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First Drive: 2017 Land Rover Discovery

The Discovery’s initial mission — to blend the most practical aspects of Land Rover’s utility vehicles (think Series and Defender) with a level of refinement found in the Range Rover — birthed a line of family SUV that not only faithfully delivered on that charter but has endured, quite successfully, through four generations over the course of nearly three decades. But now this new, fifth-generation of Discovery is set to face off against an unprecedented number of competitors, each vying to supersede Land Rover’s hard-earned reputation for delivering family-friendly functionality. Does it have the perfect blend of unalloyed grit and polished premium alloys we’ve come to expect from the marque?

History suggests a resounding yes, primarily because of Land Rover’s continued response to the rapid evolution of the Discovery’s market segment. Originally conceived to do battle with dominant competitors from Japan like the Mitsubishi Montero, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder, the first-generation Discovery excelled against its rivals in refinement and appointments while matching their abilities off-road.

By the second generation, the Germans had gentrified the neighborhood with new entrants from BMW (X5) and Mercedes-Benz (ML Class). The Discovery II had no trouble out-performing these new challengers in terms of utility and rugged skills off-road, but its live-axle chassis and body-on-frame construction proved no match against the on-road finesse of the Autobahners.

The third generation (LR3) answered those concerns boldly with a four-corner independent suspension and the introduction of Terrain Response, which raised the technological bar for all-road chassis control. The following LR4 added more layers of refinement, more luxury features, more technology…in other words, more more in the need to keep pace with its peers, all of which had become far more sophisticated

Throughout all its iterations the Discovery has been a rugged yet refined utility vehicle for adventurous families. Perhaps as importantly, it also has been an aspirational vehicle that suggests empty roads and far horizons are just a turn of the key away. Alloy+Grit drove the new Discovery to find out if it delivers on these promises.

SKIN DEEP

Before getting to the nuts and bolts, let’s try to wrap our eyes around that element of the Discovery that has everyone talking, the design. From its inception, the Discovery has worn distinctive body panels. Some were, well, charmingly funky (polarizing, others might have said). Either way, nothing else has ever really looked like a Disco. Until now.

Viewed in isolation and without context, the new Discovery is an absolutely beautiful piece of mechanical sculpture: a muscular form with balanced proportions, clean surfaces, and tidy detailing that offers a less-is-more elegance in a marketplace filled with overwrought swage lines and heavily scalloped panels. But, it’s also a case of more-is-less: To some eyes it looks just too similar to the rest of the current Land Rover lineup, particularly from the front.

To follow further this critical line of thought, we agree there’s not a lot of distinctive Discovery-ness left in it. On one hand, it’s like a chunk of quartz that’s been swept along the bed of a roaring river, its unique, jagged surfaces polished and smoothed, leaving just a hint of its original form. On the other hand, it’s like a chunk of carbon that’s been carved by an expert jeweler, its new form displaying a brilliant elegance that only broadens its appeal.

To understand this critique, it helps to know what defined that first-generation Discovery. It was an entirely new expression of Land Rover’s spirit when it first emerged as a family vehicle positioned between the rugged Defender and the luxurious Range Rover. Its tall, stepped roof addressed old complaints about headroom in those other two vehicles, paying tribute as well to the Defender’s iconic safari roof, right down to the alpine windows. And the asymmetry of the rear window’s baseline was functional, shaped to conform to the edges of the spare tire mounted on the side-swinging cargo door. These details helped establish the Discovery’s identity and were carried through the first two generations.

The third-generation Discovery (LR3) created a shockwave on arrival. Traditionalists simply detested its industrial minimalism. The step in the roof was less prominent, and the alpine windows were reinterpreted, made integral to a larger glass roof panel. The spare tire was moved to a location underneath the vehicle, but the designers playfully retained the rear door’s signature asymmetrical window line (though the drop moved to the opposite side), using it as the break point for the new split tailgate. Eventually the hysteria subsided, and loyalists accepted the design that was carried through two generations.

Similar styling quirks are to be found on the new Discovery, but they’ve been finely edited and now serve as little more than design hints at the model’s history without rehashing it. It’s clearly a Discovery for a new era, and we have no doubt even the most ardent critics will come to appreciate it once they’ve stood next to one. More importantly to Land Rover, this less polarizing new Discovery should appeal to shoppers who would have never considered the brand.

