Discovering the Truth
Is the new Discovery really better than its predecessors? Four owners of Discoverys 1, 2, 3 and 4 take the latest version off-roading
Four LRM readers drive the new Discovery on Eastnor’s 43 miles of tracks. But would they buy one?
You can thank LRM reader John Hooker for this feature. John drives a Discovery 4, and when the new Discovery was launched, he wrote to this magazine to say that we’d been too uncritical of it. We’d apparently taken the press release at its word, and not probed deeply enough into whether the vehicle lived up to its claims.
In our defence, we had only driven a prototype for less than 30 minutes, so we (and every other magazine) could publish little more than what Land Rover chose to tell us at that stage. But John was making a very good point. So LRM editor Patrick Cruywagen invited him, and three other owners of previous-generation Discoverys, to put a new one through its paces on an off-road course. After all, who else is more qualified to comment on the new vehicle than the people who have intimate knowledge of its predecessors?
There was really only one place we could choose as our test venue. After Solihull’s Lode Lane factory, Eastnor Castle is Land Rover’s spiritual second home. They’ve been testing Landies on its estate for more than 50 years, and the grounds now house a flagship Experience Centre with a fleet of the latest Land Rover products, new Discovery included. Plus, of course, a battalion of highly-trained instructors who can show you just what a Land Rover can do off-road.
So, on a damp and drizzly summer morning, we meet John Hooker and his newly-recruited team of fellow test drivers, all from the Discovery Owners Club, in the Scandistyle reception area of the Experience Centre. Over coffee and biscuits, the group gets to know each other. Representing the Discovery 1 is G-WAC owner and Project Jay Preservation Group coordinator, Roy Preston. Vicechairman of the Discovery Owners Club, Richard Wilcox, has brought along his very late example of a Discovery 2 V8. Over from Cambridgeshire is Andy Logsdail and his silver Discovery 3, while John has driven all the way from Cornwall in his everyday Discovery 4. Let battle commence!
Sadly, the dreaded ‘Elf and Safety’ means that no one will be allowed to drive their own Discoverys on the Eastnor estate. The upside is that with four brand-new Discoverys allocated to us for the day, everyone will get plenty of time in the hot seat and one-on-one tuition from the instructors. And, when we see what these vehicles will be put through, it’s easy to understand why Land Rover is unwilling to allow owners to have a go in their own machines. If something went wrong, the potential consequences could keep a lot of lawyers in employment for a long time.
Although we’re all itching to get out onto the jungle-like trails that snake through Eastnor’s verdant landscape, our first trip in the Discoverys is just a few hundred yards up the lane and into a specially-constructed technical site – all concrete and landscaped ground – where the vehicles’ abilities can be safely demonstrated. Do you remember the feature in LRM’S July issue, in which the British and Irish Lions rugby team were put through their off-roading paces? Well, this is where it happened. It’s known as the Sheep Field, and sheep do indeed safely graze here, separated from the action by stout fencing.
The site’s obstacles are designed to show off the extreme angles at which Land Rovers can operate, and the concrete has been poured with millimetric precision to ensure that
the vehicles tip just so far and no further. A Discovery can safely roll up to 29 degrees, and from the inside that feels like being on board a ship that’s just about to fall down the side of a tsunami. Those of us who are passengering make full use of the various grab handles (although, interestingly, the new Discovery doesn’t feature the integral seat headrest handles that were so useful for back-seat passengers in previous Discoverys).
Using Rock Crawl mode, the instructors show our testers how to do that classic Land Rover thing of approaching a knife-edge ridge at 45 degrees, ever-so-slowly cresting it until the Discovery is balancing on two diagonally opposite wheels, and then easing it forward so that it gently tips sideways onto three wheels, and then forward onto four. It always feels slightly scary and never fails to thrill, whether you’ve done it before or not.
There’s also a wading tank here, to prove the new model’s 900 mm maximum wading depth. “Engineering started with a target of one metre for the wading depth,” says instructor Richard, “but the problem was that the vehicle tends to float away when the water’s that deep!”
It’s all very impressive, if a little bit clinical, since any trace of vegetation has been cleared away for safety reasons. Our testers have enjoyed themselves immensely, though. “I like playing in the woods with my Discovery, and I’m used to it, but the technical section was great for allowing us to push the vehicle to its limits in safety,” explains D2 owner Richard Wilcox. The other three owners echo his sentiment, and even these seasoned Discovery users admit that they still find the capabilities of the new vehicle surprising.
Nevertheless, the afternoon session is what we’re all looking forward to. It’s scheduled to take place in Eastnor’s Deer Park, but that bland label is about as appropriate as describing the Darien Gap as a green lane. There are certainly deer hereabouts, but the logging trails we’ll be driving are less park and more tropical jungle – well, as tropical as Herefordshire gets. Our convoy of 3.0 Td6 Discoverys purrs down the lane from the Experience Centre to the far side of the Eastnor estate, being careful never to exceed 30 mph: this day is all about taking it slow.
“The technical section was great for allowing us to push the vehicle to its limits safely”
“Automatic Terrain Response got us up the slope with no input from me whatsoever”
Discovery 1 owner Roy Preston is having his eyes opened proportionately wider than the others, because he’s never driven a vehicle with Land Rover’s Terrain Response system. Hard to believe that this technology, by which the driver uses a rotary knob to select the most appropriate transmission and engine characteristics for a particular offroad challenge, has been around since 2004, when it was launched in the Discovery 3.
“The technology is wonderful!” enthuses Roy. “In the old days, when I was trialling in my 80in Series I, you would have to attack the course a little bit quicker, to make sure you had enough momentum, but now the vehicle does it all for you and you can just crawl up. And, of course, you don’t have to worry about changing gear.”
