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Is this a triumph of style over substance, or is the fifth-gen Land Rover Discovery the best yet?

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If one were looking for the rock on which the modern incarnation of Land Rover is built, you could easily make the case for the Land Rover Discovery – a car originally fashioned from a cubic jumble of old Range Rover architecture and the unwanted constituents of the Austin Rover parts bin.

The first generation Land Rover Discovery, launched in 1989, was a packaging rethink intended to compete with a new, affordable generation of Japanese 4x4s that made the Range Rover of the day look old and overpriced.

Like the Range Rover Sport and the full-sized Range Rover, the Discovery is based on an aluminium monocoque

The solution wasn’t flawless (indeed, its flaws multiplied and deepened over time), but its downsized diesel engine, utilitarianism and practicality caught the imagination of a public newly enthused about MPVs and the prospect of carrying seven people in hitherto unprecedented comfort.

In subsequent years, the formula barely changed. Land Rover just drastically improved the ingredients.

With the third generation Land Rover Discovery, in particular, Gaydon put its shoulder into the job, turning the Discovery into the model we now recognise: substantial, squared off and all but unstoppable.

The outgoing, fourth-generation Land Rover Discovery, enhanced further still and nudged increasingly upmarket, was regarded with enormous affection in the UK – so much so that, as with the outgoing Land Rover Defender, Land Rover recorded an impressive upturn in sales as the car approached its run-out date.

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The reason for that last-minute enthusiasm for the Land Rover Discovery 4 is well understood.

For all its virtues, the Discovery made for an anachronistic presence in Gaydon’s curvaceous line-up, and its replacement heralded the end of an era that a substantial number of buyers were reluctant to see fade away.

In short, they suspected that Land Rover might have lost sight of all the things that made the Discovery special and turned it into a lesser sibling of the Range Rover Sport – the model it is now most alike, mechanically.

That’s an understandable concern, but Gaydon could hardly be accused of taking its eye off the ball during this decade.

One triumph has emphatically followed another, and in the Mk5 Land Rover Discovery it has promised nothing less than the world’s best family SUV. We like the ambition – but now the car needs to prove it. 



Land Rover Discovery rear

The adoption of the Range Rover Sport’s all-aluminium monocoque is actually a reversal of the previous model’s relationship with its sibling.

Previously, it was the Sport that followed the Discovery, employing the same two-chassis system (dubbed the Integrated Body Frame by Land Rover), despite its on-road bent.

A full-sized spare wheel is housed on the underside of the car and is essential if you plan on doing any serious off-roading

The amalgamation of a unitary body (incorporating the engine bay and passenger cell) with a ladder frame was ideal for the peculiar combination of durability and imperiousness that made the Discovery famous.

Yet it was heavy and technically complicated to manufacture, making its replacement with current shared architecture as inevitable as the styling rethink.

Make what you will of the vehicle’s appearance – Land Rover is adamant that the softening of the previous model’s idiosyncratic lines was essential to broadening its appeal – but the new architecture brings more interior space as a result of a longer wheelbase and the better all-round performance that comes with a weight loss of up to 480kg, depending on model.

The drastic reduction in mass has permitted Gaydon to overhaul the engine line-up. In early iterations the Discovery was offered with four-cylinder engines, but as it moved through life cycles it ended up as a six-cylinder-only option.

Now a four is back in the form of the latest and most powerful variant of the Ingenium family, alongside a revamped 254bhp 3.0-litre diesel V6 and a 335bhp supercharged 3.0-litre petrol V6.

Sequential twin turbochargers coax 237bhp from the direct-injected 2.0-litre diesel, although it will be the range-best 171g/km of CO2 and 43.5mpg combined economy that distinguish the engine for most buyers.

Every engine is mated to a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and you can add a two-speed transfer box for low-range gearing, which chiefly differentiates the Discovery from the single-speed Range Rover Sport. Otherwise the permanent, adaptive four-wheel drive system is identical. 

Compared with the Discovery 4, Land Rover has decreased ground clearance by 27mm, but wading depth has increased by 200mm.

Four-corner adjustable air suspension features, in conjunction with front double wishbones and a rear multi-link layout that retains Gaydon’s characteristic integral link.

Both are mounted on steel subframes designed to withstand knocks and bangs should you finally overcome half a metre of wheel articulation.


Land Rover Discovery interior

When the Discovery 3 was launched in 2003, it dwarfed its competition, but the rest of the large SUV class has since caught up on size.

So although the new Discovery remains considerably taller than its opposition, an Audi Q7 is longer and also almost as wide across the door mirrors – and a Volvo XC90 isn’t far behind.

The optional Advanced Tow Assist allows you to reverse a trailer using the Terrain Response controller, a virtual must-have if you’re buying a Discovery and a novice at pulling a caravan

But irrespective of that, the expectation is that this will be just about the most spacious SUV on the road, because that’s the niche Land Rover has carved for it.

