There aren't too many vehicles that dominate their class in quite such an imperious manner as the Land Rover Discovery. Now the opposition has even more to fret about with latest model year bringing extra equipment and hi-tech connectivity options. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
There's nothing quite like a Land Rover Discovery and this improved fourth generation version continues to offer the toughest, the most practical and the most capable choice in the large SUV sector. Recent changes have added extra high-tech equipment, a whole raft of subtle cosmetic updates and a greater emphasis on improved efficiency and lower emissions. The result is an even more compelling multi-purpose proposition.
Without this Discovery model, it's doubtful whether the Land Rover brand would even exist today. Launched back in 1989, the original version merely bolted more spacious bodywork onto an aging Range Rover chassis but the sales it generated were enough to save the company. They also financed a more sophisticated five cylinder air suspended model in 1998 at the same time as the company's engineers were busily beavering away at something much better, the design that's ultimately become the improved fourth generation version we're looking at here.
This car traces its parentage back to the third generation Discovery3 of 2004, a design vastly superior to anything that had gone before. Until that point, family SUVs had either been very good off road or very good on it. Thanks to its double chassis and air suspended 'Integrated Body Frame' technology, this car could be both and customers loved it. Sadly, there was less sophistication beneath the bonnet and in terms of the variants on offer, customers ended up having to choose between thirsty or slow.
Hence the need for the fourth generation Discovery4 model we first saw in 2009. That car at last had a properly performing diesel engine - a 3.0-litre TDV6 unit, quickly further refined and re-badged as an 'SDV6' powerplant. But its heavy underpinnings put it at a disadvantage to more modern German rivals. Some of these Land Rover was able to take on with the second generation Range Rover Sport model launched in mid-2013, but lower-order Mercedes, BMW and Audi SUVs all still needed a competitive Discovery model to keep them honest - and this is it. Launched in the Autumn of 2013, it's now known merely as the 'Discovery' and offers greater efficiency, higher-tech equipment and slightly smarter looks. Let's put it to the test.
There's still something very special about a place behind the wheel of a Discovery. In contrast to more car-like rivals, it's not a cockpit-like experience with all the controls angled towards you as they would be in, say a Range Rover Sport. No, this is different - a place of command: a place to do business with the elements, be they the snake-infested swamps of the rainy season in the Serengeti or the snarled-up traffic of a wet windy morning on the school run.
View the car from this perspective and you're less likely to wonder why you can't throw it about with abandon and more likely to simply settle back and enjoy the class-less way it cruises through the urban landscape. It's around 500kgs heavier than its most obvious German rivals thanks to the 'Integrated Body Frame' double chassis underpinnings - which is an awful lot more bulk to carry around. So most of the time, you'll drive this Discovery at a saunter, though having said that, the torquey 256bhp 3.0-litre SDV6 diesel is always ready to break into a run, accompanied by a rather wonderful snarl at the same time as you move smoothly up and down the standard ZF auto gearbox's eight ratios. To be specific, 62mph from rest occupies 9.2s on the way to 112mph.
All of this is especially impressive in light of the fact that thankfully, Land Rover has refused to compromise on this car's legendary off road ability. So here, you get a proper heavy duty 4x4 system able to direct fully 100% of torque to either axle. And, if you do find yourself somewhere really sticky, it can be locked in the optimum 50:50 front-to-rear power-split ratio that will ease you out. If that sounds complicated, then don't worry. This car can automatically manage all the off road driving decisions you'll ever have to make thanks to the company's patented Terrain Response system. This is virtually akin to having an expert sitting alongside you, helping to get the best out of the vehicle, on or off road. It's brilliant.
Design and Build
You'd have to be quite a Land Rover enthusiast to spot the visual changes that differentiate this updated Discovery from the original version of the fourth generation model. That's probably as it should be. The Discovery has its own timeless roadway presence that the Solihull stylists mess with at their peril. So the huge slab-like bonnet, the stepped roof and the wrap effect that characterises the rear side windows - all these things are present and correct.
