The All-New Land Rover Discovery

 

From the press photos, I knew from the outset that it was going to be a little difficult convincing my cynical eye that it was not looking at a Ford Explorer. In the metal, I can’t say my cynical eye was entirely wrong. There is some obvious contemporary Land Rover DNA in the design language, which can be interpreted to mean that “the all new Land Rover Discovery looks exactly like the no-longer all new Land Rover Discovery Sport, only at 110%“, but there is still the Ford Explorer’s shadow all over this car. This is going to be an interesting review…

[Full disclosure: Jaguar Land Rover asked me to buy a warm jacket just so that they could give me yet another warm jacket free of charge to keep snug and toasty in what eventually turned out to be a sunny, elephant-infested* event done in cars that had fully functional heaters. I had to wear most of my clothes at the same time just to keep my luggage within airline limits. Next time I’m bringing a T-shirt, whether we are in a desert or at the top of the Alps. Airports are stressful enough places without having to risk heat soak by overdressing out of necessity.

*: This will be explained further in a later article]

What are we talking about?

We are reviewing the all new Land Rover Discovery.

The Discovery 5?

No. Jaguar Land Rover asked us not to call it the Discovery 5 for reasons undisclosed, they insist it is the “all new Land Rover Discovery”, which, despite sounding like the extremely irritating PR blurb that festoons my mailbox every now and then, will only hold true in the present and will make for awkward conversation five years from now. There is only a finite amount of time that you can call a vehicle “all new” after which you will have to find another name for it. So I am going to call it the “current Discovery” where necessary.

What is it?

Speaking of the present, this car is the most apt manifestation of ‘today’ in the automotive industry. It is an icon from the past with elements from the future that sits snugly in the present tense. It is the one vehicle that has forced me to concede that the world is indeed moving in a new direction, and that I am growing old and that change is the only constant. It is also a dead ringer for the Ford Explo…

Stop doing that

Ok, sorry. It is Land Rover’s seven-seat family car updated to go with the times. Gone is the square silhouette from the past four model ranges to pave way for something that looks a lot more aerodynamic and  forward-thinking, but this has polarized opinions especially from people who either don’t buy or cannot afford modern Land Rovers. They say they don’t like what it looks like or what it stands for, and I think they are wrong. Get into the current Discovery and everything is immediately familiar and falls to hand.

You have mentioned the interior, get on with it then

The interior is well laid out, in a cookie-cutter Land Rover-stencil type of way, hence the familiarity; which also means it is one of the better-looking, better-feeling and luscious automotive cocoons one can find oneself in. The gauges are fancy, the buttons are lovely, the center console screen has grown bigger with more functionality, the seats are comfortable…

Hold on a minute. The seats are comfortable and highly adjustable (with memory functions on the driver’s side) but on the last day I was in a car whose passenger seat bolsters tried to squeeze the breath out of my thorax. Try as I might I could not find the control panel to adjust the bolsters (but lumbar and back support controllers were easy to find), instead opting to go for the massage utility which I immediately shut off because I hate it. I don’t mean I hate the massage utility in the Land Rover, I mean I hate massage, period; whether from a fellow human or from a Land Rover seat.

 

The center console is made from gleaming brushed aluminium and glossy black plastic that gives the Landy the upmarket look and feel that it deserves but again there was a problem. The surround of the gear lever and the Terrain Response System is shiny aluminium… given that the car’s new external appearance has adjusted the rake of the windscreen, if you, like me, find yourself driving in a particular compass direction at a particular time of day in particular weather, then a sunbeam will come down from the ionosphere, through the glass, strike the aluminium brightwork before being reflected and sent directly into your left retina in a gleam so acute and intense that it threatens to melt your entire eyeball along with its optic nerves. It was not a pleasant experience, and I had to drive for half an hour with my hand placed over the metal panel to prevent permanent eye damage… and also to see where I was going, which is of paramount importance when driving.

A small council-of-war with a local bigwig saw him agree with my observation and he said perhaps the use of duller metal would be in order. Yes it would, sir; yes it would.

