It’s easy to be impressed by sleek, sexy sports cars, with their booming engines and vrooming performance and the gravitational forces they exert on your body, which somehow force you to expose your teeth or even laugh out loud in joy.
It is far, far rarer to be impressed by a giant, two-tonne-plus SUV that you could easily park a Mazda MX-5 inside. And yet that is what the huge and hugely clever new 2017 Land Rover Discovery somehow manages, and it does it in much the same way as the sportiest vehicles - by challenging, and then resetting, your ideas of what is possible for a car, or a very posh truck, to do.
There were moments, at the car’s launch in the ochre-red heart of Australia this week - right next to the awesome lump of Uluru - of wonder and unreality. Not just at how such a massive rock leaps out of the epic flat land out there, but at how a vehicle can be so capable and so cosseting at the same time.
Bashing along a blazing-red-dirt track, basically just two dusty wheel ruts with small trees growing in the middle, it’s hard not to be struck by what you’re not feeling in the new Discovery. With the supremely clever air suspension (a $2060 option on the base model, but standard on everything else) lifting you above such minor annoyances, you simply cruise along, in a cabin that’s almost as quiet and smooth as you’d expect a car to be on perfect blacktop.
Switch to a properly rutted track, with corrugations designed by some cruel chiropractor, and again, something seems to be missing. There’s no shock to your spine, just a mild sensation that someone somewhere beneath you is doing something very clever so that the bumps will barely bother you.
The Land Rover Discovery doesn’t just make tackling rough outback tracks easy, it makes the experience damn near luxurious, a feeling that’s only added to by a beautifully appointed cabin that is as modern as it is plush.
How modern? Just ask your kids what they think of what Land Rover likes to call the “Digital Discovery”, because they’ll thrill to its “connectivity”, with its nine USB points, its video interfaces - so you can stream content from your device to the seatback screen in front of you - and its wifi hotspot, which can cope with having eight devices hooked into it at the same time.
Yes, eight. Even though there are only seven seats, all of which, in what it’s no exaggeration to describe as a miracle of engineering, are actually comfortable, even for full-sized human beings (you can option a five-seat version, of course, if you’re not an over-breeder, or you don’t have that many friends).
Your seats are also “intelligent”, apparently, which means they’re hugely adjustable, with no less than 21 different configurations. The way the third-row seats unfold themselves from the rear load bay is particularly pretty to watch, but Land Rover does push itself close to pointlessness with the fact that you can set up the seats how you want them remotely, using an app on your phone, “from anywhere in the world”. Why? Just because.
Land Rover went to the trouble of doing some research on car sickness, and designed the interior in such a way that even kids in the third row have clear sight lines to the dash and out the windscreen, because apparently that helps to reduce unwanted vomiting.
There’s even a bin between the front seats, which Land Rover says is designed to hold four iPads, which it would clearly only do if you were punishing your kids, or forcing them to look out the window and notice that you're somewhere rugged, doing something amazing.
The fact is, the cabin is so lounge-room like, and the levels of NVH so low, that you could drive through a river (with a wading depth of 900mm, up 200mm on the old one) and your kids wouldn’t even notice if their eyes were on screens.
We had a go at this wading thing - perhaps my personal favourite off-road adventuring - and it really is impressive. Land Rover has designed the front of the car in such a way that the engine can basically “breathe” underwater, and the only reason the wading depth is capped at 900mm is that, above that, the rear of the car would start to float, and you’d lose traction with the back wheels. Quite badly.
Even more extreme off-roading manoeuvres are a complete doddle, thanks to typical Discovery capability, and the fitting of an ingenious system called Terrain Response 2.
Leave this little marvel of software in Auto and it will sense the kind of terrain you’re dealing with - from rock hopping to boulder bashing, cliff climbing or sand-hill swooshing - and asses the level of grip you’ve got at each corner. It will then adjust the power and torque going to each individual wheel, and do so 100 times per second.
This allowed us to climb a cruel cliff covered in the kind of mud that looks like its made out of red jelly, diesel and dust, and then crawl easily down the other side, with all the effort it takes to yawn while sitting at the wheel.
Flick on your All Terrain Progress Control, basically a cruise control for off-roading, and you can do even less, because the car takes over the throttle inputs, and you just point the steering wheel at something dangerous looking, sit back and watch.
It is truly incredible, and slightly awe-inspiring, particularly over boulders and yumps, but it must make the traditional Disco owners - blokes with thick socks, even thicker beards and King Gee clothing - feel a little emasculated, surely?
Personally, I’ve never understood why people want to drive their cars up slippery cliffs, but I’m pretty sure they believe there’s some great skill involved. And you simply don’t need any of it in a car this clever.
The fact that most people will never, ever use even one-tenth of the car’s skills is reflected in the fact that you can choose your Discovery with a single-speed transfer box (as opposed to the more manly two-speed version) and simply have a full-time four-wheel-drive SUV, with a Torsen diff, because you’re never going to need the low-range setting to get out of Toorak or Paddington anyway.
