Price: $69,200 plus options and on-road costs
Engine/Trans: 155kW/520Nm 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 diesel / 8-speed Automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 8.8 l/100km combined
Construction: Integrated Body Frame
Suspension: Independent suspension with airbags
Towing: 750kg unbraked / 3500kg braked
Vehicle class: off-road passenger vehicle (MC)
The year was 1989. The Japanese had been churning out four-wheel-drive after four-wheel-drive and making squillions in the process.
British company Land Rover decided it wanted a piece of the action. In a landmark move, it entered into competiton with the Japanese for an affordable four-wheel-drive which could carry people and cargo with ease.
The result was the launched of the Discovery, a large vehicle with a chassis and drive train taken from the more luxurious Range Rover, but at a more realistic price level. Did it work? Most definitely.
However, while it and its successor (the Discovery 2) were a sales success, their quality wasn’t. Which is the reason that when the all-new Discovery 3 was launched, America decided to ditch the Discovery name altogether, calling it the LR3.
Negative quality connotations aside, the Discovery 3 quickly found a name for itself as one of the most practical and comfortable SUVs ever made.
Its size, comfort and agility were unmatched. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke…which is why when Land Rover revealed the Discovery 4, it seemed like an external refresh. However it was the interior which was the revelation.
With elements borrowed from its far more expensive sibling, the Range Rover Vogue, the new Disco suddenly turned upmarket. The plastics were softer, metallic accents featured around the cabin, and there was an appreciable drop in button count.
In fact, the whole interior was very Range Rover in presentation, meaning those who opted for the Landy felt like they were getting great value for money. And really, they were.
So when it was updated (yet again) to become the Discovery 4.5, there were a few things that needed changing to ensure the Disco wasn’t left behind. After all, it’s essentially a decade-old car. Certainly aesthetically, not much was altered.
But under the skin, the latest Disco is much improved. Now, an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters supplies the power to the transfer cases, while new or updated engines feature, with two 3.0-litre turbo-diesels (155kW and 183kW) and a supercharged 3.0-litre V6 petrol (250kW) available.
Enhancements to the Terrain Response system have tweaked its off-road mettle, 19-inch wheels are now standard across the range, the headlights are now more rounded and there’s some more attractive DRLs. Oh, and the badging has changed a bit – the boot has dropped the numerical designation, and the bonnet’s “Land Rover” has been replaced by “Discovery”.
As an urban runabout, the Disco is brilliant. With a footprint no bigger than a Commodore, it’s actually very easy to wheel in and out of parking spots, while being up to the cut and thrust of daily traffic.
The air suspension gives a reasonable ride that improves markedly at speed; around town it could be considered lumpy by some. In this respect, the move to 19-inch wheels was a backward step (the 17s made it almost Phantom-like in ride quality) though the larger wheels do imbue a more assured sense of handling, which is appreciated with that tallboy body shape.
The Disco, as you may have guessed just by looking at it, doesn’t like sharp directional changes – it’s not a sports car. Drive it with restraint and it rewards with a very relaxed manner. It’s a fabulously comfortable way to cover the drudgery of a long trip.
The steering has enough heft to keep you satisfied, but it’s still oily smooth and light enough for the missus not to complain. Our test car, the 155kW turbo-diesel, benefits from the ZF auto’s eight ratios.
It uses the bulk of the torque to keep the Disco trundling along, without needing to rev. Because of this, the powertrain is very quiet. Sure, on startup there’s a gravelly idle, but after that it simply sounds like a V6. And if we’re nitpicking, yes, there’s initial lag but the engine really is a peach.
Tap into its peak torque of 520Nm and it makes overtaking in this behemoth a pleasure.
To complete the travel experience, you can immerse yourself in a brilliant eight-speaker sound system, streaming your music via Bluetooth (no need to fork out for the Meridian set-up).
With our test car being the base TDV6 specification, it also receives, dual-zone climate control and cruise control. A slightly disappointing omission is the reversing camera, which needs to be purchased as part of the “Technology Pack”, which for $4390 also gives you voice control, 4×4 info and off-road navigation.
Where the Disco comes into its own, however, is its ability to cart people around. While each of the seven seats is covered in a durable hide (rather than a softer, premium leather) the padding is brilliant. It’s also one of the few cars in which three baby seats can be placed in a single row.
But the best attribute of the Discovery is that it’s perhaps the only SUV in which full size adults can occupy the third row with no complaints. With deep footwells, excellent legroom and plenty of headroom, the sixth and seventh pews are unmatched by anything else in the segment.
Buy it on its space alone, and you won’t be disappointed. Which is what most people do. But that would be to miss out on Land Rover’s strength – its brand heritage.
If anyone knows off-roading, it’s Land Rover. With decades of experience, and dedicated R&D teams in both physical and virtual testing, the Discovery has a good foundation on which to build. But does this nearly three-tonne behemoth, with the design flair of a block of flats, really have what it takes to conquer the bush?
In short, yes. But you have to understand how it goes about it. The Discovery uses its Terrain Response system to good effect, braking individual wheels when it senses slip and allowing the torque to be fed to the wheels gripping. While that sounds like every other system, it’s the speed at which it adjusts itself and how it reads the grip levels that really sets it apart.
Physical grip is always preferred to traction control, but without resorting to using off-road tyres, the Disco’s road tyres perform very impressively, whether in mud, sand or rocky trails. It just needs to be driven with a bit of self-control.
In sand, build up the pace slowly and then power through the deeper patches and it works well. The Disco also has a sand launch control which helps when setting off, but in our experience switch all electronic aids off and it handles it much better.
In deep mud or soft dirt, it can suffer from brake fade, especially if you repeated rely on its ESC systems. Thankfully it cools quickly, so with a bit of patience, the Disco will take you just about anywhere. And with programmes to suit snow, grass, mud ruts, rock or sand, there isn’t much that the Discovery can’t cope with.
It’ll even rise to give you over 300mm of ground clearance using its fabulous air suspension. And, like on the road, the ride when crashing over boulders is exceptional.
As a people mover, the Land Rover Discovery is brilliant. It’s comfortable, has a massive boot, has masses of torque, countless storage trays, rides like a dream and is easy to get in and out of. Its practicality is first class.
But the Discovery is so much more than that. It’s an accomplished bush basher in its own right. With fully adjustable and independent air suspension, an expert traction control system, locking differentials and (optional) cameras dotted around the vehicle, it will take people where only the foolhardy choose to tread.
Yes, it’s a bit too heavy, and some question marks hang over its head when it comes to long-term reliability, but the Discovery is well worth a serious look for anyone wanting a car that can do it all.