Land Rover Discovery: Ultimate all-rounder shapes up

Some big SUVs have become luxury road cruisers. Others maintain hard-out mud-plugging ability. The Discovery probably does both brilliantly


THEY’RE calling it the Land Rover for the adventurous family; but is it the one that becomes a little less country to become significantly more city smart?

There’s plenty to suggest the just-landed generation five Discovery, having adopted the same alloy intensive monocoque platform as the latest Range Rover and Range Rover Sport and traded in its predecessor’s boxy shape for more rounded if somewhat controversial lines, has become all the more street-sorted.

Land Rover agrees. It readily cites that a model that comes here in three V6 trim levels - $114,900 SE, $126,900 HSE and $136,900 HSE Luxury, each offering in 250kW/450Nm supercharged petrol or 190kW/600Nm turbodiesel format, with no premium for fuel type - is corners better, parks better and generally copes better with the rigours of city life than any of its predecessors. It’s also lighter, kinder to the environment and turns up the volume on comfort, convenience and safety.

So, what’s the best thing to do with this three-row luxo-wagon that is expected to achieve 300 sales for the remainder of the year and continue with the 20 percent share of the marque’s total volume here? You might think you know the answer to this, but you’re wrong …

For sure, it’s understandable why you’ll be left wondering if Land Rover has abdicated its historic responsibility to deliver pukka adventure fare for people who think a drive in the country translates to an three-week smash through uncharted Amazonian forest, followed by a trans-Antarctic expedition.

Large SUV take up trends suggests these cars are entering a world of change; even those types still brimming with genuine off-road and heavy-duty towing talent – and tick both those boxes here - will very likely be tenured to soft duty.

Some will say it’s so sad, so wrong to see this machine on the school and café run, not least because Land Rover itself is so vocal in insisting this latest model, for all its obvious improvement in quality and refinement, is nonetheless as eminently mud-able as any before it.

At the same token, agrees Michael Jones, brand manager for Jaguar Land Rover New Zealand, it is also better suited to taking town where it can even self-park, if that manoeuvre seems too challenging for drivers to undertake.

However: “Even though people don’t necessarily drive off road a lot, it’s nice to know it has that capability. It’s an all-round vehicle.”

That’s why traditional talent has also strengthened. Whereas many alternate choices in the $100,000-plus sector have abdicated the rough for the smooth to meet customer call for car-like driving demeanour, this one, its maker says, is the best yet for the extremes of the school run and snow drift. Better on the road, better off it.

As Jones puts it: “It drives fantastically on road … it drives like a Range Rover, but it has the capability of a Defender.”

The blacktop experience sounds promising and, given that the road will be where this vehicle spends most of its time, demands attention. But it will have to wait.

JLRNZ was so keen to reinforce that its Discovery for a new age is still as good as those of old, that it decided the national media launch yesterday would restrict wholly to the confines of a swank corporate activity retreat on a working beef and lamb farm coastward of Johnsonville.

Thus, it was a wholly green (and dirt and mud-hued) day at Boom Rock, Wellington. Following a briefing at the lodge, sited on a cliff edge overlooking Cook Strait, we spent the next couple of hours hitting farm tracks, paddocks and a decent-sized pond on the property, then headed over to the neighbouring wind farm for a trek through the turbine forest. Nothing was a challenge. It simply sauntered through; hardly even got dirty. This was thrill without threat to the cars, ourselves or the brand’s carefully-protected pedigree.

Still, what’s to prove? I’ve enjoyed enough actual rough ‘n tough adventures in Land Rovers through truly tough terrain to know that there’s nothing smoke and mirrors about the off-road cred. This product is not ultimately unbreakable, but I know that it takes a great deal of effort even to even get one to break into a sweat.

At the same token, as with all modern Land Rovers – those here now and those to come – this one’s ability to get dirty is almost undone by its complex, controversial and clearly expensive styling.

It’s yet another vehicle looks too smart, too lux to warrant being subjected to extreme condition driving and the risk of scratches and dents.

Inside, and out, it is a very swank machine, polished to the point where – despite the brand intention to keep the division separate – comparison with Range Rover product will be inevitable.

The fact, too, that the JLNRNZ presentation highlighting the likely rivals wholly ignored the one other hard-edged wagon of arguably equal off-road talent, Toyota’s Land Cruiser 200-Series, and instead cited vehicles now far more car-like in their construct seemed an acknowledgement that the SUV world now is far, far different than it was when the first Discovery landed 27 years ago.

Jones acknowledged the local market range has been expressly tailored to look good against the very sophisticated and stylish Audi Q7 – which, I’d suggest, as an especially road-tuned product might well have been more troubled by yesterday’s drive regime – and, to a lesser extent, the Mercedes Benz GLE, another that puts tarmac ahead of turf to the extent that, like the Ingolstadt car, it eschews the low range still very integral to the Land Rover all-wheel-drive system.

