New voyage of discovery

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Four-wheel-drive purists may sniff at the move to a monocoque frame, but on paper the Discovery's off-road ability appears little diminished. Photo: David Thomson

The moment of epiphany came on a gravel road in the Maniototo that connects Naseby and the Kyeburn Diggings.

I'd ventured inland from Dunedin, partner and mother-in-law along for the ride as passengers, in the latest Land Rover Discovery. From the outset, it seemed like the ideal vehicle to revisit the old stamping ground of the other side of the family.

But after around an hour and a-half on tarmac, the Discovery hadn't fully hit the mark. Large, luxuriously appointed and with the essential mechanicals for long-legged cruising, it had made comfortable and easy work of SH87 from Mosgiel to Middlemarch. Up to a point.

That point was tested, and the Discovery found wanting, when my fondness for press-on driving on winding roads generated more body roll (and a consequent loss of composure) than expected. Judged against the standards of similarly large and luxurious rivals, Land Rover's wasn't as sharp as hoped for.

And then we hit the gravel. The Land Rover was suddenly in its element: the test vehicle maintaining a level of comfort, refinement and composure that took it right to the top of its class.

Yet in other ways, this Discovery marks quite a break from the past.

Most obviously, the boxy lines that have defined the Discovery since the series one model of 1989 have made way for a more fluid, dynamic look. A strongly angled c-pillar and plunging roofline are the most obvious changes.

There's a new approach to the Discovery's core underpinnings, too. The old two-chassis structure has been replaced by a contemporary all-aluminium monocoque, shaving hundreds of kilograms off the Discovery's weight.

Four-wheel-drive purists may sniff at the move to a monocoque frame, but on paper the Discovery's off-road ability appears little diminished.

The crucial approach, ramp-over and departure angles that define raw rough terrain capability are lightly changed, with a slightly reduced approach angle balanced against improved ramp-over and departure capabilities.

Land Rover's acclaimed Terrain Response 2 system carries over from Discovery 4, providing tailored modes for general driving, grass, gravel and snow, mud and ruts, sand or a rocky terrain. There is also a semiautomated crawl mode, in which the vehicle will maintain a set crawl speed, allowing the driver to focus solely on steering.

Even in the lowest of its ride-height settings, the latest Discovery is a vehicle one climbs aboard. That's nothing new, of course, and one of the key rewards remains a truly commanding driving position.

The front seats are broad and comfortable, but it's the second and third rows that merit special mention. Split 60:40 and mounted on rails for fore and aft adjustment, the second row boasts impressive head and legroom. Comprising two separate seats, row three also delivers class-leading room, as well as isofix anchor points and USB charging points (of which there are nine). Taken together, this makes the Discovery stand apart among premium SUVs as a genuine seven-seater for adults.

An especially neat feature is the Discovery's intelligent seat folding technology, which allows the second and rear row of seats to fold away remotely using a smartphone app, as well as from the infotainment console or the rear of the boot. The power-operated tailgate includes what Land Rover calls an ‘‘inner tailgate'' - a sturdy tray to serve as a rear-facing seating area under the shelter of the main tailgate when it is open.

Returning to the front of the cabin, the dashboard is a masterly piece of clean-lined design, with a widescreen infotainment touchscreen neatly installed towards the top of the centre console.

The test car's suite of driver aids includes a special trailer reversing function (which gives accurate reversing without the driver touching the steering wheel) as well as a trailer stability assist system. A surround view camera, adaptive radar cruise control, autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning systems are also fitted, along with a range of functions for serious off-road driving.

While there are four engine options internationally, the focus here is on a 190kW/ 600Nm 3.0 litre twin-turbo diesel power plant. This is paired with an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox, with permanent adaptive four-wheel drive.

There's Land Rover's familiar damping of throttle sensitivity that has the new Discovery wafting gently off the line rather than leaping into action. 

It's not, in any case, the sort of vehicle that encourages overly sporting driving.

As indicated at the outset of this test, attempts to hustle the test car vigorously through tarmac twists and turns were not rewarded. Back off and focus on driving smoothly though, and the returns in terms of ride comfort and refinement are substantial.

Astonishingly impressive as the test car was on gravel, the gap between it and most of its rivals became even more apparent when venturing off the beaten track. Never mind the advantages of its ground clearance, air-suspension, and sophisticated terrain response drive system, the Discovery also wins hands-down as an off-roader among many of its peers through such simple expedients as having a low-ratio transmission and a full-sized spare wheel.

Even on the road-focused tyres that are standard fare, the test car traversed a range of steep and heavily rutted mountain tracks with ease.

The new Discovery, like those before it, feels like a luxury SUV designed to conquer the world. That fact is all the more pleasing now that its far more utilitarian sibling - the original Defender - is no more.

New voyage of discovery
At a Glance

LAND ROVER DISCOVERY HSE TD6

Overall rating: ★★★★+
Design and styling: ★★★★+
Interior: ★★★★★
Performance: ★★★★+
Ride and handling: ★★★★
Safety: ★★★★★
Environmental:
★★★★
For: Outstanding cabin, muscular engine, off-road comfort and capability
Against: Body roll during brisk highway driving
Verdict: A refined, capable and supremely versatile luxury SUV


SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $126,900
Engine: 2993cc six-cylinder turbo-diesel, maximum power 190kW@3750rpm, maximum torque 600Nm@4000rpm
Transmission:
Eight-speed ZF automatic, permanent all-wheel drive
Brakes: Front and rear ventilated discs
Safety rating: Five-star European NCAP
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 255/55 R20 tyres
Fuel and economy: 7.2 litres per 100km, tank capacity 85 litres
Emissions: CO2 189 g/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4970mm, width 2073mm, height 1846mm