Fantastic voyage of Discovery in the wild, wild west
Five-star Land Rover knows how to drive in any terrain and still keep you comfortable
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2017
Kanab in Utah may seem like just another one-horse town, but it boasts an impressive big-screen history. Its surroundings have formed the backdrop to a multitude of westerns. It’s even the inspiration behind the fictional town of Radiator Springs in Pixar’s animated film Cars.
This is Navajo country, the red sandstone plateaus and mesas of the Native American. It’s the land of Zane Grey westerns and backdrop to more modern movies such as Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise.
These are the badlands of Middle America, the towering cliffs, striped with searing red, shining black and glowing orange, a geology textbook of how the earth’s crust built up over millions of years. The rise and fall of the striations even offer up evidence of which way the wind was blowing 200 million years ago when the rock was still sand and moving in dunes.
In the last 10 years palaeontologists have discovered more than 30 new species of dinosaur in this region. According to geologist Gary Ladd: “We know there have been at least 11 oceans here in the past.”
Despite being the self-proclaimed pinnacle of advanced society and putting a man on the moon, the US hasn’t really tamed this landscape. The prairies, plateaus and endless expanses are only interrupted by necklaces of tarmac or sandtrack connecting one lowly populated outpost to the next.
In towns such as Hurricane, the locals attempt to replicate the urban lifestyles of more temperate climates. They plant their lawns, pitch their white picket fences and push trolleys down the aisles in the local supermarket. Yet it invariably seems like an exercise in futility. The town’s name gives the game away: nature prevails.
To make life possible here, you need to be able to get away. The horse and handcart brought the early settlers here, but it’s the automobile that let them stay. The car culture is evident even in the remotest settings. On the Navajo reservation, many ramshackle mobile homes are overshadowed by the pick-up trucks outside.
Into these unforgiving climes and amid an era of massive upheaval in the automotive world, Land Rover executives opted to follow the wagon trails of early Mormon leader Brigham Young and drive its flock to the frontiers of Utah and Arizona to preach the good word about its own new Discovery.
Land Rover prides itself on providing some of the most challenging terrains you will ever encounter on a car launch – and this one was no different. Our test route took us over more than 600km of the most spectacular terrain in Utah and Arizona, a mix of prairies, sand dunes and snow-capped mountain trails. We traversed sandy ruts and literally went rock-climbing in the new Discovery. We balanced on two wheels atop a rocky enclave, plugged through cloying wet sand treks without the slightest effort from behind the wheel.
All the while we had soft-cushioned frontrow seats to the cinematic vistas visible from every window, belying the efforts being made behind the scenes.
It’s the motoring equivalent of a swan, majestically floating along with poise and grace, while the mechanics work furiously below your feet and out of sight. If the new Disco is guilty of any motoring sin, it’s of lulling the driver and occupants into a false sense of nonchalance, cocooned in the air-conditioned cabin, with barely a slightest engine note intruding on the cabin.
It’s only when you get out of the car and have to trudge more than 10 metres in the desert terrain that you realise how unforgiving things are outside the Disco cocoon.
The real marvel of the new Discovery, however, is the car’s new All-terrain progress control system. This is cruise control for the mountain trek. At a time when every car firm is preparing for the advent of self-driving cars, Land Rover is offering the first phase of autonomous off-roading.
You simply engage the system and, like normal cruise control, take your feet off the pedals. You concentrate on steering and the Discovery does the rest, maintaining the speed you set while conquering ridiculous terrain, surmounting boulders and digging through leg-swallowing mud.
With a top speed of 30km/h, you simple leave the Discovery to make the tough decisions. At times the car stops dead in its tracks for a few seconds, but you don’t intervene: this is the car assessing the terrain and thinking about what to do next. It’s bizarre and counter-intuitive to just sit there, halfway up a mountain in a rut, doing nothing, but it’s an early insight into the future impotent role of the 21st century motorist, even in the toughest terrain.
And that’s just one of the marvels of the new Discovery. Another is its impressive ability to shed weight. Adopting an aluminium diet – the lightweight metal now represents 85 per cent of the car’s understructure – has helped achieve a weight saving of up to 480kgs over the outgoing Discovery. That’s the equivalent of abandoning the Ireland rugby team’s frontrow by the side of the road. And it heralds more good news: the lighter weight means Land Rover has also been able to downsize its engine range and include the firm’s new 2-litre Ingenium engine – in either 180bhp or 240bhp – in the line-up.
That’s a pretty phenomenal act: a proper off-road, seven-seat SUV powered by a 2-litre diesel would have been unthinkable two years ago. Many hardcore off-road drivers – the Disco’s bedrock of customers – will baulk at the idea. Yet it really works. We did all our most challenging off-road driving in the 240bhp version.
I’m as surprised as anyone, having been relatively unenthused by the Ingenium engine to date. Yet, where it should really be found wanting, on off-road conditions with cloying mud where your feet sink below ankle depth, the 240bhp engine with 500Nm of torque is incredibly adept. I suspect the 180bhp version may be more for surburban family motoring, but even it has a very credible off-road pulling power of 430Nm.
The 2-litre 180bhp output boasts an official fuel economy of 6l/100km (47mpg) and a CO2 rating of 159g/km. Opting for the extra power of 240bhp doesn’t cost extra much in fuel economy: figures for this are 6.3l/100km (45mpg) and 165g/km in CO2. This engine outperforms the current Discovery V6 diesel and boasts better fuel economy.