So it may come as a surprise that however generous the head room it affords its driver, it’s only averagely accommodating for maximum front leg room.

You sit high in the Discovery, but there’s only up to 1070mm of leg room behind the wheel, whereas an XC90 gives you 1140mm – something well worth noting if you’re particularly tall.

As you move backwards, though, the standard of practicality rapidly improves. The second row is split 60/40, each portion sliding fore and aft as well as folding. At their rearmost position, each middle-row seat affords enough space to beat a Q7, although here, again, the XC90 is king on leg room.

In row three, the Discovery is head and shoulders more spacious than its rivals. Our test car’s third-row seats were also heated and had their own Isofix points and USB points for charging electronic devices. So as a seven-seater for adult passengers, the Discovery remains unbeatable.

Its boot is among the class’s biggest, too. And on top of all this, the Discovery offers intelligent seat- folding technology as an option on most trim levels.

This enables all five rearmost seats to be folded out or away remotely using a smartphone app, or from the infotainment console or from the boot opening. That saves an awful lot of time and plenty of wrestling with catches and levers.

Overall, this Discovery’s cabin walks the line between functional pragmatism and premium-brand luxuriousness even more skilfully than before. Storage cubbies are hidden in places you least expect to find them – behind the ventilation controls and under sliding cupholders – and yet the car can also be equipped with the most up-to-date luxury features such as massage, climate-controlled Windsor leather seats, four-zone climate control and a chilled drinks compartment.

Material richness and perceived quality are both very good, albeit perhaps not quite class-leading. So despite being one of the more functional options in the SUV class, the Discovery wants for few premium-brand refinements.

In-car tech features include rear-seat entertainment screens, wi-fi, surround-view cameras and head-up display.

Lower-end trims get Land Rover’s 8.0in InControl Touch infotainment system, which includes navigation and music streaming features. With HSE and HSE Luxury trims, the infotainment is upgraded to an InControl Touch Pro system with a 10.0in widescreen. It’s a more powerful and sophisticated set-up with a high-definition display, 10GB of solid-state memory storage, smartphone mirroring and a wi-fi hotspot (for which you supply your own data connection).

The widescreen system looks graphically pleasing enough and it’s fairly intuitive to use, but it’s less quick to respond to touchscreen inputs than rival systems.

The rear-seat entertainment system and in-car TV of our test car added to its price (although the TV option doesn’t save you from needing to spend even more if you want a ‘dual-view’ infotainment screen up front).

Land Rover supplies surround-view cameras and a 14-speaker, 825W audio system by Meridian as standard on HSE Luxury cars. Its audio quality is strong but not outstanding.


Land Rover Discovery front quarter

The Mk5 Discovery may be significantly lighter than its predecessor, but the car’s motive character remains mostly unaltered.

This is a big car that drives like one – like its looks suggest it should, like you’d expect it to and like you’d hope it would with genuine dual-purpose on and off-road use in mind.

Roll is only a factor in sharper corners. In quicker ones, the Discovery’s handling response is very respectable

Land Rover’s familiar care over the details of the driving experience extends to an accelerator pedal whose sensitivity and calibration make the Discovery somewhat unwilling to be hustled away from a standstill but easy to waft into motion smoothly.

Which is as you’d want it and should make the car supremely controllable when towing heavy trailers and covering slippery or rough terrain.

On the move, the pace the Discovery wants to adopt is more gentle than that of its six-cylinder diesel rivals. Whereas a Q7 3.0 TDI 272 takes little more than six seconds to hit 60mph from rest, this Land Rover needs almost nine – and despite that healthy-sounding 443lb ft of mid-range torque, the Discovery isn’t much closer to the Audi Q7 on in-gear pace, either.

But the Land Rover’s saving grace is that, much of the time, you wouldn’t really want such a tall, wide car to be any quicker. Its engine is big on torque but revs to only just beyond 4000rpm, and although its gearbox will shift away smoothly enough however you drive it and is smart and obedient in manual mode, it’s at its best when ushering the car along in swift but unhurried fashion.

The Discovery isn’t quite as mechanically refined as some large SUVs and perhaps more understandably, given its upright shape and size, it doesn’t cut through the wind as quietly as some.

That it stops, on the road and in safety-critical circumstances, with the slightly qualified urgency of a heavy car fitted with pseudo-off-road and ‘all-season’ tyres, is equally as much to do with the car’s dual-purpose brief as anything.

In light of that, hauling up from 70mph in less than 54 metres is no bad showing.  


Land Rover Discovery cornering

The outgoing Discovery’s distinguishing features – its unusual unified platform, its height, its air suspension and, most definitely, its weight – all contributed to an idiosyncratic and terrifically appealing driving experience.

That experience, so prized by its owners, hasn’t just informed the tuning of the new car; it has also served as the blueprint from which Land Rover has endeavoured to barely stray, excepting the ways in which it has improved.

