Few will have missed the trend in recent years for 4×4 vehicles to become more car-like. In an age where even the most popular SUVs can be purchased in two wheel-drive form, something happened in Britain that made people think twice about what they want from their family transport. Something that even managed to wash away years of 4×4 hatred and Daily Mail-style hand-wringing.
What could possibly be powerful enough to have such an effect? The great British weather.
Consecutive winters of heavy snow and deep flood-water made many people realise that, unless you were planning on staying at home in a state of hibernation, owning a genuine 4WD vehicle actually made sound, practical sense. In some parts of the country, it even became a necessity.
Residual values of large 4x4s strengthened overnight, and every winter sees a steady queue of people forming outside Land Rover dealerships across the country, eagerly clutching their deposits to secure whatever might be parked on their used forecourt.
Is today’s Land Rover Discovery 4 still worthy of such attention?
While the Discovery shape continues to be instantly recognisable, Land Rover’s approach is one of continuous improvement rather than wholesale reinvention. Each model year sees the company implement small, but still worthwhile, improvements to keep the Disco current in the market place. One happy ancillary benefit to this approach has been the Discovery’s slow but steady rise from the deep, dark, recesses of the JD Power Customer Satisfaction Survey to the top of its class in 2013, earning Land Rover a ‘Star Brand’ commendation in the process.
Today’s Discovery 4 is powered by a 256PS 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine with two sequential turbochargers, a set-up that ensures little to no lag throughout the rev range. Peak torque of 600Nm arrives at 2,000rpm, and at least 500Nm of that is available in only 500 milliseconds from idle.
It’s mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission from ZF, controlled via a Jaguar-style rotary control and steering wheel-mounted paddles.
The two are well suited: the transmission features torque converter lock-up even at low speeds and a higher overdrive ratio to make the most of the engine’s low-down torque. It’s a quick-shifting unit, too, taking just 200ms to complete a change from one ratio to the next, and can skip up to six gears at once for a rapid downshift for over-taking. Downshifts are kept smooth, thanks to the gearbox’s ability to match engine speed to turbine speed, and it can detect when the vehicle is negotiating a series of bends so as to hold on to a ratio rather than changing down unexpectedly.
Bringing the Discovery to a smooth stop at traffic lights does reveal a slight grabbiness to the brakes, no doubt exacerbated by their need to defeat the engine’s huge torque, but smooth pull-aways are easy to achieve: the transmission automatically selects neutral at a standstill, and slips into gear imperceptibly when it’s time to move on.
Out on the open road, the Land Rover’s air suspension does an admirable job of smothering imperfections into submission, aided and abetted by the Discovery’s not inconsiderable weight, although there is still some low-speed nervousness.
As you might expect for something this tall, there is quite marked body-roll, particularly on initial turn-in, and the steering isn’t equipped with an overabundance of feedback, either.
Rather, it’s a driving experience that rewards calm inputs to the helm, although that’s not to say the Discovery is for dawdlers: 60mph arrives in 8.8 seconds and, if you bash enough air molecules into submission with its barn-like aerodynamics, you’ll max out at 112mph.
While not as agile nor as overtly sporting as some of its rivals, there’s a sense that it’ll happily pound the autobahns all day long without breaking a sweat and, for a long weekend away with passengers and luggage, there are few more comfortable places to be.
All but the basic Commercial model have seven seats, and while those in rows two and three look a little thin, they remain quite comfortable. Climbing into row three is still more than a little tricky, and there’s no central arm rest for passengers in row two, but the whole set-up does at least fold away to give a completely flat load floor.
Satellite navigation is standard from the XS model upwards, and for the 2013 model year the system has received a series of upgrades. On top of existing features like TMC traffic information and 4x4i (which displays information about the state of the transmission and suspension systems while driving off-road), there’s a new My POI section that allows drivers to upload points-of-interest from a USB stick in GPX format, and a new Avoid Points section that allows you to maintain your own ‘black list’ of locations to be avoided.
The whole system is coupled with a Harmon Kardon 11-speaker hifi system with a 380W output – opt for the Logic 7 upgrade and 17 speakers will be secreted away to provide an ear-pulverising 825W to play with at your local drive-thru. It’s also DAB digital radio compatible.
Away from the tarmac, the Discovery performs as it should, although the 4×4 system isn’t as technically advanced as some rivals, shunning mechanical traction aids such as torque-sensing or limited-slip differentials in favour of an electronic system that uses the brakes to reign-in a spinning wheel. A mechanically-locking rear differential is available as an option.
Land Rover’s Terrain Response system oversees the operation of the 4WD system, and that of the gearbox, transfer case, suspension and engine ECU. The system includes settings for normal driving, grass, gravel, snow, mud and ruts, sand, and a rock-crawling mode. Recent additions were the Hill Start Assist which holds the brakes while the driver moves their foot from brake pedal to accelerator, and Gradient Acceleration Control which uses the brakes to slow the Discovery on downward slopes to a speed governed by the accelerator pedal, if Hill Descent Control isn’t engaged.
While we could find the limits of the system on a purpose-built off-road course, if you’re realistic about where you’re likely to be taking a £40,000 vehicle, you’ll find the Discovery more than capable of getting you around while others stay at home.
If the Discovery has an Achilles heel, however, it’s efficiency. CO2 emissions of 230 g/km place it in VED Band L with an £840 first-year bill and £475 thereafter, while an official economy figure of 32.1 mpg on the combined cycle proved difficult to achieve during our tests. Rivals such as the Mercedes M-Class and BMW X5 lead the class, here. Given Land Rover’s success at reigning in the Range Rover Sport’s thirst, there’s clearly some more work to be done here, and we predict the 2014 model year will feature stop/start technology and an accompanying improvement in CO2 and fuel economy figures.
The Land Rover Discovery 4 is available in four trim levels – GS, XS, HSE and HSE Luxury – with prices starting from £38,850. The £45,575 XS is our pick of the range, with leather seats, satnav, cruise control, heated seats, and front and rear parking radar as standard. There are a few oddities on the options list – for instance, the £815 electric seat pack for the GS and XS models doesn’t include a seat memory function; that’s reserved for the HSE model, curiously. And you can’t specify a locking rear differential if you’ve also ordered the rear seat entertainment system.
There are still plenty of customisation options to choose from, including an Extended Leather Pack with soft, Windsor leather and fine stitching detail, or the Black Design Pack with 20-inch black alloy wheels and gloss black exterior detailing. You can even find an electric winch and skid plates on the accessory list if you’re planning an adventure of your own.
While some rivals beat the Land Rover when it comes to economy, handling and outright performance, the Discovery’s spread of abilities remains so broad because of its refusal to compromise that which has always marked it out from the crowd: its classy yet practical demeanour, and its ability to keep going, no matter what the weather.