguar V8 in unison with a smooth-shifting six-speed auto that’s highly adaptive but still overrides its driver’s manual-shift commands, Discovery’s significant weight increase is more noticeable in turbo-diesel trim, even when mated to the slick-shifting six-slot manual.

Responsive enough off the mark and in lower gears, the TDV6 fell considerably short of its V8 stablemate in terms of high speed and overtaking response, but its fuel consumption was also markedly lower than the 23 litres per 100km we averaged after reasonably hard use in the V8.

But it’s off-road where Discovery’s new Terrain Response system really shines. Land Rover appears not only to have solved many on-road performance issues presented by a large, heavy SUV with its new air suspension system, but also one of the greatest off-road issues.

As every off-road enthusiast will know, sand driving requires plenty of revs, the ability to wheelspin, differential locks and later gearchange points to maintain momentum. At the other end of the spectrum, mud driving requires a low traction control intervention threshold, short-shifting and hill descent control to prevent wheel spin or slip.

Requiring virtually the exact opposite in terms of engine, transmission, suspension and traction control response, the two situations “bookend” a whole range of situations that few vehicles can cope with using a single chassis set-up.

Land Rover’s solution is so simple it’s a wonder nobody has come up with a similar response sooner. Taking air springs from Range Rover and the wet clutch-based centre locking differential from the likes of Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg, Discovery 3 adds Terrain Response, a software system that controls hardware including the air suspension (ride height), centre and (optional) rear diff lock, ABS, engine and transmission.

For example, in rock crawl mode maximum ride height is selected, centre and rear diffs are locked, traction control eliminates wheel slip, the throttle pedal becomes more progressive and the lowest hill descent control speed is selected.

In sand mode the transmission changes down earlier and increased wheel spin is allowed to maintain momentum, while in mud-and-ruts mode diffs are partly locked and the transmission upshifts earlier.

A deeply rutted mud section over which all Discos scraped their underbellies yet lost little traction proved the system’s worth

Finally, in grass-gravel-snow mode the traction control system cuts all slippage, diffs are locked and torque delivery is softer, while general driving mode automatically selects the best overall setting for most on-road conditions.

An opportunity to sample all five modes showed the worth of Terrain Response in each situation, while selecting the wrong mode for a given surface revealed just how much work the system does.

The air suspension comprises a ride height range of 105mm, extending from an "access" mode that’s even lower than Range Rover’s to an extra off-road mode that is automatically selected if the system detects underbody drag.

A deeply rutted mud section over which all Discos scraped their underbellies yet lost little traction proved the system’s worth, as did the more progressive electronic throttle travel in rock crawl mode.

A man-made articulation test over large rocks also revealed just how much suspension travel the new Disco offers.

With the same 260mm of front and 330mm of rear wheel articulation as the previous model, the double wishbone, all-independent Disco 3 delivers better traction, through its ability to adapt engine, transmission and traction control systems to suit a variety of terrains.

Of course, lower ride height and adaptive damping delivers Disco’s impressive road-going handling performance too, but Land Rover engineers further developments like variable anti-roll bars and tyre pressures are also in the pipeline.

Land Rover seems to have struck an innovative chassis control system that’s not only unique but offers significant real world advantages, both off-road and on.

With a best-of-both-worlds monocoque-on-chassis construction, Discovery provides all the strength, durability and weight distribution advantages of a ladder chassis with the on-road advantages of a unitary body (ride quality, taut steering and suspension location).

Weight, it seems, is the only downside in the equation, and though Discovery 3 can never fully hide its bulk in hard cornering and acceleration situations, it disguises it damn well most of the time.

Discovery may be heavier than Range Rover, but it’s also bigger, sturdier and will go more places while maintaining a level of on-road performance most people will find comparable.

While only a full test on home soil will either prove or disprove Land Rover’s claim that Discovery 3 is as capable off-road as LandCruiser, there’s no question the British vehicles offers more style, individuality and personality than Prado. For these reasons alone, Disco deserves to earn a solid following here.

A full-sized European off-roader with a performance envelope to which others can only aspire, the vastly improved third generation Discovery will represent outstanding value in the over-subscribed Australian SUV market.

It’s a shame seven seats aren’t available in the base S, which would make it unbeatable value.

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