A car industry executive once told us that no matter how good his company’s new model was, he knew it wasn’t going to sell many, because people in the UK were badge snobs. Look around you at how many BMWs and Audis there are on the road, and its hard not to conclude many people buy based on brand.
And one brand that seems to polarise more than most is Range Rover. To some, the Range Rover is the king of cars; to others, the sign that there's a footballer's-wife wannabe of a bully behind the wheel. But what about Range Rover’s little brother, Land Rover? Land Rover has always had a different image. More countryfied, much less showy than a Range Rover. So given that the Discovery4 shares much of its innards with the Range Rover Sport, could it be the perfect answer to those who want a 4x4 but not the image that comes with Range Rover territory? We loaded one with a family’s clobber for a week in Cornwall and set off to find out.
Design evolution, not a revolution
The Discovery 3’s been around since 2004 and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Discovery 4’s the same car. Its form is very similar, but when Disco 3 became 4 in 2009, the car underwent some significant changes.
On the outside, old Discovery 3’s grey plastic mouldings and utilitarian style were binned in favour of a fully colour-coded exterior and more shiny bits. It’s a handsome and distinctive shape offering all the bluff, chunky qualities you expect from an off-roader. But the colour details, lights and grilles of this car are a little chintzy to our eyes, removing some of the qualities that once signified Land Rovers as true working vehicles you could bash about a bit. So much so that Discovery 4 would pass for a Range Rover.
And it’s an impression that continues on your first encounter with the Discovery. Its scale seems vast. In fact, it’s not much longer, wider or more difficult to park than other SUVs or MPVs. It just seems very tall, a sense accentuated by that third rear window that runs up into the roof. Pop open the boot, and you’ll discover the same split up-and-down tailgate that Range Rovers get, too.
That boot means you can fling the glass part open and up and then chuck light bags in easily – all the time being sheltered from the rain. But drop the lower section too and you’ve a flat deck that will support the weight of two rugby-players and proved to be the perfect perch for popping wellies on to small people. In fact, the boot itself is so deep that with the lower tailgate folded down, six foot of us couldn’t reach all the way to the back of the boot to recover the footballs and cricket bats that had ended up their every time we got to the beach.
Climb aboard and that sense of size hits you again. The Discovery rides on air suspension so it can hoik itself clear of rocks and rutted (off)roads. But it also drops to an "access" level to make getting in and out easier. This doesn’t happen automatically though and the first few times we parked up, we forgot to select it, which made getting in and out a fair old climb.
On board, you’ll start to understand why so many well-to-do families and farmers rate these cars. You’re sitting at van-driver height and really are king of all you survey. But unlike so many, tank-like modern cars with their gun-slit windows, the Disco scores with its airiness. You’re high up but the beltline of the car is low compared to your hip point, so you don’t feel hemmed in. And unlike many, pointlessly "sporty" family cars, the window line doesn’t kick-up as it runs to the back of the car, so kids in child seats get a great view out, too.
And if you really have got a big brood or a rugby team to ferry around regularly the two, pop-up rear chairs in the boot floor happily accommodate six-footers. Just don’t expect all seven people to be able to bring all their luggage along.
Almost too good for grubby kids
The cabin really is a lovely, special and very premium-feeling place to be. But, we kept asking ourselves, is it a bit too nice? After our muddy walks and beach days, it felt wrong to get inside the cream-leather and light-coloured carpets of our test car without first stripping off. But then marketing people probably think wipe-down plastic mats and a 50 grand premium SUV do not make happy bedfellows.
On the road, the new twin-turbo V6 diesel means that the slothful ways of the Discovery 3 are banished to distant memory. Helping it along is a new 8-speed automatic gearbox, which you can override with steering wheel paddles. The new combination of engine and gearbox certainly makes for rapid progress in a vehicle that weighs 2.5 tonnes, but you’ll be reminded of all that weight when you really need to stop. The brakes work just fine, but it’s easy to encounter the laws of physics and properties of momentum on roundabouts in between sections of dual carriageway.
But as a car to chomp through 400 miles of motorway in, an air-suspended Discovery has few equals. That high-up view, air-cushioned ride and an engine which is barely ticking over at 70 mph make it uber-relaxed. On country roads it’s less good. Here, air suspension means it bounces and rolls around, so passengers in the back won’t thank you for trying to make progress. In comparison, the average MPV feels like a hot hatch.
King of the rutty road
Of course, many people who buy a car like a Discovery do so for its abilities to tow a horsebox across a muddy field or get to their house at the top of the hill in the midsts of winter. And here it really has no equal. Off-road, Land Rover still rules the roost. The same Terrain-response selected fitted to Range Rovers meaning our foray down a much muddier than expected, then flooded, farm track was brushed off with ease. To misquote an old beer advert, the Discovery will take you places other 4x4s cannot reach.
Meanwhile, towing a damaged track car to a new storage place proved so little strain for the Discovery that we didn’t actually notice the tow-rope had snapped half way to the destination. It’s little wonder you see so many of them pulling horseboxes and caravans up and down the country.
But where you go in it, you and your family can be entertained or distracted by what is - for most of the time - one of the best infotainment systems in the business. Land Rover clearly has the sense to realise that, with the number of electronic devices the average family now posses, it’s no longer sufficient to provide just one 12v charger and USB port in the front. So instead you get two 12v ports at the base of the dash, two USB ports in the centre bin, then another charger and USB port for the second row passengers, along with a further one for those in the very rearmost seats. Navigation, phone and music for the car as a whole is accessed through the familiar Jaguar-Land Rover high-mounted touchscreen.
It’s not the best around but made much better than the installation in the Jaguars by having physical shortcut buttons for radio, media, navigation and phone menus. A black mark to the navigation though for first freezing and then giving up altogether in the centre of Bath during a torrential thunderstorm. We were also a bit confused why, at every occasion it alerted us to a traffic delay ahead, upon asking it to ignore or route around the issue, it threw us back to the home menu screen, rather than the navigation route map.
In contrast, the optional Harmon Kardon Logic7 sound system gets a big thumbs up. With its 17 speakers, it produces a deep and rich sound, regardless of where you’re sitting in the car.
To live with for a week, over 1,000 miles and a family load of people and kit, is to understand why you see so many of these cars on the road. It possesses a business-class aura that makes the experience of traveling in it feel special and ultimately enjoyable and very likeable. At this level, and if you need its abilities, there is little that will better a Discovery. So advanced, luxurious and complex has it become, that it’d make you question buying a Range Rover.
And it’s on that note we can’t help sounding a note of caution, or questioning how many people – families in particular – really need its talents. The complexities and luxuriousness of this vehicle – not to mention its offroad and towing ability, add a great deal of weight, which you’re aware of when you drive the car and in its fuel consumption - we averaged 27mpg. This will dent its appeal to many. Some wouldn’t be seen dead in an MPV, but a car like a Ford S-Max costs half as much, has more of the cubby holes and clever storage solutions families find useful and will do 95 per cent of what a Discovery will do, 90 percent of the time.
Go-anywhere qualities may go hand-in-hand with Land Rover’s brand, but we can’t help feeling that with the next-generation Discovery, Land Rover could afford to take a step back towards its more practical, simpler roots. At the very least, that would create some clear separation between this and the Range Rovers, which, with its opulent Luxury and all round abilities, the Discovery 4 is treading on the toes of.