The answer to the title of this article is ‘quite a lot’, not a clear cut answer by any means – especially seeing as though I have yet to elaborate what I’m even talking about. After yesterday’s post concerning the relatively minute differences between pre and post facelift Mercedes ML’s, I’ve decided to expand on the idea and finally talk about a car which I’ve been meaning to for a while; Land Rover’s Discovery. Considering that it’s a car I’ve described as pointless on at least one occasion, you might be slightly surprised to discover that the big Landie is one of my favourite vehicles and given that my next door neighbours have a Discovery 4, it is also one that I am exposed to at close quarters on a daily basis. I would arguably choose a well specced Discovery 4 over a comparably aged Range Rover/Sport when I have a bit more dollar in my pocket, but for the time being I’ll try to keep to the task in hand.
Cobbled together on the ageing original Range Rover platform with a mish-mash of parts from across the BL stable, the original Discovery was a surprising success for Land Rover. I mean obviously they had done their market research well, but the finished product was a little rough around the edges, typical of any British vehicle from that time frame to be perfectly honest. It’s success meant that a second generation followed in 1998, blending some of the customer-friendly elements from the recently launched Freelander with the familiar shape and appeal from it’s predecessor. Despite being less-than-revolutionary to look at, sit in and drive, the car’s green-wellies image sustained sales through its’s 6 year life span, during which there was a substantial facelift in 2002. An early Discovery II graced my neighbour’s driveway for 10 years and despite numerous trips to the dealer it clearly made an impression on them because they replaced it with a brand new Discovery 4 in 2009. But what about the car which bridged the gap between the undeniably impressive ‘4’ and the lacklustre ‘2’.
The Discovery 3 was launched to rapturous applause in 2004 and immediately was given infinite praise from the British motoring press. A new chassis gave both the benefits of newer crossovers with a monocoque design mounted within a ladder design, the latter giving the off-road abilities of earlier cars and the reputation as being the car to beat off the beaten track. Under the bonnet lay a much improved TDV6 diesel engine (borrowed from Ford/PSA) and the cabin gave the latest technology in a user friendly layout, complete with 7 full-sized seats and the much copied ‘Terrain Management System’. Bankrolled by Land Rover’s new Ford owners, the car also served as the underpinnings of the Range Rover Sport which launched the year after; the baby Range may have stolen a bit of the Disco’s glamour but the cheaper car continued to recieve accolade after accolade from the motoring press because of it’s practicality, relative value and overall British-ness. After 4 years though, the Discovery 3 was desperately starting to lag behind sportier rivals such as the Audi Q7 and BMW X5, both of which had 7 seats. The 4 was pretty much a thorough facelift of the 3 and it could be argued that the 4 is the car that Land Rover should have launchedback in 2004…
When looking at the front of both cars it might be hard for the casual observer to notice any major differences between the two generations. I mean obviously the older car (top) has rather utilitarian plastic bumpers, and the newer car has fancier light with LEDs to give the car a more aggressive look, but overall the blunt shape and details remained much the same. Land Rover have tried to differentiate between their models by using different slats in the grille; the top Range Rover has 3, Sport and 4 have 2 with the Freelander just having one, though the Land Rover’s have a slightly different pattern compared to the more expensive Range Rovers. Personally I hated the fussiness of the newer design when it first came out, but time and familiarity has seen my attitude mellow and I now dislike the more rugged plastic bumpers. Some ‘3’s came with body-coloured bumpers but to my mind they just look odd.
From the side there is even less difference between the two cars, but the 4 did gain a new variety of wheel designs, all much handsomer and larger than the dull designs previously offered. Again some of the black plastic became body coloured (though this was also present in some later 3’s), and the side vent gained a new mesh pattern. Interestingly whilst the vent was only present on one side the 3, the updated model got them on both sides (though one presumably is just there for show). More interesting than these small details were the changes under the bonnet. Instead of the 2.7 TDV6 used in the 3, the newer car got an updated 3.0 TDV6 which gave significantly more power yet also better fuel economy. Later models have also seen a even more powerful ‘SDV6’ alongside both the lesser 3.0 and the original 2.7. Although the diesels have always been the default option in Europe, the 2.7 was actually quite slow and underpowered for a car weighing nearly 3 tonnes. Elsewhere in the world, a Ford-sourced 4.0 V6 was offered alongside a 4.4 V8 petrol engine. The former was very underpowered and in the ‘4’ both were replaced by a new 5.0 V8 with better fuel economy and power. Until recently all of this power has been fed through a 6 speed ZF transmission (or a 6 speed manual in Europe with cheaper diesels), but an 8 speed unit has recently been launched alongside a new 3.0 Supercharged V6 petrol engine for world markets. Out of all these engines though I would still plump for the 3.0 TDV6 which gets around 30mpg combined with relatively swift progress.