And if traditionalists just cannot get their heads around the smaller engine, there’s a 3-litre V6 diesel and a V6 supercharged petrol in the powertrain mix as well. Both of these are faster and more efficient than the current equivalents. This is all thanks to the new Disco’s aluminium diet plan.
In styling terms the new Disco looks strikingly similar to its recently launched smaller sibling, the Discovery Sport. Its exterior designer Massimo Frascella tells The Irish Times that while the design is clearly meant to appeal to leafy suburbs rather than muddy farm yards, it was fundamentally important that smarter styling never meant sacrificing function for form. And while there is a definite sprinkling of Range Rover touches, he describes the Disco as “premium but not precious”. In short, don’t be afraid to get down and dirty in the Disco.
The car’s aerodynamics are also 17 per cent better, saving fuel but also reducing wind noise. According to Nick Collins, the Disco’s vehicle line director, the new car’s cabin is on a par with the luxury flagship Range Rover when it comes to quietness.
There are touches of Range Rover fit and finish across the cabin, from the tasteful switchgear through to the incredibly soft headrest.
The car’s seven-seat format is a family winner and now the electronically controlled seat configuration means the rear seats can be flipped down or up independently at the flick of a switch or even the push of a button on the car’s keyfob. It really couldn’t be easier.
With a total of 21 configurations you can convert from a seven-seater to a 2,400-litre load lugger in just under 14 seconds at the touch of a button. With all seven seats up, you still have 258 litres in the boot. And the 3,500kg towing capacity will keep the Disco’s important equestrian customers happy.
With the wheelbase growing to nearly three metres, all seven seats are spacious enough for adults. The second row boasts up to a metre of legroom and despite traditionally needing double-jointed hips to access the third row, the latest configuration has room for adults back there. You will still be nibbling on your knees, but you won’t need a chiropractor at the end of the route.
Stowage is well catered for in the new car, with 21 separate stowage areas to fill. There’s even room for up to four iPads in a hidden compartment beneath the front cupholders, while there’s a spot under the boot floor for those mucky wellies.
The Range Rover links aren’t reserved to the cabin. The front suspension is derived from the firm’s flagship while the electric power-assisted steering comes from the Range Rover Sport, delivering lock-to-lock in 2.7 turns. On the road the car boasts a near 50:50 weight distribution, which is as beneficial for driving a big SUV as it is for a sports car.
The new Discovery also comes with the usual array of lane-keeping assist and park assist that will control steering into tight parking spots.
Back on the off-roading credentials and the car boasts a ground clearance of 280mm and will wade to a depth of 900mm, all of which are class-leading.
Air suspension, standard on Irish models, means up to 50km/h the car can be raised by 75mm. On road above 105km/h, the system lowers the vehicle by 13mm for better motoring handling. In auto mode it automatically adjusts up to 100 times per second.
For all that, the biggest lure for the new Discovery is price. Starting at €57,815 for the 2-litre 180bhp five-seater, that’s competitive against mid-sized crossovers from German rivals. Yet it’s capable of much more and offers substantially more space.
Step up to the 240bhp version at €63,215 in five-seat format or €70,590 for seven seats. These are prices for the entry-level S versions but aside from cloth seats rather than leather, the standard features are impressive, with 19-inch alloys, touchscreen controls and a host of off-road and safety features.
In comparison to the likes of the Audi Q7 at €72,850 for 218bhp 3-litre, the Volvo XC90 at €72,050 for all-wheel-drive version or the BMW X5 at €73,230 for 231bhp 25d SE, you can see how the new Discovery is priced to pull in many suburban SUV buyers and not just the traditional Discovery country set.
Gerard O’Farrell, managing director of Land Rover, says he expects to sell 1,000 new Discoverys in a full year, the majority likely to be powered by the new 2-litre 240bhp diesel with mid- to high-level specification. That’s a strong sales target, considering there will be no commercial version this time. A loophole meant that five-seater versions of the outgoing Discovery benefited from lower tax charges, but that’s not going to happen with the new model.
In this age of automotive disruption, the Discovery offers a glimpse at the future for off-roaders. It’s a pioneering effort by a brand well associated with conquering the wildest frontiers. It makes its rivals look like city slickers.
Tech talk: New Discovery has it all with lights on
The new Land Rover comes with a whole gambit of whizz-bang tech features. For example, there’s the 10-inch touchscreen with dual-view, giving the driver a view of sat-nav and control while from the passenger can see a movie or TV on the same screen.
Then there are the nine USB ports and more than 34 apps, including one called Intelligence Remote that lets you unlock the car via your phone or set off the alarm if you need to find your car in a busy car park, for example. You can also adjust the air-con or seating configuration before you get in.
Some may have qualms about that amount of electronic technology in a Land Rover, but its engineers are at pains to reassure us of their reliability.
The most ingenious new gadget is the so-called activity key. This is a rubber wristband, waterproof up to 50 metres, that uses RFID technology – similar to contactless payment cards – to let you leave the key in the car and lock it with a swipe of the band. No more trying to hide your car keys in your socks at the beach or having it bulging in your pocket while you run.
Holding the waterproof activity key up to the ‘D’ in the Discovery badge on the tailgate simultaneously locks the vehicle and disables the ordinary key, which can be left safely inside. This leaves customers free to run, swim, ride or play without worrying about the security of their vehicle.
Lowdown: Land Rover Discovery
Engine: 2-litre turbodiesel putting out 240bhp with 500Nm of torque mated to an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, with air suspension
Fuel economy: 6.3 l/100km (45mpg)
Price: €63,215 (5 seater) or €70,590 (7 seats)
Verdict: Suburban style meets phenomenal off-road ability