Land Rover Discovery: the ultimate test

Land Rover says this schoolrun favourite is good off-road. Well, we’ll be the judge of that

Stuck. It had to happen. After ritually abusing the new Land Rover Discovery for many hours over several different and increasingly obscure terrains, I’ve finally pushed it too far and got it stuffed up to its axles in what can only be described as brown gloop. Gloop with the consistency of half-set glue. Ah. Embarrassing. Foot-deep clay mud and standard road tyres have finally defeated us, and it’s not really a surprise – driving into a bog just to see what would happen was a monstrously stupid idea. The problem is that this is a muddy lake somewhere in a backwood in the Netherlands, evening is drawing in, and this looks like just the sort of lonely copse where people come to bury things. Like illicit treasure. Or bodies. 

Words: Tom Ford
Photography: Mark Riccioni 

In a last-ditch attempt to extricate myself without resorting to outside aid, I twiddle the Terrain Response dial to the Sand setting at one o’clock – having previously been using the more obvious Mud-Ruts at the top of the rotary knob – and something miraculous happens: we start to move. Slowly at first, the wheels scrabbling and clawing, drive stuttering between and across the axles as the car’s electronic brain endlessly tries to figure out what the hell is going on. We inch forward, and then, with a roar of dieselly triumph, the Discovery powers through the gluey clag and onto firmer ground. You’d struggle to remove my victorious grin with a pickaxe. It really is impressive off-road, this thing, making fibs of Newton’s so-called laws. But the Discovery’s off-road prowess is just one aspect of its personality. It’s become a go-to all-rounder for the country set and wannabe urbanites alike: a people-moving seven-seater with practicality to spare, and a kind of bluff aesthetic that appeals on several visceral levels. The new one, however, is smoother. More urbane. Less…

Discoveryish. So we at Top Gear decided to see if it still has the Swiss Army knife appeal of the old one. A whirlwind tour of Discovery discovery. Sorry. 

Let’s be clear: the Discovery was launched in 1989, and has sold more than 1.2 million units in its years on sale: this is not a small deal for Land Rover as a brand. The new one has been styled under the direction of LR’s design boss, Gerry McGovern, and has smoothed itself away from the blocky brutalism of the Disco 4, and into something much more… generic. The big stepped roofline is all but absorbed, the front and rear chamfered into a slipperier shape. There’s still a chunky look to it, but it’s more than a bit fraternally related to the smaller Discovery Sport. Both a good and a bad thing. And that rounded bottom has deleted the old model’s split tailgate. Yes, you still get a kind of carpeted internal flap that drops down when you open the boot (which will support a decent 300kg), but really, it’s not the same. 

Still, it’s properly all-new. Now based on the all-aluminium architecture of the Range Rover, the Discovery MkV has extra subframes to support standard seating for seven and a weight drop of an entirely significant 480kg. That means it’s lighter, but not light – pushing over 2.2 tonnes is by no means a flyweight. Engines are Jaguar-ish: there’ll be an Ingenium SD4, 240bhp four-cylinder diesel (the first 2.0-litre four-pot option since the petrol Mpi from 1989) at the base of the range that manages 43.5mpg, and a small-selling supercharged Si6 petrol V6 with 335bhp at the top, which will manage significantly less. The bulk of motivational duty will therefore be done by the car we have here, the TD6 3.0-litre V6 diesel that plots a course somewhere between the two. That means 258bhp and 443lb ft, with just under 40mpg on the combined fuel cycle. These are perfectly acceptable numbers for a big SUV, though nothing that’ll make your jaw drop. Performance figures are similarly average. That said, the Discovery has never been about numbers. It’s always been about hitting a sweet spot between everyday practicality and usability, and a slight whiff of luxury. 

As we wend a merry way from the UK, the Eurotunnel run provides some promising initial impressions. There’s decent vision, and you immediately notice the fact that the Discovery is notably quieter on the road than the MkIV, whose aerodynamic profile resembles that of Dover’s cliffs somewhere off to our left. The steering is leisurely but positive, body roll contained and progressive, but always a companion. It’s not a sports car, but it is damn comfortable, even on the optional 21-inch wheels. There are 22-inchers in the options list, too, but we’ve got “plans” and rubber-band tyres probably aren’t going to cut it. Before we know it, those plans see their first iteration: sand driving. 

Off the Chunnel, out into France and back down onto a beach. Sand mode selected on the Terrain Response dial, some gentle slippage on the sandy margins – this particular setting ramps the throttle map in a curve, and rearms the ABS and traction control to allow for some wheelspin – and then progress is gently and inexorably made. That’s the thing about modern Land Rovers; they make the difficult look easy, and the seemingly ridiculous possible. And sand is truly awful stuff. Once you’ve started to dig, there’s very little way back until you’re up to your axles without a shovel. Still, after half an hour of pottering and five minutes of gentle carving, the new Discovery proves that sand really isn’t a problem. Back to the roads. 

Several hours later, and I’m lightly convinced that short of a dedicated grand tourer, there’s probably no better place to cover miles. Terrain Response set to Auto, some 450–500 miles of range from a full tank, an imperious driving position, enough toys to amuse for days. So the version we have here racks up the options to the tune of a purchasing price north of 75 grand, but even the more lowly derivatives get decent kit. It feels much, much lighter than the old one – keener and unafraid of a corner. It’s rock-solid stable at speed and quiet apart from the comforting grumble of that big diesel up front and the bellowing optional Meridian stereo. We potter into Belgium to meet someone with a spare stream or two.  