There’s laudable precision to the steering and handling until you get to about 45deg off dead ahead. I really enjoyed driving the Discovery reasonably swiftly but keeping it within that zone

The result, then, is less an all-new car and more a considerate and thoughtfully resolved reboot – slightly leaner, lighter of foot and weightier in sophistication.

It hardly hurts that many of the Discovery hallmarks remain safely in place: the hugely elevated ride height, the isolation of air springs and the fact that there’s still well over two tonnes to tote about.

But that scarcely diminishes the job done by Gaydon’s engineers, not least in the elemental differences rendered between it and the Range Rover Sport.

Both display significant rapport with their respective bulk, yet where the Sport hunkers down into a big-shouldered poise that approaches real keenness, the Discovery leans itself away from the effort, rolling congenially with gravity and the severity of the corner you’re tackling.

By modern standards, the steering is heavy, yet there’s an oily precision to its electric assistance that leaves you in no doubt about the car’s placement or its preferred rate of knots.

Superior stiffness and uprated body control allow it to be driven quicker than before, although you’ll hardly bother, because the Discovery is still ultimately about sitting back and soaking up the scenery rather than pummelling brusquely through it.

This crucial facet is evidenced by a ride quality that doesn’t straighten out every crinkle like a limousine but instead ruminates on its complexion like a high court judge, authoritatively dismissing anything it deems unduly consequential to the occupants above.

Agile, car-like and witlessly adhesive the Discovery is plainly not. Yet its usability, indomitability and charisma are unequivocal.

Like its predecessor – and quite unlike anything else – it feels built to see every far corner of the world even as it forms a stately and impermeable barrier against it.

Through its stability control systems, the Discovery limits itself to a fairly sensible pace on the Alpine Hill Route. The car’s challenges here are not just that it is tall and heavy, but also that it has hybrid road/off-road tyres, whereas rivals use less compromised rubber.

However, the chassis electronics include good understeer control and you very quickly identify how much speed the car can securely carry through corners and simply drive to that pace, which would be far from restrictive for anyone on the road. Body control, although better than it used to be, remains decidedly loose when push comes to shove.

You can’t totally disengage the car’s stability control, but you can ramp down its sensitivity if you want. There is little to be gained from doing so, though. The car’s at-the-limit handling is stable at all times, but driving it hard on the road plainly isn’t what it’s engineered for.


Land Rover Discovery review hero front

Arguably, the most telling demerit in Land Rover’s quest to build the world’s best family SUV is that the Discovery remains virtually unattainable to most households.

Its origins as an ‘affordable’ alternative to Gaydon’s other full-sized SUVs is at least discernible: an entry-level S model with the 2.0 diesel is £46,335, more than £15k cheaper than the lowliest Range Rover Sport.

Discovery is likely to slip behind Range Rover Sport values eventually but should remain sturdier than an Audi Q7’s

Nevertheless, given the spartan, cloth-seat nature of that version, Land Rover will be expecting most buyers to start shopping at SE or HSE level – comfortably more than £50k. The SE adds electrically-adjusted grained leather seats, LED headlights, a 250w stereo, front and rear parking sensors, and heated, power folding door mirrrors, while the HSE gains a Windsor leather interior, 380W Meridian sound system, panoramic glass roof, keyless entry, a powered tailgate and rear view camera.

The HSE Luxury trim includes rear seat entertainment, app-controlled folding seats, an electric sunroof and 360-degree parking cameras. Opt for the 3.0-litre engine tested and you’ll need to factor in a £1500 walk-up. The running costs will be slightly higher, too.

Its CO2 output of 189g/km places the car on the 37 percent benefit-in-kind naughty step.

At 39.2mpg combined, the V6 isn’t that far adrift of the 43.5mpg claimed for the 2.0-litre motor – but as the 26.3mpg average recorded in True MPG testing shows, it’s radically thirstier than the equivalent engines found in the Audi Q7 and BMW X5



4.5 star Land Rover Discovery

The fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery may look like a quite different prospect from any namesake, but driving it is like being with an old friend who has been given a new waxed jacket and a new lease of life to go with it.

This is such a comfortable, calming and assured car on the road – a proper Land Rover whose real talent is to put you at ease, despite its considerable size, and to be ready to do almost anything you might ask of it.

A proper Land Rover, modernised, refined and as likeable as ever

And by taking road miles so comfortably and effortlessly in its stride, somehow it only underlines its ability to take you farther off the beaten track than any other SUV likely could – and without even getting its tyres mucky.

The way we use SUVs has changed a lot in 28 years, and many of the Discovery’s rivals now serve many people’s needs better.

But this is an authentic Land Rover with incredible breadth of ability, a better Discovery than ever before and a hugely appealing modern family car.

It won’t be for everyone – but for those who have a use for its Amazon-wide range of abilities, it’s a brilliant and unrivalled product.

With all that in mind we have ranked the new Discovery just behind its sibling, the Range Rover Sport, and ahead of the Audi Q7, Volvo XC90 and BMW X5.


Land Rover Discovery First drives