It looks like it's gone soft, but it hasn't.
Land Rover introduced the world to the concept of the lifestyle SUV. With the original 1989 Discovery, it gave us an off-roader that offered so much more than the traditional rugged 4x4. It had a family-friendly interior, comfortable seating for seven, while hose-down flooring was out and Conran-designed furnishings were in.
The world has moved on though, and the old Discovery 4 was increasingly looking like the relic its original forefather showed everyone else up to be. At long last, we have a replacement. All new, now all-aluminium, and now on sale with prices starting at £43,495. That’s intentionally aggressive, to worry the two cars it sees as the competition: the Audi Q7 (from £49,505) and the Volvo XC90 (from £47,350).
To Utah, North America, then, to discover if the new Discovery is set to grab large SUV class honours…
What are you thinking? That it looks like a Range Rover, a Discovery Sport and an old Discovery all in one? Welcome to the new Discovery, a machine intentionally created to be cleaner, simpler, more stylish and more premium than its predecessor. At one stage, exterior designer Massimo Frascella goes so far as to call it “sexy and sleek”, acknowledging that it is a radical departure “but it needed to be as we had to broaden the Discovery’s appeal”.
There’s Discovery DNA in place: the C-pillar, stepped roof, asymmetric (and awkward-looking) tailgate. But plenty more has been lost, from the vertical tail lamps to the split tailgate. Incoming instead is a sleek new look, all smooth and precise surfacing, a sophisticated and premium appearance. But not too sophisticated. There’s no place for the Range Rover’s delicate painted lower surfaces and intricate trim metalwork here. “It still has to be versatile.”
Familiarity with the Discovery Sport may condition you to the outside, but nothing prepares you for the stepchange within. You need a Range Rover alongside to remind yourself of the differences, so impressive is the new Discovery’s interior (for the record, you don’t get thick Wilton carpets and leather-covered everything in a Discovery. Only leather-covered many things). It’s much higher quality and, again far more premium, with details such as the widescreen InControl Touch Pro infotainment system finally bringing it into the modern era. From gripping the big, contoured steering wheel to clicking the precise-action heater dials, it’s a tactile treat.
It’s versatile with it, too. Visibility, always a Discovery strength, is better than it’s ever been, and space for seven occupants is vast. Those in the middle row have limo levels of legroom and two tall adults can occupy the third-row seats without complaint as well. There’s another seat-related party trick – they fold down electrically, via a console in the boot, the touchscreen up front or, remotely, via an app. Such functionality is handier than you may think – such as, for example, when you’re in the queue with a full trolley at IKEA and it’s raining outside.
The controversial ditching of the split tailgate has created the Discovery’s least favourable aspect, but the liftback itself is nevertheless much wider than before. There’s also a fold-down ledge that mimics the split tailgate’s lower half. Again, it’s more frequently useful than you may expect, and the setup is a fair bit more convenient to use than the old split tailgate, particularly as it’s now fully-electric in operation.
This versatility is crucial to the Discovery’s appeal, says Land Rover. Traditionally, the key to the car’s allure was family-friendly practicality, not its rugged off-road prowess. That’s simply something that’s been highlighted in recent years by the car’s age. This new one aims to revive the focus on versatile practicality - which will also help clarify the difference between a Discovery and a Range Rover. Because, as we discovered, in terms of overall abilities, the two are now surprisingly closely matched...
How does it drive?
The difference between this Discovery and the one it replaces is like night and day. It’s far lighter, much less effort, easier and more engaging, generally sophisticated in a way the Discovery 4 simply was not. Basing it on the Range Rover platform clearly helps here: it feels more like a plush, pliant Range Rover, while a steering system taken from the Range Rover Sport is as responsive and direct as the previous one was cumbersome and slow-witted.
In V6 turbodiesel guise, noise levels are low and response is effortless, further mimicking a Range Rover’s gait. Taking almost half a tonne out the kerbweight makes it faster and more responsive, but also makes cornering less heavy-duty and truculent. The new Discovery is a car whose sophistication has broadened significantly, much more than is the norm in model generation updates. This is a real giant leap.
It’s very quiet at speed – Land Rover claims it’s as easy to have a conversation in here as it is in the Range Rover – and air suspension ensures the body remains generally well-controlled. It doesn’t have the clever active anti-roll tech of the Range Rover Sport, but still manages to remain less ruffled than the Disco 4 during more spirited driving. Ride quality is imperious - generally fantastic, on every U.S. road surface we encountered.
The real surprise is the 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine. This 240hp twin-turbo engine sounds far too small for a big Discovery. You have to sample it to appreciate just how well it works. Save for a little less initial alacrity compared to the V6, it punches well above its weight, and doesn’t even sound too gravelly unless you’re really pedalling it hard. A little less weight in the nose made for slightly more nimble handling as well. In contrast, the supercharged V6 petrol is a disappointment. It’s much too high-revving and vocal for a laid-back machine like this. It feels like it’s continually changing gear and making a lot of fuss in situations the other two engines simply shrug off.
All Discoverys share a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox that’s as impressive here as it is in all other applications. They also get surface-sensing Terrain Response 2, an optional low-range gearbox and the ‘off-road cruise control’ All-Terrain Progress Control system. Add in 283mm ground clearance, 500mm wheel articulation and a staggering 900mm wading depth, for a car whose off-road abilities have been significantly enhanced even over the capable old model. Discovery gone soft? Don’t let looks deceive (as we discovered during two days of rock climbing, sand dune-blasting and dry river bed-traversing).
This is the really significant achievement of the new Discovery. It’s better than the Discovery 4 in the areas that car traditionally did well in… but is also considerably better than it in the areas necessary to compete with the Q7 and XC90 – ease of use, refinement, effortless speed and all-round comfort. It’s more of a complete all-rounder than ever, and is now a formidable competitor to those two luxury SUV market-frontrunners.
Should I buy one?
If the agricultural nature of the old Discovery led you towards those sophisticated premium newcomers, the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90, now might be the time to renew your interest in the Land Rover brand. This new Discovery has bought the model series into the modern era, with Range Rover-like abilities and appeal in abundance.
It’s a car that’s genuinely hard to fault, particularly when prices start from less than £44,000 – undercutting both the XC90 and Q7. OK, once you spec-match, the Discovery becomes pricier, but still not excessively so. And there’s no doubt it’s now worth it. Just as the original Discovery invented the lifestyle category, so this one has been reinvented to compete in the contemporary evolution of it. And, on first evidence, once again become the lifestyle SUV all others must beat.