First, what Americans would call ‘full disclosure’. Land Rover asked if I wanted to borrow a new Discovery and then drive it to their Eastnor Castle off-roading place to have a play in some mud before sticking around for dinner and a night in a hotel. Also, they said, since this will be over a weekend, would you like to bring your wife and son? Oh okay then, I said. I had the steak.
A nice man drops the Discovery at my house on Friday morning. I use it to give him a lift to the station. On first acquaintance, this new Disco feels rather like a Range Rover. This should be no surprise since it’s built on the same all-aluminium monocoque, saving a chunk of weight over the old model which accidentally had two types of chassis at once and was rather hefty as a result. The plus side of the previous car’s tubbiness was that it rode very nicely in a confident, road-crushing sort of way. Despite the weight loss, the new car isn’t far off. It’s not that the ride is completely smooth, more that it brings news of a pothole and then summarily tells it to bugger orf. As in all of Land Rover’s stuff, there’s a feeling that no matter how large the pot hole or speed hump, the car is going to come away from the encounter completely unharmed.
I have to spend the rest of the day working so the Discovery stays outside but I can peer at it through the blinds. Overall, it’s quite a handsome thing but the exterior design isn’t perfect. The front lights look a bit squinty above a very chinny bumper that reminds me of the beard sported by the actor Mandy Patinkin in Homeland. There’s a bit too much unadorned metal on the sides but it’s not quite big and sheer enough to pass as a design feature, as it does on that new Velar. In this case, it just looks featureless, especially towards the back where it all gets a bit slabby and the back wheel seems a bit lost. It’s sort of okay, but then sometimes not okay, like someone who might be good looking but you can’t quite tell. Then we get to the back end where the smooth, glass-wrapped D-pillar and the smart rear lights are completely undermined by the single worst part of this car – the inexplicably offset rear number plate. Honestly, what the merry fucking frig were they thinking? It looks someone mumbling from one side of their mouth or, as the reviewer from Autocar had it, a man who’s had a stroke. There’s nothing wrong with asymmetry in itself, but it helps if it’s done with logic or with grace, not simply because the designer was bored and decided to try something obtuse. The first Discovery had an offset plate to clear the spare wheel. The last generation had an offset plate because the split tailgate was cleverly designed to make it easier to retrieve things from the boot. This model has an offset plate for why? A needless nod to the past, robbed of all logic? So that anyone who buys one will have to explain to their friends that no, honestly, it’s meant to be like that? Seriously, this lop-sided nonsense is needless and contrived, and I hope whoever thought it was a good idea gets ker-panged around the head with an asymmetric frying pan.
Off we go on a jaunt into the countryside to drive in some mud. This particular Discovery is the diesel V6 which has plenty of guts and can lollop across the countryside at a fair rate. It’s not bad in corners either, although it’s best to take a slow-in approach and then gently squeeze on the power on the way out. If you were on your own you could probably surprise people in lower cars to satisfying effect but with passengers it’s better to conduct things in the stately manner the car seems best equipped for. Anyway, no need for door handling heroics. It’s a nice day, light floods into the Disco interior through big windows and a vast glass roof, my wife sits in the back with our three year old watching stuff on the built-in TVs and passing round snacks, and it feels less like we’re in a car and more like we’re relaxing inside a better made and less dog hairy version of our house.
