En route back to San Francisco from Utah’s famed Coral Dunes, I could still feel the sand shifting under me, which is strange because I was 10,000 feet in the air. Half dozing, and depleted after an adrenaline-soaked day of off-roading, the rough Northern California weather forced the plane to dip and weave uncertainly, much as a 2,200kg SUV will do, throttle open, as it charges across an uphill expanse of wet sand. It’s thrilling when you’re working the controls, gripping the steering wheel, and looking out at the obstacles ahead. As a passenger on a commercial flight, it’s mildly terrifying, albeit with complimentary beverages.
But let’s hold off on the dunes because what’s most surprising about the all new 2017 Land Rover Discovery is how flexible and manageable this big boned be-all, do-all SUV really is in day-to-day use. On first climbing into the cabin I was greeted with a sumptuous cockpit decked in leather and all the technological finery. Possibly in a gesture to differentiate Land Rover’s slightly more utilitarian heritage, the Disco lacks the accent colours and veneers that give modern-day Range Rover’s an additional air of finery. It’s a small difference though, and the Discovery makes for quite a nice place to spend the afternoon, especially up front.
About the rear seats — it’s probably the best seven-seater we’ve seen from an ergonomic standpoint, and the automated, almost balletic machinations of the intelligent seat folding system are a pleasure to watch; but taller persons will still likely opt for the front two seats, given a choice. If you and all you’re friends are circus tall, maybe get a van, or a more diverse friend group.
On the other hand, the Disco makes for a superlative family hauler, so I suspect in many cases seats three through seven will be filled with pint-sized people. That’s not to say the year is particularly tight, just not André the Giant territory.
JLR has done a great job predicting and compensating for the kind of daily ergonomic challenges that drivers and passengers face, and the company has made it possible to reconfigure on the fly via Land Rover’s InControl Remote smartphone app. JLR knows its shopaholic GCC residents well, noting that buyers “will be able to rearrange the seats from inside a shop while queuing to pay for large or bulky items, ensuring the vehicle is perfectly configured to accommodate their purchases.” Sounds good, but what if you’re the forgetful type, like me? In order to make sure that the piping hot dozen Krispy Kremes you left sitting on the middle row isn’t crushed as you adjust the rear of the Disco to accommodate your brand new triple occupancy litter box, the system features anti-pinch and stall-detection technologies as well as weight sensors in the seats and seat-belt buckles that are able to detect when a seat is occupied — if any of these sensors is tripped, the seats won’t move.
Also handy for loading that triple wide cat box: JLR’s Auto Access Height technology adjusts the optional air suspension for ease of ingress and egress. The Discovery lowers by 15mm when the ignition is turned off or when a passenger unclips his or her seat belt. Then, when the doors open, the car drops another 25mm to reduce the step-out height by a total of 40mm. If you are planning to buy this manicured beast as a family hauler, that 40mm will make the car a good bit easier on the little ones getting in and out, not to mention Grandpa and Grandma.
When you look at the various Land Rover Discovery vintages lined up in one place, as we did at Utah’s superlative Amangiri resort (a Bond villain lair if I’ve ever seen one) you notice that the new Disco trades iconic utilitarianism for current-day JLR’s sleek, modern automotive design aesthetic. And really, it’s not shocking that Discovery would join Range Rover, Evoque, and er, Explorer in claiming the mantle of ‘now’. If there’s a downside, it’s just that a bit of Disco’s design heritage seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. Then again, trading on past success is what you do when you have a segment-leading vehicle, and Land Rover is more of a dark horse, trading on that Tata cash to gain on the incumbents, German or otherwise.
Highway, dunes or mud, the Disco always felt like A home away from home – cosy, confident and well equipped.
Add to which, the Discovery’s new look isn’t just decorative, but is instead underpinned by the same aluminium based platform as the Range Rover and the Range Rover Sport. According to JLR, all that Disco dancing has paid off, as the car has shed some 376kg over a comparatively specced LR4. That equates to gains in both fuel economy and about 9/10ths of a second shaved off of the 0-100kph sprint. The new architecture also transforms the Discovery into a vehicle in which you can actually make use of that speed — where the vintage Disco’s were the type of tottering, high-centre-of-gravity rides that could made the twisty bits extremely fraught, the new car actually handles well and manages to keep body roll quite minimal for such a large ride — although it did feel a bit less refined when I briefly rode in the second row. The ride quality is very good, and the optional air-spring suspension probably had a lot to do with that in our test car.
