23 October 1998

HIGH-TECH MACHINE LURKS UNDER FAMILIAR CLOTHES

Land Rovers Discovery, a

firm favourite of farmers,

gets an update next month.

Prepare for some serious

technological wizardry,

warn Geoff Ashcroft (who

probed its innards) and

David Cousins (who drove it)

THE upland stretches of the Cawdor Estate, near Inverness, Scotland, are no place to take a Porsche. Or a Mondeo. Or indeed anything that doesnt combine the sure-footedness of a mountain goat with the good-humoured resilience of a baby rhino.

In fact it boasts just two main types of terrain – peaty bogs of the sort mammoths used to fall into and boulder-strewn slopes that look like Iceland with heather. Neither promised any kindness towards the new Discovery, nor likelihood of forgiving any shortcomings it might harbour. But this is where smiling Land Rover staff seemed to want us to take them.

Despite the New Discovery name, it looks much like the old one, except for a smoothing off of some of the corners and bigger, snazzier lights. The interior is pretty familiar, too. Gear stick and high-low lever are still quite a stretch across, but detailing is lovely and there are more cubbyholes than you get on sale day at World of Cubbyholes.

There are two extra forward-facing seats at the back that fold away when not needed. They eat into luggage space, of course, but are perfectly comfortable apart from the lack of leg-dangling room. Fine for children, short distances or those familiar with Japanese tea ceremonies.

The first test of the new Discovery is a river crossing. A splash through a 6ft wide, 6in deep stream? Er, no. A 100yd-wide stretch of the River Spey rushes past us, looking impassable other than by raft or quickly-erected rope suspension bridge.

Never mind. It must be safe; Land Rover wouldnt be so foolish as to knowingly allow one of its new vehicles to float out to sea. And its true. The Discovery fords the river, despite a strong cross-current and precious little grip on the gravely river bed, in ungainly but ultimately successful fashion.

&#42 So far so good

So far, so good. The marked track heads upwards now, along deep ruts with several rockeries-worth of boulders strewn around and between them. Push button to tell air suspension to raise rear of vehicle and give maximum clearance. Discovery barges through like a Cairo taxi driver. Not subtle, but you never doubt itll make it.

Now its time to head downhill again. This involves new round of button pushing, this time the yellow one that engages Hill Descent Control (HDC). Hope this means Calm, Steady Descent (CSD), not Headlong Out-of-Control Terrifying Descent (HOCTD) that the terrain promises.

And it does. Like a huge hand holding you back from danger, HDC makes going down hills in either forward or reverse gear startlingly stress-free. If anything its ability to slow you down to a mere 4.4mph (in 1st gear) or 8.7mph (in 2nd gear) can make for an overly slow descent, but you can always dab the throttle and then let HDC cut in again to avoid developing a bad case of the slithers.

You could, of course, achieve something similar in most circumstances by shoving the vehicle in its lowest gear and taking your size 11s off the pedals. But theres something very reassuring, if not addictive, about HDC.

All the time weve been doing this, strange whirrings have been seeping out from underneath the car. You wonder if ean lectric toothbrush has been mistakenly left in the chassis box section by the chief designer. But the handbook assures that this is the hydraulic system automatically putting brakes on and off to give correct descent speed.

&#42 More rivers to cross

More rivers to cross, more rocky roads to potentially (though not actually) crack a sump or bend a propshaft, then its back to the tarmac. Can the Discovery, so self-assured, rock-solid and rattle-free off the road, be as good on it?

That depends. If youve got the cheaper versions without the ACE active suspension system, youll notice a slightly choppy ride on some surfaces and the inevitable roll as 2t of metal with a relatively high centre of gravity experience some serious g-forces.

But if youve opted for ACE, youll find youre riding a somewhat different species of animal. Speed into a sharp corner, yank the wheel round, prepare to lean and… nothing happens. You stay dead level, the vehicle stays dead level; even the carrot and coriander soup the duchess in the back seat is eating out of a Wedgewood bowl stays dead level.