We get to the off-roading place and they transfer us into a different Disco, one with the new 2-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine. You can study the spec sheets, noting that it has just 18 horsepower less than the V6 and still manages a chunky 369lb ft of torque, but psychologically you can’t get over the suspicion that this engine will struggle to pull a door closed. Hold that thought. I was going to change into some stout off-road shoes for this exercise but a person from Land Rover told me not to bother. ‘You won’t be getting out of the cars,’ he said confidently. So off we go, in T-shirts and trainers, sitting inside this beautifully and expensively trimmed family bus as it clambers over ridges and plunges into muddy gullies and generally acts as if the lumpy, mucky landscape simply isn’t an inconvenience. And it does all this wearing very unchunky showroom-spec Pirelli Scorpion Verde tyres which even their makers say are designed only for ‘light’ off-road work. At one point, as inevitably happens during any off-roading event, the affable instructor chap in the passenger seat points to an improbably steep and sodden track disappearing almost vertically up into the trees and says, ‘Right. We’re going up there’. To which you want to reply, ‘No, no, no, kind sir, we are not going “up there”. In fact, there is not a cat’s arse in hell’s chance of us getting up there and actually what you are inviting me to do is overheat the engine and gearbox in a festival of plaintive revving before we slither backwards in an embarrassing slow motion tank slapper and end up dangling from our seatbelts in the remains of this very expensive car’. But I didn’t want to seem unwilling so I gave it a go and you know what? We just drove straight up. Well, not quite. We started to lose traction half way up so we stopped, eased back a bit, stuck it in third (strange, I know, but that’s how low the eight speed auto box can go, making gear three ideal for low traction hill starts), and then we monstered the rest of it. I haven’t driven it for long on an actual road, but from its behaviour off road I can tell you that the four cylinder diesel Disco seems plenty gutsy and perfectly refined unless you really clog it. I presume the other models in the range, the V6 diesel and a 336 horsepower supercharged V6 petrol which sounds like a giggle, are as good as this off road, which is to say, astonishing. Like driving a Porsche GT3 RS on a track, you feel a Discovery off road is so brilliant and so clearly in its element that however good you are, that’s how good the car is too, and if you’re not very good it’s going to flatter you into getting better. Or injured. But mostly, better. After a hearty afternoon mucking around and being amazed that Land Rover’s massive thing could clamber effortlessly over nature’s idea of a massive thing, we went to a nice hotel and had dinner and some drinks and it was very nice. All in all, a very pleasant day spoilt only by the rear number plate placement on the Land Rover Discovery.
And home we go. The journey passes in one smooth, calm, unfussy movement, which confirms my suspicion that the Discovery really does have the Range Rover’s ability to make everyone in it feel somehow more at peace with the world. It’s a nice car to be in. It feels luxurious without laying it on thick and everything works well, especially since the touch screen is no longer cack and the heated seat controls aren’t now hidden on an irksome sub-menu. What the Discovery has above a Range Rover, aside from an extra pair of decent sized seats in the boot, is a lot of storage compartments. They’re everywhere. Two gloveboxes, extra compartments in the doors, a whole labyrinth of things inside armrests, an air-con control panel that can be popped open to reveal a cubby behind it, even a mad front cupholder on which you slide back the top cover as normal and then find you can slide the entire cupholding bit itself forwards beneath the centre stack to reveal a massive storage chasm beneath. It’s the kind of car in which you could easily loose a wallet, laptop or much-loved spaniel. Which would be sad, although not as sad as remembering that your rear number plate is needlessly offset to one side.
One last drive to my office, from where the Discovery is being collected. It turns out to do an urban commute very well. After my weekend experience, you might wonder why this car needs all that off road ability when, in truth, most Discoverys will spend their time trundling around towns and cities. But if this thing wasn’t designed to maul the countryside into submission and take a flying headbutt at the Darien Gap, it would be a very different car. Maybe the ride would be harder, the chassis more aggressive and the gearchange paddles on the wheel meant for helmswrightship rather than giving you some extra control as you slither towards a felled silver birch. And all of these things would somehow spoil the character of the car which is extremely nice as it is. It’s the breadth of ability that makes the Discovery appealing. It’s a very soothing way to commute and a brilliant way to haul your kids and several of their mates, just as much as it’s probably a tremendous thing in which to crest a Saharan dune or drive across a river. Plus, wherever you drive I’m pretty confident when I say that unlike, say, an Audi Q7, it doesn’t make you look like a twat. Of course, the new Discovery isn’t cheap. I’d go so far as to call it quite pricey. Or you could look at it as a more practical, less flashy Range Rover for less money, in which case you might even argue it’s a bit of a bargain. As an all rounder, it’s an absolutely tremendous piece of machinery and without doubt the most complete and desirable family car on sale today. Yet I wouldn’t buy one and neither should you because it has a needlessly offset rear number plate.
The (main) car talked about here is a Land Rover Discovery HSE Td6. It has a 3-litre turbocharged V6 diesel engine making 255 horsepower. It can go from 0-62 in 7.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 130mph. In this spec it costs £58,495.