British luxury off-road manufacturer Land Rover definitely had the right idea when it introduced the original Discovery in the UK in 1989.
Here was a five-seat SUV with a unique design that used the chassis and drivetrain from the upmarket Range Rover, but with a lower price point and equipment list to compete with emerging Japanese rivals – who had cottoned on to the idea of a luxury workhorse capable of hauling around five adults in relative comfort.
It was another easy sell for Land Rover.
Five generations later and the idea hasn’t really changed, only these days it’s a more versatile and polished machine than ever before. And in the luxury department, it moves even closer to its posh Range Rover sibling, but with more space and room for seven full-size adults, if you choose the optional third-row seating.
The Disco, as it’s been affectionately known for years, has always had a distinctive look, though never more pronounced than with the Discovery 3, with its stepped roofline and steeply raked windscreen. Like the original Range Rover, it became another instant style icon, which is why they barely touched the Series 4 that arrived in 2009. It’s aged well too, because even today it still cuts an impressive figure on the road, while continuing to be revered by city-slicker-turned-weekend-adventure types.
The fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery leaves much of this behind in what is surely a radical departure from its predecessor, rather than an evolutionary step forward. It’s funny, though, because despite the fact that it’s a more mature, more polished design, it’s seems to have a polarising effect on people – some don’t mind it, others are simply not fans.
For sure, it’s less distinctive, but anyone doubting its breadth of ability would be doing so under false assertions. It’s still a seriously capable and, dare I say, aspirational vehicle with much to like.
Critiquing automotive design is inherently dangerous due to its subjectivity, as there are many contributing factors that determine design parameters these days. Most of these centre around modern-day crash-protection requirements – both for passengers and pedestrians.
It’s nowhere near as boxy as the old model, though it’s still got a ton of presence. There’s a strong family resemblance to its smaller sibling, the Discovery Sport, at least up front. I also like the wider stance from front on, too. It looks less agricultural now and better dressed than the old model – IMO.
However, the rear-end treatment is less convincing. Gone are the trademark vertical tail-lights, replaced by more contemporary horizontal LED units. Initially, I thought WTF, but I’m slowly coming around, as more and more appear on the road. It’s still unique and it still stands out in a crowd, but only time will tell if it’s hitting the mark with enough buyers to be deemed a success.
And it needs to, because rival models like the Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 have lifted their game big time, and collectively present a tantalising choice for buyers – each one offering its own take on large, luxury family chariots chock full of the latest tech and safety kit.
While it might meet the same key objectives as the old Discovery, the new version is built on an entirely different architecture. It’s a lightweight aluminium structure that debuted on the current Range Rover and the primary reason why the new Disco sheds up to 480kg over the old one.
The body panels are aluminium and its slipperier shape ensures improved aero and better fuel efficiency – in-line with the more frugal four-cylinder variants in the range. In fact, the bulk of the Discovery line-up now employs JLR’s (Jaguar Land Rover’s) latest four-cylinder turbo diesels in what is an all-diesel range of 12 variants.
Our Sd4 HSE gets the more powerfully tuned engine, which cranks up the kilowatts from 132kW to 177kW, while torque swells from 430Nm to 500Nm. It’s enough to get this 2.2-tonne behemoth from rest to 100km/h in an acceptable 8.3 seconds, which is similar performance to the old 3.0-litre SDV6 diesel.
While that might sound a bit tardy for those transitioning out a fast-four premium hatch, in the real world it actually gets along quite well. We certainly wouldn’t call it slow, that’s for sure. There’s very little lag down low in the rev range, because this is the first JLR engine to feature series sequential turbo-tech for plenty of shove from the get-go.
And for a family-size people mover of this size and weight, it’s also remarkably fuel-efficient, often recording numbers as low as 7.4L per 100km (Land Rover claims 6.5 litres) – and that’s with little or no regard for the more frugal drive modes during our week-long test program.
Where the Discovery benefits most from its new weight-saving architecture is in the areas of refinement and passenger comfort – the two of which go hand in hand here in the Disco. Even when you give this thing a proper bootful at the lights, the clatter under the bonnet is kept mostly at bay from those inside.
