22 September 1995



Looking to upgrade the farms old Land Rover 90 turbo diesel? The Defender is not the firms only workhorse option, as Andrew Faulkner and

Andrew Pearce discover

IF someone were to propose a comparative test between a 1995 Discovery and a 1989 diesel Land Rover, you might reasonably decide to shoot the proposer and get on with something more sensible.

But hang on. Plenty of farmers drive a hard top 90, whether its an old turbodiesel or a later Defender Tdi. And plenty of those prefer to fly whats left of our 4×4 flag, rather than buy Japanese. So with agricultural incomes looking better (at least in some sectors), buyers may be thinking about a visit to their friendly local dealer.

The obvious thing to do is to buy a new Defender, especially as the latest 300Tdi diesel now lurks under the bonnet. But this engine turns up in a less obvious and slightly more expensive place; in the front of a Discovery Commercial. So we decided to compare the two.

First to explain the Commercial. Land Rovers special vehicles division takes a three-door Discovery, leaves its side windows sightless, whips out the rear seats and installs neat aluminium tread plate shielding over the load area. The front carpets disappear under rubber mats, and a steel dividing panel appears behind the seats. The result is a VAT-reclaimable Discovery van, for which your dealer will ask £16,495 in diesel form. A petrol V8 is an alternative, and air conditioning and such are optional. A hard top Defender 90 costs £13,250 plus VAT.

Now for the basis of comparison. The Commercial arrived from Solihull, bearing very smart alloy wheels (£620 extra) and unexpectedly sporting automatic transmission (£1276 extra). Rather than taking a new Defender from the factory, we borrowed a very tidy G-reg, 60,000-mile 90 from specialist dealer and parts supplier Keith Gott (01420-544330), who generally has several around his Hampshire premises.

As a modern Defender is more or less a dead ringer for the coil-sprung 90 – engine and gearbox aside – the comparison seems fair enough if allowance is made for power, age and mileage. Keith Gotts car was one of the last pre-Tdi turbodiesels, and typically should attract around £6500 in part-exchange or sell for £7750.

On the road

Engines are a severe case of chalk and cheese. The latest 2.5-litre 300Tdi delivers 111hp and 195lb ft torque (the latter at 1800rpm) against the indirect-injection 90s 85hp and 150lb ft.

The 90s lighter weight only partly offsets that power deficit. Its fairly brisk through the lower gears, but starts to rev, roar and generally run out of puff towards the legal limit. Torque backup is reasonable and the motor happily pulls from low rpm. Engine noise, complete with an agreeable turbo whistle, dominates progress at any speed, with additional choruses arriving from the transmission, axles, wind and tyres. The five-speed gearbox is typically notchy and the clutch Schwarzenegger-heavy, but it doesnt really matter. This is a working machine, letting the driver know its hard at work.

By comparison the Discovery simply sails along, direct-injection clatter squeezed down by soundproofing and 1990s structural design. Noise is muffled, contained and controlled, rather than spilling exuberantly through the cabin as it does in the 90. Only transfer-case whine intrudes, and that drops to a more or less acceptable level once everything warms up.

Driving though ZFs four-speed autobox, the Commercials 300Tdi still supplies plenty of urge. Mid-range pickup is good, torque reserve is fine and the engine and transmission work together as a smooth team. Unlike some small-capacity diesels, the 300Tdi has enough in the bank to cope with long hills; even the gearboxs lock-up clutch – which comes in at around 50mph – doesnt drag it down. Given throttle, the car pushes firmly through the legal limit. Cruising at 80 is straightforward, and economy acceptable at 25.8mpg.

Around corners

Although the 90 and Discovery share a Range Rover-derived coil spring/live axle set-up, the way they behave on the road is poles apart. The shorter, lighter wheelbase 90 is relatively nimble into turns and its body rolls, though not a lot. Steering shows the breeds typical wandering tendencies, with some of this attributable to the passage of miles but most coming as standard.

