Here’s a bolshie statement to set tongues wagging: the Land Rover Discovery is the best car Land Rover has ever built. Discuss.
Sure, the Range Rover blows it away when it comes to badge bragging. But when it was launched in 1989, the Discovery could follow a Defender up Scafell Pike, yet the fact that it was built on basically the same ladder-frame chassis as the Range Rover meant it was just as cosseting as its premium cousin on the run back down the M6.
That’s not all. It was cheaper than a Range Rover but had a much bigger boot, and if you fitted the optional rear jump seats it would seat seven people – two more than the Range Rover could manage. Fair play, it lacked the leather and wood accoutrements of its more illustrious sibling, but the Discovery came with a funky blue interior designed by none other than Terence Conran. The interior included a holdall for oddments in the front centre console that could then be removed from the vehicle and used as a shoulder bag. Come on, admit it: that’s way cooler and far more useful than a slab of polished mahogany glued to the dashboard, isn’t it?
Where it all started
Whichever side of this ‘which is best?’ argument you are on, though, there’s no doubt that the original Discovery was not just a huge success; it was an instant icon, too. That’s why, when it came to a ground-up replacement for 2004, Land Rover was keen to retain the family DNA, so the stepped roof, twin sunroofs, asymmetric rear window and the original’s seven-seat potential were all carried over.
It also needed to keep the Discovery’s rugged off-roader soul, yet with the onslaught of competition spanning the whole SUV spectrum - from luxury SUVs such as the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90 through to workhorses including the Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Pathfinder – the new Discovery 3, as it was known, also needed to ride and handle more like a car. So, to recap, Land Rover needed to create a jack of all trades that was a master of all. No pressure, then.
Our 2005 Large 4x4 of the Year
It may have been a tough ask, but when in 2004 the new Discovery was unveiled in New York, there was a sense of optimism surrounding it. We noted at the time that Land Rover’s top brass "seemed remarkably confident" as they pulled back the covers. A couple of months later we knew why, because, after driving it over a 14-hour day in which "we drove the car on black, brown and green roads, over bitumen, shale, gravel, grass and mud, and in places as flat as a pancake and up slopes close to being vertical, we had a new 4x4 champion". Yep, the Discovery 3 was a good ’un all right, which is why we voted it the What Car? Large 4x4 of the Year in 2005.
How had this remarkable feat been achieved? Well, some of the new car’s biggest gains were in the ride and handling departments. For the Discovery 3, Land Rover binned the unruly live-axle suspension layout of the original in favour of fully independent wishbones front and rear, supported by height-adjustable air suspension. And while it retained a ladder-frame chassis underneath, this was wrought stronger by bolting a stiff monocoque body on top.
Add in a bunch of new tech, including a Terrain Response feature that meant, at the touch of a dial, the Discovery could be tuned to work on various different surfaces from shingle to sludge, and you had a car that rode brilliantly and handled ably, yet was still as unstoppable in the hinterland as a Chieftain tank.
A new 188bhp 2.7-litre V6 diesel played its part in this renaissance. The product of a joint venture between Peugeot and Ford (the latter at the time owned Land Rover), this creamy V6 replaced the clattery old five-cylinder diesel in the outgoing Discovery and, hooked up to the slick standard six-speed automatic gearbox, was smoothness personified.
It was a strong performer, too – not in outright, flat-out acceleration but rather in effortless real-world pace, thanks to a healthy 325lb ft slug of torque from 1900rpm that would easily satisfy anyone towing a boat or caravan.
In addition, the Discovery 3 was bigger all round and had more interior space than its predecessor, making it a great car for a family of five. And when you got the dreaded phone call from another parent: “Brian, I am bogged down at the office; any chance you could fetch my two on the school run today?”, those two forward-facing seats in the boot were still a boon that the X5 couldn’t match.
What we said at the time
The Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Land Cruiser did equal the Discovery’s tally of seats, but those in the third row weren’t as roomy, according to our 2005 group test of all three. We noted that as well as being nicer to drive than its rivals, the Discovery’s rearmost seats were "well ahead for head and leg room" while leaving "ample space behind for luggage" as well. The improvements didn’t stop there, because in describing the fit and finish, we went on to say the "Discovery leads the way for cabin quality, with classy but sturdy plastics".
What’s the Land Rover Discovery 3 like today?
Referring back to that 2005 group test again, we managed a 0-60mph time of 12.6sec, which sounds painfully slow today, but the reality is somewhat different. Yes, it’s a little relaxed away from the line, accounting for a good chunk of lost time, but the Discovery feels pretty sprightly once you've got it rolling – certainly enough to whiz up to motorway speeds without breaking a sweat. It’s still pretty smooth as well, the 2.7-litre diesel V6 almost sounding quieter than some of Land Rover’s latest offerings.
The steering is relatively slow but lets you pitch this 2.7-tonne behemoth into corners with a degree of confidence and a dash of finesse. Try to carry any great speed as you do so, though, and you’ll be treated to some alarming body lean. Body control is certainly one area where modern SUVs have taken several leaps forward and make the old girl feel… well, old.
But with 19in wheels fitted and big black balloons for tyres, as well as those pillows of air in the suspension, the Discovery takes the edge off rougher roads, cushioning you from the jagged edges of winter’s deepest potholes. Undulations create a bit of sway in the tall body that quivers your head from side to side like a freshly landed cartoon arrow, but it’s never uncomfortable.