Andy Logsdail agrees that the technology is indeed amazing – but he wonders whether it’s almost a bit too good to be enjoyable. “The hardened off-roader won’t like it because everything’s done for you; it’s just point and shoot. It’s literally better than any human could manage.”
However, Andy admits that he did find the Automatic Terrain Response option very useful. Press the rotary knob down, and the car’s computer automatically picks and chooses between its various terrain settings, constantly analysing and adjusting the drivetrain to maximise traction. The effect is, quite simply, magical.
“In the morning session, on one of the technical sections that had an incline that was stepped on one side and smooth on the other, using ATR the car was in full control of itself. It started off up the incline, stopped, thought about what it needed to do, and then got us up the slope with no input from me whatsoever.
“Then, in the afternoon, there was one particularly difficult wooded section, where we had to negotiate a tight right hairpin turn that led straight onto a slippery hill,” recalls Andy later. “The vehicles in front all needed two or three goes to get round, but we did it in one because we were using ATR. It’s just brilliant. Of course, the hardcore offroaders will complain that it takes all the fun out of it!”
No one seriously expected the new Discovery to actually be worse off-road than the D3 and D4, of course. However, more than one of our testers commented that its more
rounded shape, compared with the brick-like profile of the older models, makes it harder to place in a tight spot. John Hooker is quite scathing on the subject, having had an anxious moment at exactly the same right turn that Andy was just referring to.
“I knew that I had to move quickly and not slow down, but as I came round the corner I had no idea about whether I was going to hit the far bank. Of course there are cameras, but you don’t always have time to look away and down at a screen: you need to be watching out of the window. The C-pillars are also very bulky, and the rising waistline of the car means that visibility out of the back is appalling.”
Quite separately, Andy Logsdail also felt that outward visibility wasn’t as good as it could be, although he reckoned that the on-board cameras – four of them on the new Discovery, giving an almost 360-degree view – go a long way to compensating for that. John admits that the resolution of those cameras is a lot better than a D4’s: “It’s like watching a film being played on an ipad” is the way he describes the use of cameras in the new Discovery.
Compared with the original high-tech D3, the touchscreen graphics are certainly a lot more sophisticated, and it’s fascinating to watch parts of the transmission schematic flashing as wheels occasionally spin before, almost instantaneously, finding traction again. “I don’t find the screen particularly intuitive, though” grumbles John. “And I do miss those chunky buttons you could operate in gloves!”
Needless to say, all the new Discoverys being driven today are fitted on factory-spec road tyres, as is Land Rover policy when demonstrating its vehicles. Would chunkier off-road
“The lack of a proper split tailgate is disappointing”
tyres make them even more capable? “Probably not,” says instructor Ben. “The electronics make up for any deficiencies in the tyres.” Which is quite a sobering thought.
The rain never lets up for the duration of the day, and while this undoubtedly makes the tracks more greasy, muddy and therefore more interesting, the Discoverys are never even remotely fazed. Comments about driver’s visibility aside, no one has a bad word to say regarding the Discovery’s off-roading capability.
But the same isn’t true about what it would be like to live with day-to-day. Interviewed separately after the event, every one of our testers criticises the rear load space.
Roy Preston: “Although there’s plenty of room inside, the aperture’s not wide enough. A big piece of furniture might physically fit inside, but you wouldn’t be able to get it through the tailgate aperture.”
Richard Wilcox: “I’m not convinced about the load space size compared with a D4’s.”
Andy Logsdail: “The boot space seems about the same size as a D2’s, but I’m not sure it’s as good as a D3 or D4’s.”
But the most detailed analysis comes from John Hooker, who uses his D4 for work and covers 30,000 miles a year.
“I often have to load bulky objects into the rear, and I have serious issues with the height of the rear sill in the new car, the fact that the aperture is about four inches shallower, and that its more rounded shape makes it impossible to load big boxes. It just doesn’t appear to have been designed for the same people who bought a D3 or D4.
“The lack of a proper split tailgate is also disappointing. I frequently use the D4’s lower tailgate as a desk when I’m out working in the field, and the asymmetric shape of upper and lower tailgates means that you can keep out of the rain. The new Discovery’s fold-down flap is much smaller, so you can’t sit on it and keep your legs clear of dirt on the rear bumper and tow bar.
“Furthermore, the rear seats don’t fold down to give a fully flat load space, unless you instruct the car to fold them flatter – which Land Rover admits could damage the leather surface of the seats. The electric tailgate is painfully slow in lifting up, and the inwardly angled corners are positively dangerous: they are going to kill someone, one day.”
Strong stuff. But John is not anti-discovery, and he does like some of the new car’s features. “I’m always worried about leaving my border collie Ben inside my D4, and the app for remotely checking and adjusting the Discovery’s interior temperature would be an absolute godsend to me.”
John also points out that what he perceives as the Discovery’s deficiencies wouldn’t turn him off the brand. “Ironically, the full-fat Range Rover is now closest to the kind of utility vehicle that they used to build – so I’d probably buy one of those instead!”
Our other three testers, Roy, Richard and Andy, have fewer reservations about the new Discovery and say they’d very much like to own one. Andy won’t have to wait long. He was so impressed by his day out at Eastnor that he’s already placed an order for a new Discovery HSE!
Above and left: Greasy, rutted tracks, lubricated by a constant drizzle, proved no challenge at all to the Discoverys from the Land Rover Experience fleet
Above and right: The new Discovery has a wading depth of 900 mm – a whole 200 mm deeper than the D4’s; smartphone app can monitor interior temperature
Above and right: The Discoverys were all fitted with the well-proven Td6 3.0-litre turbodiesel; touchscreen offers masses of info and connectivity, but takes a little time to master