Past Master: Land Rover Discovery 3
The third-generation Land Rover Discovery was our overall Car of the Year in 2005. But how has it stood the test of time?...
Sure, the Range Rover blew it away when it came to bragging rights, but the Discovery was every bit as capable in the rough, as comfortable and refined on road, significantly cheaper and a lot more practical – thanks to it having two extra seats.
Indeed, when you add all of its strengths together, it's easy to see why the Discovery 3 was our 2005 Car of the Year.
Where it all started
The Discovery story actually starts in 1989, which was when the original version was launched, and again we'd argue it was a better car than the equivalent Range Rover.
True, 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. And that 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.
Whichever side of the ‘which is best?’ argument you're 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 (the second-generation model was more of an evolution of the original), Land Rover was keen to retain the family DNA, so the stepped roof, twin sunroofs and asymmetric rear window were all carried over.
It also needed to keep the Discovery’s rugged off-roader soul, yet with the onslaught of competition across the SUV spectrum – from luxury models 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 tested 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".
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 outdated live-axle suspension of the original in favour of a thoroughly modern, fully independent setup, supported by height-adjustable air suspension.
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, Toyota Land Cruiser and Volvo XC90 did equal the Discovery’s tally of seats, but those in the third row weren’t as roomy, according to our 2005 group test. 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 "decent space behind for luggage".
The improvements didn’t stop there, because in describing the fit and finish, we went on to say the "Discovery leads the way for interior 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.
How much do they cost now?
If you are feeling brave and fancy a gamble on the longevity of your purchase (old Land Rovers aren’t the most reliable or the cheapest products to maintain, and the Discovery 3 is no exception), you can pick up an early 2005 variant in good condition, but with a sky-high 170,000 miles on the clock, for £4000.
If that seems a bit too risky for you, £10,000 buys you a 2008 car that has covered 70,000 to 80,000 miles, while for something more recent and perhaps even with a sniff of manufacturer's warranty included, you can get a facelifted Discovery 4 – with its 3.0-litre diesel, plusher interior and smarter body-coloured bumpers – that has chalked up a perfectly sensible 30,000 miles for around £35,000.
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Prefer something more modern?
The Discovery has continued to evolve, of course, and in its latest, fifth-generation form it remains a compelling option. But how does it stack up against rival luxury SUVs? Here we count down our current top 10 – and reveal the models to avoid.
10. Range Rover
The Range Rover is one of the great motoring icons and every bit as compelling a proposition today as it was when it was first introduced more than 40 years ago. Superbly comfortable and refined, it also offers prodigious off-road ability. It's just a shame it's so expensive, even by luxury SUV standards.
9. Range Rover Velar
With prices starting at around £45,000, the Velar bridges the gap between the cheapest Range Rover, the Evoque and the Range Rover Sport. It’s the most road-biased Range Rover ever, even though it’s still incredibly capable in the rough stuff. Just bear in mind that you have to step up from the base model to S trim to get sat-nav, a properly punchy stereo, a rear-view camera and leather rather than cloth seats.
8. Range Rover Sport
The third Range Rover to make the list is the Sport, which is based on the full-sized Range Rover. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s a fantastic car for covering long distances, with a smooth engine and a relaxed ride. What's more, the interior is luxurious and generously equipped, and there's the option of seven seats.
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