Engines? Not a great deal of choice – 4 litre V8 for those who arent reliant solely on farming for their income, 2.5 litre 5-cylinder turbo-diesel for those who are. On paper the 46hp difference between the two looks considerable, but in practice youll only notice a big difference in the upper echelons of the rev range. In fact the new diesel is quieter, smoother and more powerful than its predecessor and LR expects 95% of UK buyers to opt for it.

Verdict: Land Rover engineers have plainly been burning the candle at both ends, with several high-tech systems on the new Discovery that genuinely seem to further the 4WD cause. Off-road purists may view the disappearance of manually-engaged diff-locks and their replacement with automatically-engaged driving aids as excessively nannyish, but for most potential buyers they should bring simpler operation with – seemingly – no lessening of off-road ability.

There are also some imaginative touches too, like fold-down ceiling-mounted headrests for third-row passengers and an optional system that allows teenagers in the rearmost seats to listen to a Spice Girls CD while everyone else chortles along to the Archers omnibus edition. That, apparently, is progress.

Negatives? Despite assurances from LR that much of the technology is off-the-shelf, theres no doubt the new Discovery is a complex piece of kit with possible running cost implications 10 years down the line. A 2.5 litre or 3 litre petrol might also have been useful for some buyers and the styling could have been a bit more radical. Otherwise its a pretty desirable vehicle. If they had any money, farmers would no doubt flock to them.

95% IS NEW,

LAND ROVER

CLAIMS

DESPITE retaining the same visual appearance, Land Rover admits about 95% of Discovery is new – and most of it is beneath the skin.

Short of getting out the tape measure to find the additional 15cm (6in) put into the vehicles length, it will take a keen eye to spot the new car on the open road. But the easiest way of identification is by the door handles – pull-type grab handles now replace the flush-fitting Morris Marina door handles of old.

And in redeveloping the Discovery, several of the previous vehicles weaknesses are said to have been addressed – namely quality and durability – in a bid to give the vehicle more car-like manners for on-road performance, while being the best off-roader in its sector. And its up against some tough competition.

Traditionalists will also notice the missing diff-lock lever from the transmission console – this has been catered for with the use of a sophisticated traction control system actuated via the anti-lock braking system. LR says it has made the car simpler and easier on the driver, catering for those who never understood the purpose of a diff-lock.

And the beefed up drivetrain components has meant Land Rover can put more power into the vehicle – the biggest change here is the introduction of a five-cylinder turbo diesel with electronic diesel injection. For the petrol-heads, the Range Rovers 4 litre V8 now resides in the Discovery.

Td5 is the only diesel option for Discovery. A 6-cylinder wouldnt fit, says LR, so a new 5-cylinder, 2.5 litre unit was developed to offer greater performance, improved economy and better off-road driving characteristics than the previous oil burner.

Stacked against the old Tdi motor, power is now 136hp from the Td5 against 111hp and torque has risen from 265Nm to 300Nm. And that all-important torque figure is available at 1950rpm, with 90% of torque on tap from 1450rpm.

Key to the engines characteristics is the use of electronic unit injectors which operate at high pressures – typically 22,000psi. Ditching the traditional mechanical injection system means future emissions levels can also be met.

&#42 Look, no roll!

On-road stability has been given a big boost by the use of Active Cornering Enhancement – a system of regulating body roll without fitting stiffer anti-roll bars which could jeopardise the vehicles off-road capability by reducing axle articulation.

Aiming for body roll control equivalent to that of executive sports saloon cars, the active system on Discovery requires no intervention from the driver. Using a hydraulic ram on each roll bar, the suspension is progressively stiffened to prevent roll up to 0.4g of lateral acceleration – after which the system allows slight rolling to give the driver the sensation of aggressive cornering.

Up front, coil springs and dampers do the work while air bags now bring up the rear and allow automatic ride height control and adjustment of vehicle height for hitching onto awkward trailers.

The new Discovery also gets the same Hill Descent Control seen in the Freelander. Press the yellow button, take your feet off the pedals and the vehicle uses its ABS braking system to bring the speed down to anywhere between 4.4 and 7.5mph, depending on how steep the hill is.

The vehicle goes on sale at the end of November, with prices ranging from £25,525 for the diesel base model to £35,095 for the V8 ES.