On optional 235-section tyres and with standard anti-roll bars, the test Commercial makes far less of a meal of progress. Cornering is pretty flat, steering accurate (at least until wear sets in) and the test car showed little of the bump-generated steering fidget common to most Discoverys.

Ride differences on the road are small. Neither vehicle is uncomfortable or hard work to drive, the 90s clutch excepted. The taller Commercial sways around more, while the 90 tends to crash harder into potholes. And under normal braking the 90s rear drums dont seem to be a major handicap; the Commercials discs stop with less pedal effort and can be feathered easier at low speed, but otherwise theres no big differences. Defenders have a similar all-disc set-up to the Discovery, so performance should be similar.

We didnt drive the cars hard off-road, for their capabilities are well enough known. Over stubble the Discovery is smoother and quieter, with more roll but less hard rock. The 90, meanwhile, takes anything in its stride with a cheerful bang and clatter.

Both will burn through mud, given appropriate tyres. In extremes, the 90s tidier overhangs, shorter wheelbase and wheel-at-each-corner stance give a positive edge which only a few users will need to exploit.

Creature comforts

Er, yes. Presumably the 90 has some, but beyond three vinyl-trimmed front seats (one more than the Discovery), its hard to find anything approaching civilisation.

Generations of farmers have lost cartridges, syringes and important bits of paper in the clutter of the 90s under-screen trays. Later models swap the third seat for a centre console box, but apart from this dubious trade-off theres precious little stowage room. Seat adjustment is limited, heating and ventilation are primitive – though the opening front vents are handy – and shorter drivers are forced into a sit-up-and-beg position to grab the high steering wheel.

By comparison, swoon in luxury inside the Discovery. Try the comfortable, high-set seats with plenty of legroom. Wonder at the steering column adjustment, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, door pockets, individual heat/air controls for driver and passenger (with optional air conditioning), glovebox, modern materials, good switchgear, fair ergonomics and handbrake you can reach. But dont try hosing it out like a 90, for standard carpet is just under the mats.

The business end

Towing capacity, the load bay and carrying capacity all make or break a working vehicle. Both can haul up to 3.5t, so theres nothing between them here; manual-gearbox Commercials and the 300Tdi Defender should perform on a par. Payload is slightly higher for the Commercial, quoted at 679kg against the 90s 660kg.

Although the 90 offers a no-nonsense bare box, it loses out dimensionally and practically to the Commercials cavern.

Loading heights are similar. The Commercial owner has to heave stuff over a 290mm (11.5in)-deep bumper before reaching the body proper, but finds a wider, deeper hole beyond. Access is through an 1210mm x 1050mm (47.6in x 41in) aperture, and the bay is only slightly compromised by carpeted individual wheelarches. Solid aluminium tread plate covers the floor – although carpet again underlies it – and a sheet of the same stuff faces rear door.

A removable bulkhead splits load space from the occupants. Part-sheet and part-mesh, it could be stiffer and, in a hard rear impact, may tangle with a tall drivers cranium. The standard Discoverys rear bins are retained, along with floor-to-ceiling plastic panelling. Neither looks likely to last long with hard use.

The 90s load bay is shorter by 185mm (7.3in) and is reached through a significantly smaller 1080mm x 880mm (42.5in x 34.6in) hole. Room-robbing, stone-pinging wheel boxes run full length, and a substantial bulkhead takes more space than it might by bellying out part-way up.

The inevitable conclusion

The Commercial Discovery wins hands-down on function. On offer are quieter, faster, smoother, travel and more load space, for which the extra cost is £3245. Negatives are the deep bumper, questionable retention of carpet, swish seating, at-risk load area panelling and the slightly flimsy bulkhead, along with all those extra electrical bits which might or might not go wrong. Theres also the moral question; how rough can you be with a plush car?

Alongside the Discovery, a 90 or even the uprated Defender look and feel their age. But these are still tough old beasts, built to accept abuse and keep on taking it. The difference is essentially this – you park the Discovery in the field, throw something big and oily in the back and then drive 300 miles for a replacement. With the 90, youd swap to a car first.