If little things mean a lot, this latest Land Rover is a winner, despite suffering from the big four-wheel drive syndrome of perceptually taking up too much space and being overweight.
Is perception getting in the way of reality?
Even if the Discovery feels big and bulky, it’s actually shorter than a Ford Falcon, although it’s wider and, of course, much higher.
But it really is heavy – almost three times the weight of a Suzuki Jimny and two-thirds heavier than a Falcon.
Heavier, too, than rivals like the BMW X5, Mitsubishi Pajero and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
In its lightest form the new Disco still weighs more than 2.7 tonnes and, by the time the machine is fuelled and fully loaded, the scales are groaning at 3.5 tonnes.
Once rolling you begin to think heaven and earth are needed to stop the thing, but Land Rover has wisely fitted hefty ventilated discs all round and, with the extra power of the V8, has increased the size of the rear discs to 350mm. The diesel’s are 325mm.
Despite a world running out of space, motor vehicles continue to grow. Between 1998 and 2004, the average car weight increased by 9.67 percent, height was up by 4.49 percent and power increased by 17.39 percent.
Increasing demands to meet pedestrian safety and emissions requirements, plus a wave of technological advances mean that the growth in weight will accelerate.
Part of the Discovery’s weight problem is the use of both a unitary body and a ladder chassis.
The engineers call this an integrated body-frame, with a hydroformed chassis and a body that sits over the frame rather than on top of it.
Huge strength is to be had by retaining a separate body and a frame, and the ride is smooth and compliant, despite the largish 19-inch alloys and low profile 255/55 tyres on the HSE variant we drove. Lower spec SE models have 18-inch alloys with 255/60 series rubber.
The Discovery has great damping, body control is excellent and the rack and pinion steering isn’t short on feel.
The new Discovery feels totally confident off-road and though on-road cornering and roadholding is still limited – as are its rivals’ – there’s an inherent confidence that is reassuring.
Both versions for New Zealand include the interlinked electronic air suspension, the same choice of turbodiesel V6 and petrol V8 engine, traction control, dynamic stability control, eight airbags and cruise control.
You also get seven seats with a fold-flat feature for rows two and three, bi-xenon headlights with auto function and power wash, rain-sensing wipers and rear park-distance control.
The electric glass and alpine roof is an extra $3500 on both models and the adaptive front lighting system which moves with the steering costs $1000.
The HSE has several additional features – an eight-speaker Harmon Kardon audio, electrically adjustable (and heated) front seats, leather upholstery, electrically operated fold-in door mirrors and wood foil fascia end caps, plus the larger wheels.
Still, you pay $12,500 for the HSE privilege, and the $89,500 SE TdV6 strikes me as the better-value alternative.
Most owners will opt for the German ZF, six-speed adaptive automatic transmission. The auto is the same price as the six-speed manual.
The $97,500 SE V8 petrol ($110,000 for the HSE V8)) is only offered as an auto.
People with an eye on fuel costs will inevitably plump for the iron block, common rail 2720cc V6 diesel.
It’s a PSA Peugeot-Citroen developed, four valves per cylinder engine that also appears in the S-type Jaguar, albeit with twin turbos.
The single turbo Discovery diesel produces 140kW at 4000rpm – well short of the 220kW, 4394cc petrol V8 which is a retuned version of another engine used by Jaguar.
But the diesel wins the torque race, pumping out a massive 445Nm at a meagre 1900 revs, against 427Nm at 4000rpm for the V8.
Though the Disco diesel is no fireball, no one will complain about its overall performance, or its great flexibility.
A top speed of 180km/h is only 15km/h short of the V8’s, although the 0-100 km/h time of 11.7 seconds is more than two seconds slower.
We couldn’t match the official combined fuel consumption of 10.4 litres/100km (27.2mpg), but the 11.4 litres/100km (24.8mpg) was still good.
By comparison, the V8 petrol Disc consumes 15 litres per 100km (18.8mpg) in the combined cycle.
Drive by noise tests reveal the diesel auto to be the quietest Discovery 3, and it’s only under load that occupants are aware of the diesel power.
At 100km/h, the V6 is turning at a lazy 1700 revs, and pick-up is strong.
The fulltime four-wheel drive has an electronically controlled centre differential, but most owners will probably never use the new Terrain Response system.
Simply leave the arrangement in the general driving setting, or turn the dashboard dial for driving over deep ruts, grass, snow, mud or sand. By dialling in the appropriate mode, the engine, transmission, suspension and traction settings are all reconfigured for the best result.
The basic styling architecture of the original 1989 Discovery is still there – the kicked-up roof line towards the rear (now more discreet), the front-end shaping and the drop-down rear window line.
That aggressive frontal appearance incorporates Range Rover cues and the whole vehicle is more imposing.
By repositioning the spare wheel under the car, rather than on the rear, designers were able to split the tailgate horizontally like a Range Rover. An asymmetric shaping with the deeper glass on the outside improves visibility, and the lower half of the tailgate can be used as a picnic table or seat.
Functionality runs to an air vent on just one front side guard where it is needed, and an easy release for the fuel filler lid. As long as the doors are unlocked, you only need to tap the lid for it to open.
Though the overall look is classy and modern, the rear end is too square and van-like and is the least impressive part of the body design.
As we’ve come to expect from Land Rover, the interior treatment is brilliant. This is a car with real charm, and the Range Rover touches to the dashboard design, seating and general appointment are sure to win favour.
The Disco is now right back among the best in the class as a complete, competent and comfortable vehicle.
After several days in one it’s easy to be smitten by something so seemingly incidental as the handbrake.
The reason is simply because the electronic park brake is so good you wonder why all cars don’t have them.
You flick the switch to engage the handbrake. When you drive off, the brake disengages automatically.
Why does Land Rover have a model so close in size and appointment to the Range Rover?
The answer can be found in its lower pricing.
At 4835mm, the Discovery is only 115mm shorter than the Range Rover
The 2885mm wheelbase is virtually identical and the 2009mm width is the same
Both front and rear tracks are slightly narrower than the Range Rover’s, and the Disco’s overall height is slightly less with air suspension and more with the coil spring arrangement
Disco 3 is part of a serious make-over of the Land Rover range. The new Range Rover Sport is on the way to New Zealand, and by 2008 new Freelander and Defender models will also have broken cover.
– Don Anderson