The Discovery is, was and will be a seven-seater, but with the current car, space in the third row is not the best. It was a bit tight in there and more than once I smacked my head on the B pillar during animated conversation. These complications were absent in the outgoing Disco 4.

That being said, the overall score for the interior is a very high 83% because it really is well laid out, nice to look at and easy to the touch. The bigger touchscreen is especially nifty. The python-esque constrictor seat can be optioned out, the dazzling aluminium only torments the user in specific situations and you don’t have to carry anyone in the third row if you don’t want to, and if they insist then perhaps they deserve the pinch.

Wow. Just wow. Can we talk about the exterior?

Yes, and I promise to stop with the snide Ford references. The current Discovery has discovered (pun intended) the 21st Century and dressed accordingly. It is much sleeker, looks sportier (ahem… Discovery Sport… ahem!) and despite the soapy looks, it is still butch enough for the overly masculine among us to appreciate.

 

Again there are problems here. The rear third of the car, from the C pillar aft, seems like it belongs elsewhere. It looks fatter than the rest of the car, which gives it a tacked-on appearance. The C pillar itself is thick owing to the new lines taken by the third row window, and this impedes the outward view through the glasshouse for back seat passengers. It also creates a massive acreage of flat, featureless bodywork that makes the car look undershod from the rear three-quarter view; a circumstance further exacerbated by the lack of a distinctive bumper line.

Of particular interest is the number plate housing on the tailgate. Its lower edge is staggered to create an irregular hexagon that is evocative of past Discos where the staggering was on the rear windscreen. However, this has left a thin ledge into which one is supposed to affix their registration, and I seriously doubt if our oversized and admittedly ugly number plates are going to fit in there, even with their edges trimmed. It will be interesting to see what happens when the first units land here…

You are just pointing out problems, dude.

Have you met me before? Anyway…

What is it like to drive?

Awesome, in a nutshell. But there are problems…

Oh, Lord!

No, listen. The problems are not problems per se, but the side effects of the advancement of technology; and they mostly affect the diesel car.

The use of electronic throttle control (fly-by-wire) and an eight-speed automatic transmission collaborating with an ECU program biased towards fuel economy and emissions reduction means the car will shift endlessly through the gears depending on load, road speed, pedal positioning and a raft of other parameters I can’t think of right now. The good part is it all works well together. The bad part is it requires a bit of thinking before it actually reacts. This is what happens:

Trundling off-road at a sedate pace (40km/h and below) means the transmission will be anywhere between first and fifth gears, or maybe even sixth. Slowing down for rougher patches before getting back on the throttle means all that programming has to decide which is the best gear to resume forward motion with: it has to be high enough to provide maximum economy but low enough to provide sufficient torque, and sometimes it takes its time deciding between second, or third or fourth, or even first. This in turn creates a discernible lag between the time your right foot flexes the accelerator pedal and this flexing translating to forward motion; enough time to introduce doubt and uncertainty in the driver’s mind about how much throttle opening is needed which then causes the driver to dig deeper into pedal travel. By the time the gearbox has decided that second as a gear is good enough, you have pressed the accelerator a little more than you wanted and… surge. It is not a critical flaw but it does make one look unprofessional as a driver and a little wet behind the ears with all the jerky, revvy movement.

There is a way around it, and it is a good part especially for those who like full control like me.

As you are slowing, use the paddles to gear down, as far down as second if necessary – you really don’t need first, to be honest. This means the gearbox has your instructions and is not floating around indecisively trying to make up its mind. When you get back on the power, the response is more immediate. I love hacking cars like this.

For some reason the petrol car suffers no such quirks. It is the one I went with first and for the first time I had no complaints to make about its driving experience. None at all. It responds when asked to, it is very smooth and pliant, has torque and ratios enough to render high revving pointless and when given the beans, it sounds like a GTR.

What?