This is something of a new territory for the Disco to dance in, given that in the previous line the most expensive edition, the SD V6 HSE, went for $110k and you could buy a base version for just $90k. Has the green badged model abdicated the sub-$100,000 sector for good? Possibly not.

Jones says while the strategy for now is to stick with sixes, the 2.0-litre 500Nm Ingenium four-cylinder turbodiesel will undergo local evaluation at a later date. “We will look to bring those in, subject to the evaluation, but they would be the models that hopefully sit at that (previous) price point.”

Meantime, the focus is particularly on showing up Audi’s strongest-selling Q7 variants, the 3.0-litres.

To that end, JLRNZ has determined to provide all editions not only come with the full Terrain Response II but also include air suspension and LED headlamps; options on the Audi that cumulatively add $10,000 to the bottom line.

The best seats in the house argument also proposes literally. Jones says Land Rover has designed all seven seats, arranged in two-three-two layout as previously, for the 95 percentile, whereas the Q7 is judged to conform to a 65th percentile, about 15 percent better than another popular seven seater SUV, the Volvo XC90.

“We’ve had those other vehicles here and they are more, dare I say it, five plus two rather than a full seven seat – you can actually fit adults into the back of the Discovery very comfortably and still maintain good load space.”

Well, sort of. Actually, there’s virtually no luggage room if all seats are filled. Keep row three folded, however, and there’s a voluminous 1231 litres, fold row two and it expands to a massive 2500 – about 505 litres more than the Q7.

Discovery’s proponents are also keen to put the boot in when it comes to technology enhancement, both in the quality of its design – while the engines are carry overs, the diesel is more powerful and 85 percent of the new underpinnings are made from aluminium – and it has lots of new tech, some to enhance the comfort, others to add extra shine to its all-conditions capability.

Undoubtedly, the initial discussion will be about the looks; breaking away from boxiness is brash idea, but has to happen, Jones insists.

Most criticism to date has centred on the heavily raked C-pillar and windscreen, the latter so angled that it compromises entry for tall drivers. A After commenting about how I found myself twisting awkwardly to avoid striking my head on the frame, Jones – who at 192cm height has a good 4cm over me - suggested egress for the lanky is easier when the car isn’t in highest-set off-road mode.

What has apparently needles outspoken Land Rover chief design officer Gerry McGovern most is suggestion this model’s visual similarity to the smaller Discovery Sport signals the Brummie only knows how to draw one vehicle, so simply present it in different scales. McGovern, who argues polarisation is something Land Rover (and Jaguar) cannot afford as the group strives for sales and profitability.

I can’t say the styling immediately grabbed me, but maybe that view will change in time, as occurred with Disco 4: I have real fondness for its blocky silhouette now, but when new derided it as a Lego creation. For now, though, a front that is universal Land Rover/Range Rover is, to my eyes, much stronger than the rear, which looks too narrow. With another Disco tradition, the stepped roof, the new car looks incredibly tall, too.

Even so, the living with this car looks to be easy. It’s spacious, the seat comfort is excellent, the quality of the materials and design looks good and it also appears to be well-built. Very well built.

Standard fare includes Front, side and window airbags (the latter extending to row three if required); autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, a reversing camera with parking aids, hill descent control and hill launch assist; a choice of 19 and 20-inch alloys (with except 21s and 22s optional), leather trim and powered front seats and climate control.

JLRNZ recommends owners upgrade to the Connect Pro Pack that allows more infotainment options and enhanced connectivity – it’ll act as a 3G WiFi hotspot and use internet services to update on, say, the price of fuel at servos in the car’s vicinity (well, when they’re ready to provide this). And yet, despite all this, it curiously, if not crushingly, doesn’t provide Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connectivity for your smartphone.

Which engine? JLRNZ reckons the diesel will continue to be the main choice and, certainly, it’s hard to think to disagree. Rated at 7.2L/100km overall it is thrifty and with a claimed ability to hit 100kmh from a standing start in 8.1sec, down from nearly 10s previously, there’s clearly thrust, too.

On our day, of course, the idea was to forget speed and focus on the low-down muscularity, an easy task as peak torque is on tap by 1750rpm (whereas the petrol unit’s optimal twist of 450Nm hits at 3500rpm). It’s a quiet achiever, too; even when working out the roar is very subdued.

The off-roading was super comfy. Maximum ground clearance of 283mm and impression articulation from the front double wishbone suspension and integral link rear end, lifted straight from Range Rover, mean it will simply step through big holes and ruts. Basically, once you’ve sorted the correct Terrain Response setting – mud, grass and gravel seemed the default for our day – and, if need be, low range, it’ll simply go anywhere you want.

Of course, the real benefits of this new setup are found in its improved on-road demeanour. Next time, for sure.