If the Ramblers Association gets their way, 4x4s will soon be banned from the tiny network of off-road routes that cross the great British countryside.
Despite already being restricted to less than 5% of our ancient byways, driving an off-roader across the very terrain it was designed for could soon be illegal. You’ll still be allowed to churn up the surface in a dirty great Massey Ferguson, or trample through someone’s front garden, as long as you’re wearing a bobble hat.
If Ken Livingstone and his governmental chums get their way, 4x4s will soon be banned from our towns and cities, too.
One assumes these vehicles are being banned because of their four-wheel drive hardware, which I imagine would lead authorities to ban Subaru Imprezas and Jaguar X-Types for daring to drive all four wheels. Perhaps SUVs are being targeted because they occupy more ground space than the average car. In that case, let’s also ban people carriers and delivery vans. Or perhaps it’s a fuel consumption issue, which presumably means Her Majesty’s Bentley is about to be confiscated.
Amidst all this ridiculous unfounded hatred, it takes a brave manufacturer to launch a new car that can’t be driven on- or off-road.
The old Land Rover Discovery was assembled from bits of old Maestro and Range Rover, with a selection of pig iron nailed to the underside. Although quite capable off-road, that’s exactly where it stayed – off the road, laid up in a Land Rover workshop.
It’s a testament to the strength of the Land Rover brand that, despite being ranked bottom in nearly all reliability surveys, the old Disco still sold in huge numbers.
Today, though, the market has moved on, and people expect a far broader range of capabilities. While BMW continue to pitch their X3 and X5 squarely at those who merely pretend to drive off-road, today’s Land Rover needs to show competence at both ends of the scale.
The new Discovery 3 is a handsome beast, in a square-jawed way. There’s more of a Judge Dredd futuristic look to the simplistic lines, while the classic styling cues of the original like the stepped roof-line are retained. Even with surprisingly little external detail (there are no exposed hinges, for instance), Land Rover’s designers have managed to create a utilitarian shape that is unmistakably Discovery.
The rear tailgate looks a little bare at first glance, with the spare wheel now relocated underneath the rear of the vehicle. The stepped shut-line to the split tailgate makes loading easier when open, but does emphasise the feeling that something is missing.
All rear lights have migrated into a pair of clusters in the rear pillars, instead of having some elements retained in the bumper, and the high-level brake light is now integrated into a small roof spoiler.
Climb aboard and you’ll be encouraged by the weighty thud of the door shut; something that has been missing from Solihull’s products for some time.
Inside, there’s a definite Lego feel to the dashboard, with functions segmented into deliberate blocks. It doesn’t look ergonomically inviting at first, particularly the centre console which is littered with square, black buttons. However, the majority of the controls are rubber-coated and operate with a weighted, chunky feel, although some materials such as the glove box lid feel a little thin and scratchy.
There’s a second, smaller storage bin mounted above the glove box with a self-closing mechanism, although oddly it doesn’t close itself completely, relying instead on the passenger to close the latch. But, with a full complement of cup holders, including those in the doors big enough to take a bottle of Evian, there are plenty of places to lose things.
The seats are comfortable and offer a wide array of adjustments, as does the steering column, although the stalks feel a little spindly in contrast to the chunkiness of the rest of the controls. They feel as if they’re mounted a little too far from the wheel, too – those with small hands may have to stretch a little.
The rear seats, despite looking a little thin, are quite comfortable, but the problem of access for passengers in the third row still remains. All occupants get three-point belts, the second row is split in a 35:30:35 configuration, and both second and third rows fold flat into the floor. Five-seat models get larger storage compartments in the side of the cargo area.
Those few reservations aside, it’s a very practical layout that will doubtless appeal equally to families and outdoorsy types. Sort of an automotive combat trouser, if you like.
Land Rover’s new toy, the Terrain Response dial, is mounted behind the gear lever along with the bright yellow Hill Descent Control and paddles for the air suspension and transfer box. Terrain Response allows the driver to select one of five different modes – general driving, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock-crawl – which adjust various aspects of the Discovery’s electronic systems including ride height, engine torque, hill descent control, traction control, transmission settings and so on. By selecting the appropriate mode, the Disco reconfigures itself to cope with the prevailing conditions, perhaps by pumping up the air suspension to increase ground clearance, engaging low-ratio on the transfer box, adjusting the gearbox shift points and re-profiling the throttle linkage to allow a finer control of engine power.
All this electrickery is no doubt the logical evolutionary next step for off-road vehicles, although we do wonder where all the various computers for these systems are located and how well they’ve been sealed against the ingress of mud and water.
