Land Rover Discovery review
by David Finlay (31 August 2009)
Media launches for new Land Rovers don't happen very often, but when they do they are usually large affairs, and the introduction of the fourth-generation Discovery was in no way an exception. As well as plenty of opportunity to drive the new model, there was a lot of talk from key people within the organisation, and some of it seemed to be almost apologetic in tone, as if Land Rover had decided it had to admit to failings in the previous design and urge us to believe that it had done its best to attend to them.
This surprisingly low-key approach was already unjustified even before it became apparent. British motoring journalists are occasionally criticised (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) for hailing every new Land Rover - and Ford and Jaguar - as a triumph of the automotive art, and my first instinct when faced with any orthodoxy is to take an opposing view; but without either following the perceived trend or being over-compensatingly over-critical, I must say that the Discovery 4 is a very fine piece of work.
Strictly speaking, it isn't a new model at all, but a heavily-revised version of the Discovery 3. The most obvious change is in the exterior styling: despite what it said at the time, Land Rover did not manage to make the 3 appear anything other than slab-sided, but faced with exactly the same shape and dimensions this time round the designers have managed to make the 4 appear . . . well, I won't say delicate, which was the first word that came to mind, but certainly softer, thanks to such elements as the new honeycomb-style front grille, clever interruption of what were previously uncompromisingly butch horizontal lines and jewel-like treatment of the front and rear light clusters.
Inside, too, the Discovery now feels far more like a premium saloon car than a formidably capable off-roader, not least because the huge centre console is more carefully integrated into the design than before. It's almost as if Land Rover is preparing to market the Discovery as a luxury car rather than an off-roader, in the same way that it has been doing with the Range Rover for several years.
That impression is strengthened by the pricing. Extra equipment means that the Discovery has become considerably more expensive than before, starting at £31,995 for the entry-level GS and extending to £47,695 (not including any extra-cost options) for the HSE, which now boasts its own style of 19" alloy wheel, Automatic High Beam Assist bi-xenon headlights, a rear-view camera (which not only shows where the car is going to go next but where the trailer will go if you happened to have attached one), an electric front sunroof and two fixed ones behind it, premium leather upholstery, eight-way adjustable front seats, a Harman/Kardon premium audio system and much else.
The £31,995 GS is the only Discovery to use the 2.7-litre TDV6 turbo diesel engine which was latterly the only unit available in the previous model. Its successor, the three-litre diesel also found in the Jaguar XF among other things, but modified in anticipation of its use at unJaguarlike angles on off-road courses, adds £2500 to the cost of the GS and is standard on the XS and HSE.
I have always liked the 2.7, but as I've said before the 3.0 is significantly better. Not only is it more powerful (improving the Discovery's 0-62mph time by 24% to 9.6 seconds, for example), it's also more economical, with a combined EU cycle figure of 30.4mpg which would once have seemed impossible for a Discovery.
Greater performance is not necessarily a good thing in a car as tall and heavy as this, but the Discovery 4 copes with it easily thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the chassis team. The previous Discovery rode well but had a lot of body roll which meant that it had to be treated very carefully; this one rides even better, and the body movement is much more carefully controlled. It's an amazing thing to say, but the new Discovery matches many luxury cars in terms of its on-road dynamics.
The last thing I'll say about the engine is the sound it makes, and I'll illustrate this in a roundabout way. Over the past few years Land Rover has done an incredible job of limiting the amount of wind noise that gets into the interior of its cars, but the Discovery 4 appears to represent a backward step. In fact, there's no reason to think that there really is any more noise - it's just the the 3.0 engine is so quiet that you're now more aware of it. Things have now reached the stage that a current diesel Discovery is actually more peaceful than any of its petrol-engined predecessors.
None of this extra refinement has any bearing on the Discovery's off-road ability, which remains astonishing. Other manufacturers often say, during a test on a specially-built course, that "a Discovery wouldn't get through this part", and even if that's true in a particular case it's revealing that this is the car they all want theirs to match.
The route chosen by Land Rover for this event was nothing like as tough as the one we were invited to experience when Discovery 3 came along five years ago, but it was still pretty challenging, and the Land Rover people made a big point of emphasising that the car could get through it on the same tyres which do such an admirable job on tarmac.
Few owners will actually come close to testing the Discovery's off-road prowess, but Land Rover has nevertheless updated its Terrain Response system, which now includes sand launch control, gradient release control and a revision to the rock crawl programme which applies slight brake pressure when the car is travelling at less than 3mph in first or reverse gears.
In conjunction with the existing Terrain Response features, these make the Discovery an even easier car for beginners to drive in hair-raising conditions, though since so much of it depends on the reliability of electronic systems I would still prefer to brush up on my off-road driving before trying this sort of thing on my own, just in case.