Some of that is down to the sublime ZF eight-speed auto – a transmission that has been honed to near perfection, providing super-smooth shifts, as quick as any dual-clutch type, as well as a range of drive modes to match all kinds of conditions.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a more refined four-pot diesel of this displacement that’s this quiet given the sheer mass it needs to haul. It’s not just better insulation at work here, either. It’s also the clever engineering underneath – like the high-strength aluminium within the crash structure.
The entire bodyside of the Disco is pressed as a single aluminium panel, dramatically reducing the complexity and the number of joints, while strengthening the Disco’s structural integrity.
The results of all this are immediately felt behind the wheel, with sharper steering response and a chassis that feels infinitely more agile than the old model. It’s a big unit that is easy to handle in tight spots like underground parking stations and such.
It’s the same story when it comes to handling. It’s a tall vehicle, I know, but body roll is kept in check by a sophisticated suspension setup that uses a wide-spaced double-wishbone layout up front with an integral link at the rear. It allows for stiffer damping without impeding its ability to absorb even harsh bumps.
But, more than that, Land Rover’s air suspension is categorically unrivalled in its ability to take big hits off-road, as well as those XL-size speed bumps, without impacting cabin comfort. Better still, it’s even able to flatten a freshly graded road surface before the bitumen is laid – we know – we tried it.
It’ll also tow up to 3500kg, but for those buyers ready to exploit this capability, there’s Advanced Tow Assist – a proprietary piece of semi-autonomous tech designed to take the pain out of towing – well, anything, even a 10-metre powerboat down a narrow driveway is a piece of cake. No more embarrassing moments of incompetence at the boat ramp.
The Discovery has always been one of the most practical SUVs in its class, and the newest version is all that and more. It’s longer by 141mm and slightly narrower, but it’s also lower than before – though the perception is that it's taller than before.
Boot space is extraordinary. You can move house with this thing. Even with the second-row seating in place, there’s still 1231 litres available. But, fold all three rows, and that expands to more than 2400 litres – enough room for a king-size mattress, or two.
Moreover, our test car was fitted with powered seat controls, allowing users to configure second- and third-row seats from either, buttons in the boot, the central touch screen or remotely via a smartphone app. And for anyone used to carting around people and surfboards (together and in-car), this feature alone is a winner.
Frankly, it doesn’t really matter what shape or size your cargo is, because of the infinite array of configurable options available for stowage. Whether that be in the boot or anywhere else in the cabin, there are nooks and crannies everywhere.
Tall folks (like your average teenager these days) will love it, too. It’s one of the very few SUVs offering ample head and leg room in all three seat rows. The second row is particularly comfortable, being able to slide and benefitting from a flat floor, as well as seat bolsters for all three passengers.
The cabin itself isn’t quite as plush as, say, the latest BMW X5, Audi Q7 or Mercedes-Benz GLE, but the seats themselves are beautifully comfortable. And while we like the natural timber trim throughout, it’s all a bit grey in there, especially given it’s a relatively high-spec HSE variant – at least in this unfortunately drab colourway choice.
Loads of tech, though, and plenty of it found in the standard equipment inventory, apart from the electronic air suspension and 20-inch split-spoke alloy wheels. Premium features like LED headlamps with LED light signature, power-fold heated door mirrors with approach lights, auto high-beam assist, powered tailgate, 12x12-way electrically adjustable seats and keyless entry.
There’s a 10-speaker Meridian audio system, Navigation Pro, three-zone climate control, mood lighting, electrically adjustable steering wheel and real wood trim to round off the highlights.
And let’s not forget the Discovery’s tried and proven battery of off-road technology making it easily the most capable vehicle in its class – bar none when it comes to all-terrain ability. It’s also a combination of the Disco’s approach and departure angles, wade depth and ground clearance that makes this vehicle so appealing, despite the fact that the vast majority of owners will only ever get as far as a dirt track or snow-lined driveway – perhaps.
But, it’s nice to know it’s there if you need it.