The bluff nose too - which is where you'll find one of the major differences in the way that this car is in future to be marketed. For the first time in this model's history, the spaced-out lettering here no longer says 'LANDROVER' but 'DISCOVERY'. Discovery, it seems, is to become a Land Rover sub-brand, just as Range Rover is. We'll see the full out-working of that plan in the next generation version of this car but for the time being, this one has received a few well chosen visual tweaks to keep it looking fresh. So there are smarter headlamps, a glossier radiator grille and foglight surrounds, restyled bumpers and more rounded door mirrors.
Nothing too major then - but of course, the important changes to this car were made some time ago. In 2004 to be exact when in the design's progression from second to third generation status, 17.6cms were added to the body length. This turned it from a cramped five-seater with two occasional extra berths to a proper seven-seat SUV unrivalled in its segment for space and comfort.
Market and Model
There's just one single seven-seat Discovery bodystyle option and a single SDV6 diesel powerplant. Expect to pay somewhere in the £41,500 to £60,000 bracket for your Discovery. The model range now starts at SE level, then runs to SE Tech and on to HSE. Follow the path chosen by most buyers in buying a mid-spec SE Tech model, then adding a few well chosen extras and you'll need a £50,000 budget - just about the level that Range Rover Sport pricing begins from. Even SE-spec buyers though, now get things like cruise control, front foglights, auto headlamps and wipers, headlight washers and an auto-dimming rear view mirror. There's also cutting-edge in-car connectivity in the form of various inControl Apps for things like sat nav, media streaming and internet radio.
If having considered all of this, you agree and have concluded that it is a Discovery you really want, then you're going to need to know what's included in the asking price. Before we get onto that, I'd point out that all models get a proper low range gearbox, a heavy duty 4WD system and Land Rover's acclaimed Terrain Response system which enables you to set the vehicle up to precisely suit the ground you're driving over.
And beyond that? Well, it shouldn't be necessary on a capable Land Rover model to pay extra for a full-sized spare wheel. And it's a pity you have to stretch to mid-spec level to get key items like the centre dash infotainment touchscreen, cruise control and roof rails but the base spec does otherwise include a reasonable amount. Expect that tally to include 19-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels, LED rear lights, automatic climate control, Bluetooth 'phone compatibility, a push-button start, rear parking sensors, a volumetric alarm, a heated front windscreen and an eight-speaker audio system with DAB Digital radio and both aux-in and USB compatibility.
Cost of Ownership
When it comes to cost of ownership, the major issue Land Rover has is the sheer weight of this car. The Integrated Body Frame with its two separate chassis that undergirds this Discovery does of course make it very effective off road but, combined with the weight of the 4WD system and the low range gearbox, also makes it very heavy by class standards at well over 2.5 tonnes. Obviously, the bluff, boxy shape doesn't help much either.
There's only so much that Land Rover engineers can do to offset this but clearly a Start/Stop system would help, one of those that cuts the engine when not in use in traffic or at the lights. It's taken quite a time for Solihull to get round to adding one of these to a Discovery, but now that it has, it's made quite a difference, CO2 returns improving to 213g/km and fuel consumption improving to 35.3mpg. While that doesn't do anything for Benefit-in-Kind tax, it does at least move the car into a slightly lower annual road tax bracket. Overall though, you'd be lucky to get much more than around 28 miles out of every gallon on a regular basis from this car.
The world takes on a different appearance from behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery. At the helm, you know you're in a car that can take on just about anything, be that a seven-up trip to the Alps or a relaxing ride home on a wet and slippery winter's night. But it's only when you put it through its paces in properly extreme terrain that the genius in its design becomes fully apparent. How can a car capable of such extremes on the rough stuff be so utterly easy to use on the school run? Only Land Rover knows.
The extra equipment and clever in-car connectivity improvements to the latest version are welcome but ultimately, the recipe is as before. There's a clever, classless feel about this car that nothing else can quite replicate. Other rival SUVs claim to be tough but at the wheel, you're always a little hesitant to see them prove that. A Discovery's different, with a sheer depth of capability that's constantly tempting you into finding reasons to test it - to enjoy what it can do. Potholed tracks no longer need to tackled at a snail's pace, the softest roadside verges become viable turning opportunities and any muddy bank cries out to be driven down and up again, just for the heck of it. In contrast, some other sportier large SUVs can feel, well, rather silly. But then, this is a different way to go in this segment. A uniquely capable car of its kind and a British success story that we should be proud of.