Hmm. The “streams” appear to have succumbed to sub-zero temperatures and are currently ice rinks with water flowing beneath them. Still, select low-range and high-ride from the transfer ’box and standard air suspension respectively, and the Disco does a decent impression of an ice-breaker. Slightly concerned by the generous snapping and crunching noises of two-inch-thick ice we’re currently barging though, I check the Discovery’s 4x4 Info dial on the big touchscreen and see that according to our wade-sensing electronics, we’re about a foot and a half deep. More crunching, a groan, a noise that sounds like a large chunk of ice embedding itself in the left-hand side intercooler later, and we’re out, happily gambolling around a small field. Apparently the Discovery can wade up to 900mm, a figure chosen for the simple reason that after that, it floats. Seeing no reason to either disbelieve this fact, or try to test it, we’re off again, headed for the Netherlands, and those woods. Or we would be, if the laggy InControl Touch Pro satnav screen hadn’t decided to have an electronic heart attack, flash red and shut down for five minutes. An issue that cropped up more than once on our journey. Still, thank goodness for mobile phones. 

The Disco doesn’t cover distance with the elastic snap of horsepower, more condenses it like a gently folded page in a map

Now, it must be said that we got permission to drive in these various locations, but didn’t do an awful lot in the way of prep. The Discovery is on standard road tyres, with standard Terrain Response, and we brought a tow rope. That’s about it. But the systems really do take the strain out of actually, y’know, needing to learn how to actually drive off-road. You just select the appropriate icon and… go. With the electronics massaging the throttle response and braking systems, traction control and engine map, you really do get to be semi-pro without all that inconvenient experience-gathering. There’s even All Terrain Progress Control (ATPC), a kind of off-road cruise control if you’re feeling super-lazy, and even though our car has the optional £1,000 Capability Plus pack fitted (an active rear differential and the aforementioned ATPC), you get the feeling you’d have to be really stupid to get stuck. Cue getting very nearly stuck, obviously. Still, Mud-Ruts mode dealt with mud in places where mud really shouldn’t be; time for some more on-road action. And it doesn’t get more on-road than Germany. And the autobahn. 

It’s possibly not the first thing you think about when deciding to test a large SUV, but top-speed runs are almost compulsory when faced with derestricted ’bahn, and so we feel very much that we must comply. 

“One hundred and twenty… one hundred and thirty… one-three-three…” Ten seconds of tense silence. “Nope, I think that’s it – that’s as fast as it will go.”

“Give it a bit longer?”

“Can’t. There’s an Audi S4 up my chuff, and it’s wondering why a Land Rover Discovery is doing 130mph in the outside lane of the autobahn in the wet.”

We prove nothing, apart from the fact that the Disco really can hit its top speed (the speedo was no doubt over-reading a bit) and that stability is much more apparent than any Disco-shaped Land Rover that’s gone before. Unruffled, even by fairly hectic sidewinds, the MkV just thrummed down the German motorway like a particularly motivated tenement building. Still, another point proved.  

Next day, we find ourselves in a German quarry staring down what can only be described as a rock staircase you’d be hard pressed to slither down on all fours, sunlight chopped into jagged patterns of shade by a mess of sharp rocks. Rock Crawl engaged, I set the Hill Descent Control to minimum speed and simply steer. The Discovery bumps and chatters its ABS, clonks down a couple of the big blocks, slipping wheels just enough to maintain imperious progress. It’s not so much defying physics as being in constant negotiations, tickling itself down the gradient, the eight-speed ZF gearbox providing the kind of clockwork operation of the wheels that means we don’t immediately end up careering down the hill and smashing ourselves to very small, very sad pieces. Crikey, this thing is clever. It’s even got side cameras under the wing mirrors that allow you to place your front wheels just so. I defy you not to be just a little bit impressed. But once you know how to best use the systems, rocks – for all their scary, tyre-shredding edges – lose their appeal. We’ve got one more terrain to test this thing on, and we need to do more distance to find it: snow. 

Again, I’m struck by the Disco’s sheer comfort with mile gathering. It doesn’t cover distance with the elastic snap of horsepower, more condenses it like a gently folded page in a map, the lazy, fat rumble of the diesel carrying you inexorably forward. It takes eight hours to get somewhere with snow. It feels like four. Still, sleep is more than necessary. The stars are out, and just the fact that these tiny sparks fight endless battles with the dark on a nightly basis makes my eyes droop. Come the dawn, and the Alps stand in front of us, shaking a defiant, scabby fist at the sky. We potter off to a village with a name that’s more amusing in Anglo-Saxon than German, and press on up what appears to be a goat track. Road? Um. Sort of. More a vague variation in the colour of ice and snow, in a more-or-less linear direction. Grass Gravel Snow selected, the throttle becomes woolly and the traction control paranoid. The Discovery doesn’t so much race as chug its way up the icy gradient, huffing through deep patches of snow without even noticing. We cross into Austria at some point, the Land Rover pretty much ignoring the geography. 

At the top of the mountain, view leaping away into glorious sunshine, it seems like a reasonable place to take stock. New Discovery has all, if not more, off-road chops than the car that went before it, a suite of abilities far, far in excess of what 99.9 per cent of owners will actually require of it. The looks have grown on me, and though I accept that more will like the new handsome shape, it might not be the kind of car you can fall in love with as much as the previous generations have been. It’s lost some of the Marmite in its character, and that, for me, is a shame. But. It’s an extremely accomplished vehicle. You really can seat seven adults in it, do proper things, live active lifestyles. It hits all the right notes in terms of performance and handling, has a lovely, cosseting interior and levels of comfort on the daily grind that mean I’m not outright depressed about the 700+ mile, one-hit trawl back to Calais. It’s posh but not intimidating, without the slightly flash overtones of Range Rover ownership. It’s a car to conquer views with, but with a little bit of time spent, it could well be a car to conquer hearts, too.  

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