It is not as loud as a GTR, far from it; but it does have the turbocharged V6 howl I first heard in California several years ago, only more muted, like it is being piped from behind a particularly fluffy pillow. However, at idle there is a definite diesel-like clatter that one of my respected colleagues asserts is the sound of the electronic injectors working. If they are that loud at idle, it means they are tapping away at their nozzles really hard and one can’t help but wonder if they are long for this world…

 

Dynamically, the current Disco is a win. I wound up the diesel car to 212km/h (to the discreet and unspoken chagrin of one of my passengers), which is fairly impressive but to the revelation that it does struggle a bit above 180km/h, which is a speed you are not recommended to use the vehicle at anyway. Cornering at high speed also reveals a slight wobble in the chassis that can get worrisome for the uninitiated, but again, you really shouldn’t be doing such speeds in such a vehicle. I did it for experimental purposes. Do not try this at home.

There is another difference between the two engine types and that is in ride quality. On uneven surfaces, the diesel car crashes and thumps substantially more than the petrol version, which is also odd but the surmise here is, with a porkier engine, the front suspension is tasked more heavily and therefore has less stroke room irrespective of the selected ride height.

The Discovery has always been full of off-road gubbins ever since the turn of the millennium. I’m guessing it’s the same here, right?

Yep! There is this fancy new gadget called APTC… ACTP… ATPC… something like that. Anyway, it is what I consider the first step towards self-driving autonomy in off-roaders because it is the HDC’s hill-climbing opposite number.

What it does is modulate the throttle and lockup control in the torque converter to make rock-crawling a smooth affair. Like HDC, the operation is as counter-intuitive as ever: engage the system, let go of all the pedals and become a passenger in your own car as the engine revs and lets off by itself as the vehicle slowly crawls uphill and over rocks. It is uncanny and a bit unnerving at first listening to a ghost operating your throttle, but once you get used to it, it becomes a little fun.

Interesting. So what else is new?

Well, the all new Discovery does come with an array of interesting new perks. The tow hook can be stowed away out of sight electrically. The reverse camera has a new functionality that allows you to back up to your trailer with a fair amount of accuracy without the need of a spotter. There is a control panel on the left side of the boot that allows you to raise and lower the back of the car on demand. This is helpful when attaching your trailer and/or when loading/unloading the vehicle.

Gone is the sideways opening hatch, replaced with a split tailgate like a Range Rover, the difference being this version has the two “lips” overlapping rather than meeting along a seam. The hatch that swings from above closes over a smaller interior flap that swings from below. Both are powered (naturally) and can be opened either together or one at a time.

Summary:

Interior: 83% (very lovely place to sit in)

Exterior: 75% (looks handsome, if a little generic)

Acceleration: 80% (new age forced induction 3.0 six cylinder engines have come a long way)

Braking: 80% (a bit so-so… stops well enough for most tastes)

Ride: 80% (85% for the petrol car, 75% for the diesel)

Handling: 75% (quite decent handling for an SUV, but it IS an SUV and cannot hold a candle to the likes of the Porsche Cayenne)

Practicality: 80% (doesn’t score less because it is a seven-seat family hauler with a clever split tail gate and fifty different ways of accessing the boot. Doesn’t score higher because getting into and out of the rear bench is a bit of a task, and it is pinched back there)

Kit & Caboodle: 95%. There really is no beating a Land Rover in terms of apportionments, from the luxury adornments to the electronic off-road stuff to the detailing. The class leader is still on top.

OVERALL SCORE: 81%

Blurred Lines

The all new Discovery is a technological marvel and it moves the model line a step forward development-wise, aesthetically as well as dynamically. However, there is an elephant in the room (pun intended, as shall be seen next week) and that is the Discovery Sport.

The lines in JLR’s portfolio are getting blurred. Both cars are seven-seat SUVs of broadly similar size, the main differences being one has air suspension and packs 3.0 liter V6es while the other has more conventional running gear and has to make do with two liter fours.

Among the gripes that formed part of the initial feedback from my online followers was the car does not look as good as it should, which is subjective; and that it lacks distinction, which I kind of agree with. After driving it, all I can say is Jaguar Land Rover has done what it usually does, which is outdo itself yet again. It will be a tough call topping this.

(Next week: we discuss specs and pricing as I also narrate how some elephants lay a trap and we drove right into it)

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