What you genuinely might use, however, is Terrain Response 2’s proper party trick, the optional ($830) Advanced Tow Assist. This system will forever remove that stomach-churning fear many blokes feel when asked to reverse a trailer or, even worse, a boat down a ramp.
Simply enter the dimensions of what you’re towing via the touch screen, engage the system, take your hands off the wheel and you can basically do your reversing by using a mouse (the Terrain Response 2 control knob) and following the lines on the screen.
Rest one of your hands lightly on the steering wheel and it will look, to other blokes, like you’ve mastered the dark arts of counter-steering like a proper truckie.
So, when it comes to off-roading, towing, or even just a bit of dirt-road traversing, the Discovery goes above and beyond expectations, and does it all while keeping you in the kind of comfort we’ve previously come to expect from more expensive Range Rovers.
But it is on the road, of course, that Discos will mainly be driven, so does it manage to succeed in that far more important department?
That depends, at least partially, on which engine you choose. Allegedly, some people will be drawn into Land Rover showrooms by the enticing-sounding entry price of $65,960 for the base model four-cylinder diesel Td4 S, with five seats.
But I would confidently offer that if they ever sell one at that showroom-bait spec level and price, I will eat its (full-size) spare tyre.
Unsurprisingly, there were no examples of the Td4, with its 132kW, 430Nm Ingenium JLR diesel engine at the launch. Nor are there any in the country. They may not even exist, because unless Newton was wrong, it’s going to be a real struggle for an engine of that size to haul a car that weighs 2105kg, plus some humans, up even a slight incline.
The fact that Land Rover can even attempt to fit four-cylinder engines to the new Discovery is a result of its excellent work in making the new car so much lighter - by a whopping 480kg, or the same as six adults - thanks to the use of what it calls “aerospace levels of aluminium”.
Fortunately, wisely, there is a more powerful version of the four-cylinder, the Sd4, which makes 177kW and 500Nm, and sips a claimed 6.5 litres per 100km.
While the base model takes a glacial 10.5 seconds to hit 100km/h, the Sd4 will get there in a more respectable 8.3. With its new sequential turbo technology, the clever little engine packs a reasonable punch off the line, and will be a more than adequate companion for the kind of people who will spend most of their Discovery time traversing urban environments.
When it comes to rolling acceleration, however, you can plant your foot at 80km/h and find yourself being asked for saint-like patience as the big beast winds itself up for an overtaking move. It’s not a slug, and it is very smooth and commendably quiet, so there’s a reasonable argument for nominating the Sd4 SE, with seven seats, as the sweet spot in the range for bargain hunters who still want to go up hills occasionally, at $87,990, which gets you the full seven seats.
The simple fact is, of course, that the vast majority of Discovery buyers will be spending north of $100K on their vehicles, or a solid $35K more than that supposed entry-level price. A spend of $103,760 will get you the one you really want; a Td6 HSE with seven seats and more real-world 190kW and 600Nm.
Your zero-to-100 dash isn’t that much faster than a four-cylinder, at 8.1 seconds (although that is a full 1.3 seconds faster than the old TD6), but you’ll really notice the extra grunt in everyday use, and particularly if you’re carrying a load of people, towing or blasting down an outback highway.
The new six-cylinder is smooth and torquey and matches perfectly with the effortless and Germanic eight-speed ZF transmission, which comes with flappy paddles should you desire to use them. It also uses just 7.2 litres of fuel per 100km, which is one of the big reasons you’ll never see a petrol version of the Disco on sale in this country. The diesel is just too good, and too frugal.
In terms of ride and handling, the clever engineers at Land Rover have done a brilliant job of making the Disco feel luxurious. You can hit big potholes in this thing and wonder if you’ve actually done so, and the general feeling of waftiness and premium-ness should give Audi, Benz and BMW something to worry about.
At least until you try to hustle the big Discovery through a corner. It’s not entirely uncomfortable here, either, it’s just that it is, unavoidably, top heavy, and the sense of body roll is impossible to ignore. It’s not awful, nor sick-making, but it’s not dialled out as completely as it is in some German competitors.
The electronic power steering also does a commendable job of making driving something this big feel light and easy most of the time, before weighting up nicely when the going gets twisty. There’s a certain sense of unreality about it, though, which makes you aware that you’re driving an electronic system that’s trying to replicate what real, hydraulic steering used to feel like, but on the plus side that means it never feels as heavy as it actually is.
Unreality, of course, is very much the new Discovery’s special skill. It can do things that feel like they shouldn’t be possible, and it can do them so easily you find yourself shaking your head and blowing air through your teeth, just the way you do in a sexy, svelte sports car.
Very few SUVs are as impressive as this Discovery and, when you add in its good looks (a huge improvement on the boxy bodies of old), both inside and out, this new Land Rover looks set to be a great, big success.
- Stephen Corby