Discovery: Confidently heading for higher trails

The point where traditional distinctions between the Discovery and the Range Rover continue to blur.
Monday August 21, 2017
For: Comfort, technology, ergonomics, handling, versatility, space.
Against:  Awkward rear; has lost simple and blocky utilitarianism of old; price.

 

By Richard Bosselman

Photos by Lewis Gardner

 

EVERYONE will be aware that Land Rover has changed course – it identifies that an ability to smash through the worst geography and conditions that Nature can concoct only goes so far.

Being better by far at bush-bashing remains a brilliant image for marketing, but these days the brand accepts the most crucial expedition has to be into the urban jungle.

That’s why every new product is developed to steer a fine line between the old world and the new.

That sounds simple enough, but realistically it’s an easier feat for those already upmarket Range Rover products which rarely, if ever, get dirty than for the mainstream green badged derivatives, which are expected to continue bogging in.

Not least the largest of the latter. With the demise of the last truly agricultural Landie, the Defender, the Discovery is now the rig onto which a huge tonnage of expectation falls upon: It has to do everything, from raising a sweat to looking swank. It has to still walk the off-road walk yet also has to have the chutzpah to look chic in all the right places.

How easy is it for a workhorse cum family wagon to also fulfil as a city sophisticate?

Easy as pie, as it happens. A task that outwardly appears to be some kind of mission impossible is something of a cinch because, in perhaps the most shocking development yet in Land Rover model history, the new Discovery has become a Range Rover. Or at least, such a well-sorted machine that it could now be sensibly considered a decent substitute.

I’m sure that close comparison between a full-sized Rangie and this rig might unravel that argument to a degree; because historically, there have always been levels of excellence.

Yet I’d wager there’s a very high chance that anyone who considers the Discovery in isolation, even in the mid-grade $126,900 HSE turbodiesel form tested here, will be lulled into imagining it is unsurpassable in respect to its trim and technology.

For a machine that is not designed to be a luxury car – at least, nowhere near as comprehensively as the Range Rover line is – it really does come across as being special, sophisticated and swish.

All the same, it’s not perfect. Design is always so subjective, but to me this is a much better looking car from the inside peering out. Whereas the cabin environment is just brilliant in look and layout, I’m not sure the same came be said about the exterior.

Discovery design has always followed industrial guidelines and, yes, it’s probably a step forward that this is the first generation that doesn’t look as though it has decided to wear the box it came in.

This one has more curves and more complexity. The intent is to make what is still a very big car – it measures a fraction under five metres long and is 1846mm tall with the air suspension locked onto its lowest setting – look slightly less imposing. Plus, of course, they’ve sought to tie in a familial resemblance with the next-size-down Discovery Sport.

If place side-by-side, I suspect the smaller model would have the more cohesive appearance. With the Discovery, you’re going to discover that opinion about the design is going to depend on which angle it is viewed from. 

The front is stunning; just like the Sport. Nice lights. The silhouette isn’t too bad, either, though, as with the face, it’s not as rugged as before, but it passes.

The rear, however, is … erm … difficult to come to terms with. Most people who shared opinion reckoned it was as weak as the face is strong. There’s something about it that seems plain and awkward.

We’re now two generations beyond when a Disco last carried a spare wheel on the back, so I don’t get why there’s need to continue with the odd placement of the rear number plate, the funny window shape and asymmetric line across the boot - meant to evoke the lines of the old split-tailgate on what is now a one-piece lid. Agreed, it’s nice to reflect on history, but I cannot help but think this has become an irritating meddling. I mean, back when the Disco had a spare on the back, so did every other large hefty off-roader. What’s so special?

But that’s the detailing; more irksome is that the rear is almost as anonymous as the front is memorable. What’s going on? Could it be that (start ominous conspiracy theory soundtrack now) this is designer Gerry McGovern identifying that, if this car was considered too good, it might actually threaten the rest of the species. You and I know how often cars sell themselves on their kerbside appeal. If it had a better-looking bum, it might scupper the Range Rover there and then. So maybe this is a way of avoiding that.

This isn’t the only evidence to support the intentional sabotage theory. Slide inside and the quality of the materials is definitely Range Rover. The days when 'Land Rover' and 'quality' were never expected to be found together in anything but the punchline of a wry joke are also mainly over.

But that’s not to say that they’ve achieved absolute perfection. I quietly quit a demonstration of the neat feature of how the centre and rearmost seats can be lowered into the floor, and raised out of it again, together or individually by electronic means when the controller switch panel in the boot started to come adrift.

Also, they SAY the little fold-down flap that, in addition to acting as a load protector, can be a seat that can hold up to 300kg. But it doesn’t look as robust as the bottom half of the old split-tailgate.

Ah, well, minor details. What I really liked was the comfort and the sense of, well, sensibility. The practicality is almost over-the-top you expect to find cubbies with cubbies. Actually, there are. The infotainment system – which, admittedly, annoys because it doesn’t support Apple CarPlay (yes, that’s right chaps, something developed in the first big colony you lost) - pops open with a small storage area hidden behind for more important valuables like wallets, tiaras and so on.