During our brief drive in the gloop, the system worked effectively and made well thought-out choices regarding the performance of the vehicle’s systems in each of the modes we tried. We were a little concerned about the placement of the spare wheel underneath the vehicle, and serious off-roaders might elect to store it elsewhere. For the record, the Discovery has 37 degree approach and 29 degree departure angles and, for water babies, a rated wading depth of 24.6 inches.
It’s back on tarmac that the new Discovery impresses most. The HSE’s standard air suspension does an excellent job of marshalling the Disco’s 2,718 kg bulk and there’s a refined, well-damped quality to the ride.
The brakes are easy to modulate at low speeds, and it’s quite reassuring to be able to bring nearly three tonnes to a smooth and jolt-free stop at traffic lights.
The light, power-assisted steering makes low-speed manoeuvring a doddle, although the front- and rear-mounted parking radar is more than a little paranoid, working itself up into a beeping frenzy when you’re still two feet away from the nearest obstacle. Don’t expect too much feedback from the steering though, despite the fitment of a new rack and pinion system.
Wind noise suppression is much improved over the old model, particularly around the doors, and even tyre roar and suspension thump are almost totally isolated from the cabin. It’s a refined package, and feels equally at home in the urban scrum or a weekend away in the Lakes.
The diesel engine only adds to that refinement. The 2.7-litre V6 turbo-diesel is based on that used in the twin-turbo Jaguar S-Type, although with the addition of extra dust and oil seals and the subtraction of a turbo. On paper, it develops 189bhp and a maximum torque figure of 328lb/ft at 1,900rpm.
Tractor sounds are well confined to the engine bay, and once settled into a cruise there’s little in the way of clues to the oil-burning nature of the power plant.
Unfortunately, that isolation of turbo-diesel traits also extends to the power delivery.
Diesel fanatics often tell of the addictive torquey mid-range acceleration of a well-sorted sludge-burner. That characteristic is completely missing from the new Discovery. The six-speed automatic transmission is a reluctant participant in the act of making progress, and requires a hefty carpet/pedal interface to provoke kick-down. The alternative is to use the transmission’s CommandShift mechanism to manually select gears, a process not made entirely comfortable by the lever’s low siting relative to the driving position, but even then acceleration is best described as sedate.
It’s a weight issue. The Disco weighs nearly three tonnes and the 2.7-litre diesel is clearly overwhelmed by the task before it. While it may develop more torque than it’s petrol brother, the 4.4-litre V8, it’s 100bhp down and it shows.
We struggled to achieve the government’s combined figure of 27.2mpg, no doubt as a result of the engine’s apparent reticence and our reactionary use of more throttle. The other official figures are 0-62mph in 11.2 seconds and a 112mph top speed.
The Discovery is available in three trim levels – S, SE, and HSE – with two entry-level diesel-only models below that. The HSE grade of our test car includes 19-inch alloy wheels, air suspension, Terrain Response, trip computer, satellite navigation, parking radar, cruise control, climate control, Alpine roof, metallic paint, seven ‘Complex’ seats with leather and heat all round, automatic bi-Xenon headlamps, automatic wipers with heated washer jets and a Harman Kardon hi-fi system with 14 speakers and six-disc in-dash changer. The six-speed auto transmission is a no-cost option on the HSE grade, but off-road types might think about adding the £495 optional locking rear differential.
That extensive kit-list will set you back £41,995. While that may be only £4,000 shy of a new diesel Range Rover, you’ll need to upgrade to the £49,495 HSE and add another £4,000 of options to reach the same spec level as the Discovery HSE.
The Discovery range starts at £26,995 for the 5-seat TDV6, making it hard to fathom how the HSE is £15,000 better. More concerningly, with that question answered, it creates something of a dilemma for Range Rover: with spec levels matched, why would anyone buy a Range Rover that’s slower, more cramped, less practical and £11,000 more expensive? Sure, the Rangie’s interior is far nicer, but the Disco is clearly a better drive.
While running costs are likely to be higher than the competition, residuals should prove as solid as the previous model, with early predictions showing a 66% retained value after three years.
But the big question that still remains is that of quality. The old model proved itself disappointingly unreliable, in the true British Leyland sense of the word. Early indications are that the new model has addressed much of that.
The Discovery 3 is a compelling package. It’s practical, comfortable, combines the roles of multiple vehicles in one – saloon car, people carrier and lifestyle estate – and is supremely capable off-road.
So despite the best efforts of the bobble hats and the nanny state to ban cars like this, the new Discovery remains an icon of British determination. And for that reason alone, it deserves to succeed.
Expensive in some guises, and with lethargic power delivery from the 2.7 TDV6 despite worthy on-paper figures. However, the new Disco rides well, is comfortable, practical, capable in the mud, appears to be well constructed and looks good. Luckily it’s sure to hang on to its value, but a question still remains over long-term reliability.