The Disco’s electric-assist steering system is relatively quick, intuitive and accommodating both on and off road. I found the SUV’s lane-keeping assist more disruptive than helpful, to the extent that I thought the car was simply tramlining on the rutted American highways until I turned it off and experienced the truly smooth nature of this beast for high speed cruising. The steering has an appreciable weight in the corners, and I found it easy enough to hold my line on the tarmac.
Holding the line was a bit more challenging on the wet sand of Utah’s otherworldly Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. Nestled amid the John Ford-worthy landscape of southwestern Utah, this off-road playground features coral-hued sand dunes flanked by red sandstone cliffs. Photography doesn’t quite capture the rosy tint of these dunes, so different from the Arabian Desert, but not unfamiliar. Here the sand is composed of eroded Navajo sandstone from the Middle Jurassic period. Marked by its iron oxides composition, the dunes share their roots with the red rock landscape of the American Southwest and make a stunning backdrop for this very capable seven-seater.
Steering on sand is a sweet science all its own, and I’d wager that a good number of our readers are better hands at it than I am, although I did fine, thank you very much. Actually, I should probably be thanking Land Rover since the Disco is such an able beast, even on a pesky surface that basically erodes out from under you as you attempt to traverse it. To help take on these pink monsters, or the UAE’s own Big Red, for that matter, the Disco comes standard with all-wheel drive. If you are an avid offroader, you will want to, er, spring for the aforementioned air suspension and two-speed transfer case. As tested, our Disco was equipped with an electrically locking rear differential and All Terrain Progress Control, which allows you to set a target speed and cede control of the throttle to the car. Probably not what you’re looking for on the dunes, but one of many ways that JLR is making offroading approachable to the masses (especially those with masses of money.)
The wet sand in Utah required liberal throttle to push this heavy beast across the shifting surface, and I found that more than a few times I had it wide open to keep momentum, with the 340bhp supercharged 3.0-litre petrol V6 singing for its supper in harmony with the ZF sourced eight-speed automatic. According to JLR, their V6 churns out more horsepower and torque than offerings from the competition, and I’m inclined to believe it. The sound is perhaps an acquired taste, especially if you’re a naturally aspirated snob, but I grew quite fond of it out there in the desert.
With tyre pressure appropriately depleted, I managed not to get stuck— almost. At one point I came racing up the relatively steep face of a dune, angling toward the flat spot to the left of the Disco in front of me. In the excitement, I couldn’t quite make out what our Land Rover Experience guide was shouting at me over the radio, although I could see him waving his arms madly up ahead. Confused, I stopped the car short of the flat spot, and had to reverse down to get going again. As it happens, he had confused me with another team, and had been shouting “bear right” at me, but in French, my knowledge of which is sadly lacking.
Another time, I doggedly climbed up the face of another steep dune and swung right, looking for a flat spot to stop the Disco. Just as I came up to the car before me, my vantage point shifted enough to see what lay on the other side — nothing. We had come to rest at a sheer drop-off that I had, for some reason, imagined as a choice parking spot. Luckily, I had eased off the throttle enough that the car easily stopped short of disaster and, with a grin, my French-speaking guide shot me the “Hey look, you’re still alive!” thumbs up.
After lunching in a swank teepee, we made our way out of the park towards a waiting “surprise.” After a bit of grumbling to myself about the latest trend of embargoed sneak peeks I was soon repenting as no top secret car awaited. Instead, we were greeted by one enormously long mud bog that stretched off to the horizon. In short, the 2017 Land Rover Discovery is a mudder — it’s mother was a mudder, and so on and so forth. We shimmied, slid and slopped our way through a hailstorm of wet earth, wipers barely keeping up to provide a narrow window of the track ahead. The Disco was more than game for every sloshing centimetre of traction-challenging muck. It was epic, and created an epic mess. At the end of the line a team of Land Rover Experience boffins was standing by to clean the stickiest bits out of the rims.
It worked — sort of, and for the rest of the trip to the airport the centrifugal force of the rotating wheels tossed the occasional clump of sludge loose.
Highway, dunes, or mud, the Disco always felt like a home away from home — cosy, confident, and well equipped. This vehicle might not be technically better than a 747 in competent hands, but as I discovered on my flight to San Francisco, the all-new Discovery inspires more confidence when the going gets rough — in fact, that’s where it thrives.