There are 21 stowage options in the cabin. You can fit and store four iPads in the centre console and if you need some charge for power hungry devices, there are up to nine USB ports available across all three rows. The other big off-roader I had in the driveway at the time, a certain American model, had just the one.

The seats are brilliant. And I don’t just mean those for the driver and the most favoured passenger. All the seats are brilliant. The Discovery is an actual seven-seater, not a five plus two.

Regardless that the integration of five ISOFIX points suggests a smaller audience, the second and row chairs and the space they occupy are shaped to take adults.

The centre and rear seats site slight higher than the fronts, everyone has a good view. Mind you, how could you not with such big windows.

The boot is big and, if you lay those seats flat, it is massive. Well, it looks that way. Land Rover, unlike most rivals, quotes the volume when loaded to the roof, not the window line. So, they say, a volume of 1200-odd litres (so, perhas 750 litres up to the windows?) and 2500 litres with third and second row folded.

A mate who owns a previous gen Range Rover was a bit miffed to discover this new model is more comfy and roomier than his.

He wouldn’t have enjoyed the driving, either, because that’s all the more polished, too. Because the launch event for this car focused wholly on the off-roading ability (you can the report in the First Drives section), I thought my time of test was better spent zeroing in on how it coped with the road.

No surprise that it doesn’t take the ‘sport’ part of SUV too seriously, though for all that it is a tighter and more communicative vehicle than previously. Binning the heavy old steel chassis that the previous model rode on and replacing it with an aluminium-intensive structure, closely related to that of the Range Rover Sport, has seen the Discovery's kerb weight fall by as much as 480kg. This doesn’t necessarily make it slimmer of the year, because there’s still comfortably more than two tonnes to haul around, but there are patent pluses.

The lower weight has given the carryover 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel a new lease of life; there’s a little more sparkle to the performance and, just as importantly, a little less effort: It is rarely sounds as though it is being tasked by the effort of driving this vehicle. The Discovery uses the familiar eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox and, of course, drives all four wheels permanently, with locking differentials for extreme mud-plugging.

The Disco’s reshape isn’t just to make it seem more in vogue; the intent is also to make the car much more slippery. Well, within reason: It still looks (and, again, the test car’s arctic white paintjob didn’t help) like the world’s fastest fridge.

But you don’t want to underestimate just how competent it is on the road. For sure, it’s a totally difference experience than you’ll receive from most rival products; which span from Toyota’s Land Cruiser (far more truck-like still) to the obvious German fare, which impart more as larger kinds of road cars.

In driving demeanour, the Discovery places somewhere between those extremes; like the Range Rover product, it imparts a certain sort of aloof imperiousness that reflects in everything from the usual Land Rover 'Command' driving position to the quality of the ride, steering and even the brake feel.

I quite like how it does things, but do agree that newbies do need a little time to adjust. The thing to identify is this: That it’s not always the quickest, nor does it necessarily have the sharpest reactions, but neither can it be underestimated.

For instance, it's actually very manoeuvrable and there’s a cool, calculated, relaxed aspect to its attitude that belies a greater ability than it immediately seems to impart. Trip times give some idea to what I’m talking about. You think you’ve travelled more languidly, but then the clock shows the journey time is not a lot worse than if it was driven in, say, an Audi Q7. Or a Range Rover Sport.

True, there's some body movement in corners but the movements on the air suspension are well controlled and ride refinement is fantastic; over ruts and potholes, it is resolved and lurch-free. Road and wind noise are especially well insulated, too, so for the main part, too, the sounds from under the bonnet. At a 100kmh cruise, it is remarkably refined and silent.

As you’d expect from a diesel, you’re mainly driving on a wave of torque – there’s enough generated in the low to mid-range torque to make overtaking quite palatable, but the real plus of all that muscularity is for towing. Unfortunately, the test car lacked a hitch.

The car’s dimension isn’t as un-nerving as it might seem, but even as a tall person, I had trouble with the all-round visibility. Yes, the surround view cameras and sensors cover most issues, but it’s possible to 'lose' a pedestrian in the shadow of that hefty A-pillar.

Still, it’s a rather impressive achievement. The fact it is more about luxury and loses weight, gains space and technology yet is no less about family purpose utility is a key plus point.

It almost seems a bonus that you get all this and an enormous breadth of off-road ability whose functionality is so brilliantly presented via the updated Terrain Response system which operates the hugely complex and capable four-wheel drive system with such push-button, twist-knob simplicity that it has to be one the easiest vehicles ever in which to attack terrain that would have all but a rugged few others waving a white flag. Simply, if you want a SUV wagon that’ll take you absolutely anywhere, then it’s hard to think of a better choice.

There’s just a slight niggle of a reluctance to say goodbye to the old one, because it was just such a classic.

I know this is silly. The predecessor’s flaws were obvious: It burned more fuel, was slower and less dynamically adept and it is less meritorious technically.

Yet, even though I accept all that and also agree that design has to keep up with, or stay ahead, of the moment, there’s a part of me that remains reluctant to say goodbye to that set-square styling.

I’m sure it’s just a phase: This new model is very much the smarter way to go.