BENEATH THE SURFACE

That slick body is shedding more than just visual baggage, however. By switching to a full unibody chassis (abandoning the corpulent integrated body/frame platform) and pressing almost all of it out of aluminum, the new Discovery casts aside more than 800 pounds compared to its predecessor, even when new features are factored in. The body shell alone is a full thousand pounds lighter.

Where the outgoing model’s gait was cumbersome, the new Discovery immediately feels fleet of foot and more responsive to inputs from throttle, brakes and steering wheel whether in the 340-hp supercharged V6 or the 254-hp turbodiesel V6. There has never been a Discovery so quick to react with so little prodding. But, this is a Land Rover, and just as important is its lithe and balanced demeanor off the pavement, especially on inclines. No longer a listing ship, it fairly seethes with a sure-footed confidence that only comes from being unburdened by excess mass.

One look at the slippery shape of the new Discovery tells you it wasn’t sketched in the Solihull brick factory but was fashioned with significant aid from the wind tunnel. While there is still a dominant verticality to the front of the truck, it’s not as blunt as it used to be. And everywhere you look are small details that manage the flow of air over the body, such as the vertical slits in the front bumper that direct the stream over the front wheels. Even the stepped roofline was kept low to minimize frontal area. The payoff is a big drop in drag coefficient from 0.40 to 0.35.

The benefits of such a dramatic weight reduction and sleek shape suggests improved fuel economy, but it didn’t quite work out that way — at least with the supercharged V6. While the outgoing LR4 with that engine managed an EPA rating of 15 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, the new model using the blown V6 eeks out a barely better 16/21 in the government’s estimation. Your fuel mileage may vary.

NUTS AND BOLTS

But if fuel economy is what you’re after, Land Rover will now (finally) sell you a Discovery with an efficient diesel engine. It’s the same 3.0-liter V6 found in the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport but is the first such option ever offered to American buyers in a Discovery. Quiet and refined, it offers a more acceptable 21/26-mpg figure at a modest $2,000 premium over the gas engine. With 442 lb-ft of torque on tap, it should be popular with buyers who tow or haul other heavy loads, and certainly those with long commutes.

The supercharged V6 gas engine has a slight performance advantage, but neither engine is a slouch. An eight-speed automatic is the only transmission option, and as with later LR4s, the hi/lo transfer case is part of a “capability” package. The Terrain Response System manages traction electronically, locking and unlocking differentials based on the surface conditions. Terrain Response II is optional, adding automatic program selection to its list of talents and ensuring that driving in changing conditions is a carefree affair.

Traditionalists may find comfort that a coil spring suspension is still standard, though we suspect most will leave dealers riding on the optional four-corner air suspension, especially as it’s standard on the higher-spec HSE models. Nevertheless, it exists. The air springs give the Disco up to 11.1 inches of ground clearance and allow it to ford up to 35.4 inches of water should the need arise. On the road, the proven setup delivers a tranquil ride on par with its more expensive Range Rover stablemates.

Our drive through the dry desert landscape of southeast Utah never challenged its wading credentials but did provide a sense of how well the new Discovery will play on rocks and sand. With its independent suspension, it can’t always keep all four tires in contact with the ground over extremely uneven surfaces, but as long as it triangulates, the truck will remain stable, and its electronic traction kit will almost always pull it through. In fact, as long as just one corner has traction, the system will continue to feed power only to that wheel, making it possible, in most cases, to continue forward. All Terrain Progress Control acts like a low-speed cruise control, allowing you to set a pace in off-road conditions and maintain that speed, adjusting for such changes in terrain as large obstacles and even water.

A stint at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park proved how well the combination of advanced traction control and ample power can motivate the nearly 5000-pound vehicle through even the deepest, softest sand. With the tires aired down for maximum contact, the Discovery made easy work of the windswept landscape. On steeper climbs where power and momentum both matter, the supercharged gas V6 showed an edge over the diesel, better able to add power as momentum diminished.

Regardless of engine choice, the new Discovery actually outdoes its predecessors when it comes to towing, besting the previous model’s 7,716-pound rating by another 285 pounds. A trailer hitch with integrated wiring is a stand-alone option.

