If the iconic Defender’s death last year marked the end of decades of unapologetically boxy SUVs from Land Rover, the new 2017 Discovery is the final nail in the coffin. Having started life as a bridge between the Spartan Defender and the posh Range Rover in 1989, the Discovery, or LR4 as it was known in some markets in the previous iteration, has carved a niche for itself alongside its more hallowed siblings. It never got elevated to the legendary status of the other two, but to have received a generational update now after 28 years in production is testimony to its popularity. But when it was revealed late last year in the UK, the new Discovery raised many an eyebrow, especially those of hardcore fans of the brand who hoped at least this model would carry the mantle of boxy styling forward for Land Rover.
But the fifth-generation Discovery is anything but boxy. In fact, it’s unashamedly curvy, more so than any other model in Land Rover’s line-up. The front fascia adopts the same family styling cues seen in the other models in the range, while the side profile looks more like a stretched, slightly more elegant take on the smaller Discovery Sport’s. The rear is the most rounded bit of the Discovery’s exterior, and the most likely to polarise opinion. The tailgate seems oddly proportioned in relation to the rest of the vehicle, although the designers have attempted to maintain a connection with the older models by placing an improvised version of the asymmetric rear. Whether you like it or not, the change in appearance signifies the radical changes underneath the flowing sheet metal. Gone is the heavy chassis, replaced by a monocoque structure, and up to 85 per cent of the body is made of aluminium, making the Discovery lighter by a good 480kg than its predecessor, although it still tips the scales at nearly 2,200kg.
All these cosmetic and structural changes project an image of a softer vehicle than the ostensibly rugged LR4. However, if looks could deceive, the Discovery’s appearances are the most deceptive. Despite moving to a unibody construction, the Discovery is still very much a Land Rover at heart. It’s still equipped with the brilliant Terrain Response systems, integral-link rear suspension, ground clearance of 283mm, 500mm wheel articulation and an impressive 900mm wading depth. The front double wishbone and rear multi-link suspension has been derived from the Range Rover, so it strikes a great balance between off-road ability and on-road comfort and refinement. In fact, for all its cross-country capabilities, the Discovery is a remarkably better-behaved car on the road than the LR4. It shows none of the clumsiness the previous model displayed around corners and feels infinitely more self-possessed and planted. The steering, although not the most responsive, is light and easy and makes the Discovery feel smaller than it is. The 3.0-litre supercharged V6, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, is good for 340bhp and 450Nm of torque. Despite the two-tonne heft, it manages a sprint to 100kph in less than 7.0 seconds. And it feels effortless and graceful all the time, whether off the road or on it.
The cabin is also suitably upgraded and looks and feels more premium than that of any Land Rover badged vehicle, including the Discovery Sport’s. The Discovery is an actual seven-seater, with the third-row seats offering enough leg- and headroom for two above-average adults. The only drawback, a major one at that, is that at full capacity the five headrests at the back effectively cover the rear windscreen completely, seriously hampering the driver’s rear view. But if you don’t have those many passengers to carry Land Rover has provided three options to control these seats electronically; via buttons in the boot, near the rear doors or via the touchscreen on the dashboard. The seats take their own sweet time to fold down, but once they do, you have a whopping 2,500 litres of cargo space at your disposal.
With the new Discovery, Land Rover has taken a gamble similar to that Nissan took with the Patrol seven years ago. As popular as the boxy, rugged Safari was, customers just snapped up the new urbane Patrol. Going by that, it’s just a matter of time before a new generation of customers remember Land Rover as a brand that makes curvy, suave SUVs that are great off-road and greater in the cities.