For the most part there has been minimal change at the rear of the car; I mean sure there is the obligatory lessening of black trim but the tailgate’s unique asymmetrical design has remained intact thankfully. Personally I dislike the rear lights with their strange white LED’s inside the rectangular shape, but I guess they had to change something for the sake of it. Those with a keen eye (or if you’re from North America) will notice that the Discovery 3 and 4 have been known as the LR3 and LR4 respectively since the original’s launch, with the smaller Freelander 2 being launched as the LR2. I guess this has been done to banish memories of the unreliable Discovery nameplate in the US and the popularity of alphanumeric names over there, but the LR4 could have seen it’s name change because of the rumoured 7 seat Freelander which was apparently going to be launched a few years ago.
Hands down it is inside where the greatest improvements have been made. Although a massive improvement over the Discovery 2, the 3 still lacked the extra sparkle which it maybe should have had because of it’s high price. In the UK this was not seen as so big an issue for a car whose functions were mainly commercial or as a family runaround, but in the US where the car was priced as much more a luxury player, the acres of plastic and horrible green LCD display did not sit particularly well. I have actually sat in a Discovery 3 and I have to confess that I was not at all impressed by the hard plastic on the central control stack, even if it does match the car’s utilitarian capabilities. Even worse is that only the top spec models got the colour screen and navigation, lower versions made do with a storage area. The switch to the 4 saw much of the design overhauled and far more in the style of the Range Rover Sport (which received a similar makeover). Soft touch plastics, much fewer buttons and a smattering of chrome mean that the cabin is simply a better place to be, even if there is a pointless analogue clock dead centre. The gearlever is solid and chunky and the electronic handbrake is a nice premium touch, but the navigation system although overhauled from the 3 is still slow to work and cannot match systems from other luxury vehicles. That said there is always a screen present thankfully, so no blank storage area.
The rear of the car actually changed little between Discovery 3 and 4, but I felt it important to show the vast space which the vehicle affords owners or the lucky people who get to borrow a friend’s. Each of the chairs in the second and third row operate independantly and each can easily seat an average sized adult in comfort. This is an important point because only full-size MPV’s and Mercedes’ R-Class and GL can really take 7 people in comfort (on this side of the Atlantic at least), and many people are happy to choose the Disco over rivals because of it’s interior space.
Many have written that the Discovery is the perfect family car and in many ways it is, but ultimately it has some extreme weak points which have left a rotten taste in the mouths of some owners. Disregarding the questionable quality of interior plastics, there has been major cause for concern over the reliability of all Land Rover products, in particular the Discovery which seems to have taken the brunt of electrical gremlins and dissatisfied customers. Owners of Range Rover products probably care less about spending money on their cars, but I have seen many tales of unhappy families who have been left stranded and out of pocket by their British machine. Even switching from the Discovery to LR3/4 name doesn’t seem to have lifted the curse from these models in the States, and sales seriously lag behind rivals from Japanese brands like the Acura MDX, which offers a similar semi-premium image yet bulletproof reliability. Running costs are another major turn off for owners and potential ones like me; even disregarding the enormous costs of post-warranty repairs, tales of 20mpg returns from the diesel engine are an expense I see as scary, especially considering the much more efficient engines in German rivals. Petrol engines are even worse and those buyers have to put up with a sub-15mpg average!
I will admit that these problems have been mostly filtered out with the switch to the Discovery 4 design (although reliability issues are not unheard of, as my neighbours will testify), but instead a new weakness has taken their place-one entirely Land Rover’s fault and ultimately why I called it a pointless car – put simply the car is too expensive. When the Discovery 3 launched base models started at around £27k for a manual car and topped out at about £40k for top spec HSE. Admittedly base equipment levels have improved but examples now start at £37k, HSE models now start at over £52k!!! It’s very easy to push that above £60k too once a few options are added, a price that not 5 years ago would buy you a brand new full size Range Rover. At that sort of money I would be looking at the considerably newer, quicker and fuel efficient Mercedes GL, which would admittedly be less well equipped but a much better car I fear. Used versions are similarly expensive; early 3’s are beginning to dip below £10k with sky high mileages and no equipment, whereas my budget would buy a semi-decent ‘S’ spec without navigation or leather but reasonable miles on the clock (if no guarantee about reliability). The earliest 4’s are over £20k now and I suspect that they will hold until a replacement is launched…although a new facelift is on the horizon for next year in the meantime.