All of our test vehicles were equipped with the 21-inch alloys that come standard on the HSE Lux models, but it’s worth noting that Land Rover fits wheels as small as 19 inches in diameter on the base model. As the brake package is identical regardless of the trim level — 14.2-inch front rotors and 13.8-inch rears — off-road enthusiasts should have no problem stepping back to a 19-inch wheel package for a bit of extra sidewall on the trails.

ADVENTURE READY
Where the new Discovery really excels is neither on-road or off — it’s inside. The standard configuration remains the two-row five-passenger setup, but most will probably hit the road as seven-seaters. The third row, accessible by folding forward any of the three second-row seats, has been designed specifically to accommodate an adult up to about 6 ft 2 in., situating the seat bottom (like those of the second-row seats) quite low, so the space if better suited to longer torsos than legs. Nevertheless, the third row is far from a penalty box.

Adding to the Disco’s configurability is a new powered-seat option. Any of the five rear seats can be lowered or raised at the push of a switch, either in the rear compartment or at the seating position. This can all be done from your smartphone through an app, allowing you to pre-arrange the cargo space before you arrive with your payload.

Someone in the interior design group has obviously spent time on holiday with a pack of post-millennial kids, as there’s accommodation for virtually all the stuff today’s electronically-assisted progeny expect to have on hand at all times. There are multiple USB power supplies in every row so no one has to fight for one.

Storage spots are also generous throughout. The hidden bin behind the fold-down infotainment screen is a clever touch, perfect for stashing sunglasses or a phone. By eliminating the old-style mechanical gear selector in favor of the rotary knob, the center console is a virtual hidden cave — slide the cupholder component out of the way, and you have a deep storage compartment capable of swallowing four iPads. Other thoughtful touches include door panels sculpted deeply enough to accommodate a one-liter water bottle (even the fat Nalgene bottles).

If there’s a drawback to the new body shape, it comes in the form of reduced cargo space. Overall interior volume is down by almost 10 percent compared to the LR4. Much of that appears to be sacrificed behind the third row, where the rounded shape of the rear tailgate and its thick pillars conspire to steal precious cubic feet. While the shape is less boxy, Land Rover has broadened the rear opening to accommodate wider cargo.

While we’ll miss the split tailgate of the LR3/LR4, Land Rover insists the new overhead hatch makes it easier to reach into the cargo space while offering more protection from the elements when tailgating. To facilitate that activity, an 11-inch-wide folding platform drops down at the push of a button, providing a clean, dry surface on which to sit.


REFINED BUT NOT PRECIOUS

From inside especially, the new Discovery feels like a true continuation of the model’s history. Each generational change has brought new levels of luxury and refinement, and the fifth generation continues to plot that graph. The cabin is by far the best example yet of blending functional elements with quality trimmings in a way that feels luxurious but not too precious for more rugged pursuits than cooking burgers in a stadium parking lot. Even optioned with the perforated leather seating and open-pore wood trim, it never feels like a place you wouldn’t let your kids in with muddy boots.

The Discovery exudes an air of quality in everything touchable surface. Doors open and close with a solid thunk we’ve come to expect more from the Germans than the Brits. The panel gaps are undoubtedly the tightest to travel the Solihull assembly line. There is precision in every component, down to the jeweled headlight assemblies. Every detail reflects a master’s intent.

All of this comes together on the road, where the vehicle feels drum tight and precise in a way past Discoverys never quite managed. The cabin is virtually silent at highway speeds, the air moving over the bodywork undetected. Road noise as well is hushed, and even the roughest of pavement transitions goes unnoticed. It all adds up to a new benchmark for quality in the Discovery legacy, even at its $49,990 base price. It packs a lot of the Range Rover Sport’s appeal for a lot less money, even fully loaded in the mid $70k range.

Land Rover purposely chose a revolutionary design for this new Discovery. It signals not so much a new direction for the model but rather an attention to the needs and wants of today’s buyers. It is a Discovery for the modern age; it recognizes its heritage but is entirely comfortable with its new attitude. We see no reason why it won’t continue to be the most interesting choice for adventurous families.