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Land Rover Discovery: Retro Road Test special

The launch of the new Land Rover Defender puts the future of the Discovery in doubt. Now Land Rover’s slowest selling vehicle, will it survive another generation?

We hope so, because the ‘Disco’ has a long heritage that stretches back to 1989. It’s the stylish family SUV that doesn’t make any excuses when it comes to rough terrain.

We travelled to Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, Land Rover’s test playground for more than 50 years, to discover how the first four generations of Discovery have stood the test of time.

Land Rover Discovery 1

Competition from Japan in the 1980s meant Land Rover was losing customers to vehicles like the Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Shogun. The Defender was too hardcore for the emerging lifestyle market, while the upmarket Range Rover was too expensive.

In September 1989, the three-door Discovery was launched, the five-door model arriving the following year. With prices starting at a very reasonable £15,750, more than 20,000 were sold within its first year on sale. The Discovery was a success from the start.

The model I’m driving at Eastnor is a 1991 three-door Discovery, powered by the 200Tdi 2.5-litre turbodiesel engine. This was the only diesel on offer in the Discovery’s early days. Buyers could also opt for the – thirsty, yet not particularly thrilling – 3.5-litre Rover V8, which used SU carburettors to differentiate it from the Range Rover.

Before we even get to what it’s like to drive, we need to talk about the Discovery’s interior. Land Rover commissioned Conran Design to work on the cabin and, even today, it’s certainly distinctive. Buyers got a choice of two colours: sand or blue. We’re pleased to say the example here is finished in the former – a much less depressing hue than the dank, wishy-washy blue.

It’s more car-like than the Defender, yet still very ‘lifestyle’. There’s a built-in sunglasses holder and map pockets hanging from the roof. Big windows and slim pillars give you a good view of the road ahead.

As we meander through Eastnor’s deer park, there’s plenty of opportunity to enjoy the view. Swift it is not, taking more than 17 seconds to hit 60mph. Although it’s apparently capable of 92mph, we’re happy keeping the speed down as the steering gets more than a tad vague at anything above pootling speed.

Taking a laid-back approach works well with the gearbox, too –finding the right gear isn’t something that can be done in a hurry. It’s all part of the charm of driving an older vehicle, but it’s hard to believe this was seen as civilised and car-like back in 1989.

Land Rover Discovery 2

Although the Discovery did receive quite a significant mid-life facelift in 1994 (including a redesigned diesel engine and toned-down interior), the next major change came in 1998. The second-generation Disco was launched under BMW’s watch and, although it looked very similar to the original, was heavily reworked.

Based on the same chassis as its predecessor, the second-generation Discovery was bigger, allowing for increased practicality. Quality was also much improved, with smaller panel gaps, while the interior was brought further up to date.

One of the biggest changes was the arrival of the five-cylinder turbodiesel engine, the TD5. The same powertrain as the Defender, in the Discovery it produced 136hp and would reach 60mph in 14.1 seconds.

But that isn’t the engine we’re testing at Eastnor. Nope, the Discovery 2 here is powered by a 3.9-litre Rover V8 producing 185hp and hitting 60mph in 10.5 seconds. The stats aren’t really what this car’s all about, though. Even after driving the 200Tdi, the V8 Disco 2 doesn’t feel fast.

But it does sound fabulous. And, as you might have guessed from the pictures, this isn’t an ordinary Discovery.

Finished in Tangiers Orange paint, this example would have been used during one of the American stages of Land Rover’s first G4 Challenge. Held in 2003 and 2006, the G4 Challenge was a spiritual successor to the Camel Trophy and put participants (and vehicles) to the test in trials across the world.

Modifications fitted to all Discoverys included a Safety Devices roof rack, Warn winch and roof lights, a Mantec sump guard and a raised air intake.

Land Rover Discovery 3

Even after a facelift in 2002, the Discovery was feeling very old-fashioned by the end of its life in 2004. But the Discovery 3 represented the biggest change in the car’s history.

Built under Land Rover’s latest owner, Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, the Discovery 3 didn’t have a single part carried over from previous models. As before, it was available with five or seven seats, plus a choice of petrol and diesel engines.

Despite being extremely heavy (2,500kg), a Jaguar V8 could propel the Disco 3 to 60mph in eight seconds flat – but most buyers opted for the far more sensible Peugeot/Citroen-sourced TDV6 diesel engine. That’s the model we’ve driven here, which hits 60mph in a steady 12.2 seconds.

Or at least, it does on paper. Yes, this is another G4 model, equipped with all the associated gear – from winch to roof rack. You might have spotted that it’s wearing an ‘08’ plate, and we’ve already said the G4 Challenge only ran in 2003 and 2006…

That’s because there was meant to be a third G4 Challenge in 2009. It never happened, though, with Land Rover citing the economic downturn and having to prioritise new product launches as the reason for its cancellation. This Discovery is one of the few recce vehicles that were prepared for the event before it was axed.

After driving the older Discovery, the D3 is a revelation. It feels much more upmarket, with almost Range Rover levels of quality. That’s perhaps unsurprising, considering its £26,995 start price. The V8 started at £37,995.

All but the most basic models featured self-levelling air suspension, along with a host of clever features, from adaptive headlamps to hill-descent control. The electronics make it an incredibly competent (and flattering) off-roader.

Diagrams on the infotainment screen show what each wheel is doing, while a ‘Terrain Response’ dial lets you flick between different off-road modes, from snow to sand.

Land Rover Discovery 4

In appearance, the Discovery 4 appears to be little more than a facelifted Discovery 3. Gone is the black bumper trim (it was actually colour-coded as part of a mid-life facelift for the 3), while the front and rear lights are ever-so-slightly different. Technical changes were more in-depth, however.

While the entry-level GS initially stuck with the 2.7-litre TDV6, it became a 3.0-litre in other models, offering the performance that the Discovery 3 turbodiesel always lacked. By the end of the Discovery 4’s life, the only engine was a 3.0-litre SDV6 producing 256hp.

That’s the engine we’re trying at Eastnor, and there’s no doubt that it’s surprisingly swift: hitting 60mph in 8.8 seconds.

Less impressive, however, is how dated the Discovery 4 feels. The infotainment system looks archaic – it’s difficult to believe this particular car dates from 2015 – and little has changed since the Discovery 3 was launched in 2004.

The feeling of invincibility – that you could go anywhere and the car’s systems would make sure you’re always safe – wasn’t lost over time, though. Combine that with rugged good looks and a practical interior and we’ve stumbled onto the Discovery’s winning formula, developed over these first four generations.


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