Archive Article: 1999/03/19

19 March 1999



WELL, here it is – the new Discovery. Looks pretty much like the old one, doesnt it? But x-ray vision would show that Land Rovers first major rethink since the cars 1989 introduction has changed almost everything. Compared with all previous incarnations, a 1999 Discovery is longer and wider, has a different powertrain and packs more electronics than some might think sensible.

To weigh up whats happened to this town and country icon, we look at todays manual diesel (in next-to-top XS trim) alongside a tidy 1992 original. The newcomer, with its extras of automatic, air con and micametallic paint, leaves the wallet lightly scorched at £31,329. Seven years ago the old one cost £19,250.

&#42 Engines, transmissions

What a difference a cylinder makes. Though still displacing 2.5 litres, the five-pot Td5 motor delivers 135hp against the old 200Tdis 111hp, and 232lbf ft torque against 195lbf ft. Peak twist comes a tad higher up the band at 1950 revs, with Land Rover claiming at least 80% of maximum from 1300rpm to 3900rpm. Key players in generating the extra urge are individual electronic unit injectors, each of which generates very high pressures from a camshaft-driven plunger pump. A box of chips decides how much of this better-atomised diesel to feed and when to feed it, directed by a drive-by-wire throttle.

The new engine simply blows the old one away. Stronger, much smoother and almost magically quiet by comparison, its power delivery is significantly more elastic – even in a vehicle that over the years has put on at least 150kg. The only reminder of the Tdis trademark rattle is a faint low-speed chatter, while chassis-shaking low-frequency vibration has shrunk to a hint of a groan as rpm drop back towards idle. Its never noisy – a syncopated humming harshens past 3000 rpm but stays muted, right round to a governed 4750 revs. At motorway speeds the mechanical hush remains though wind noise is significant.

Although ultimate acceleration is still steady (Land Rover claims 15.8 secs for the 0-60 sprint), driving todays Discovery is a lot more fun. Throttle lag has almost gone and the whole powertrain has considerably more snap to it, so now theres no need to issue notice of intent before overtaking.

Towing limit stays at 3500kg. Todays engine feels as though it should be more on top of the job. Like the old one it doesnt droop as load drags it back, yet has deeper reserves to draw on. The only potential downer is a lack of flywheel help just off idle, which even without a load can catch you out when moving away. Fuel consumption over 300-odd thrashed miles averaged a very reasonable 27.6miles/gal.

Further along the powertrain is a revised R380 gearbox and modified transfer case. A hint of traditional driveline slop could be found in the 11,000 mile test car and clumsy throttlework could provoke some low-speed mini-lurches, but overall things are substantially better. The clutch is less of a leg buster and its take up more cushioned, making snatch-free progress the rule rather than the exception. But the shifting stays so-so. Lever throws are too long, finding fourth from fifth can be a challenge (spoiling driving rhythm) and theres always an irritating fight between the drivers arm and the centre console box.

&#42 Interiors

Design (with a major D) still shapes the Discoverys fittings and furnishings. Witness factory logos swarming all over the seat facings, the several fancy cupholders and a centre rear head restraint that cunningly disappears as the arm rest is pulled down. Now Land Rover reckons its addressed the physical accommodation, too, citing among other things a windscreen thats 30mm higher (better for tall drivers), more rear room and forward-facing sixth/seventh seats.

The new Discovery feels taller inside and bigger on the road, yet inside seems slightly cramped compared to its forebear: the more substantial dash panel and the test cars darker trim have to do with that. In reality neither headroom nor lounging space are stinted and theres now a clutch-side footrest, though toe room around it is lacking. Up front the old cars full-width dash shelf has been decimated in exchange for various useful stowage slots and somewhere to hide the optional passenger-side airbag.

Average-sized hominids will find the driving position OK, but might want for more steering column adjustment and some means of changing seat height.

Rear passengers now get a better deal thanks to easier entry and exit (though the process is still faintly undignified) plus the chance to control roof-level vents and the optional rear air conditioning. The re-panelled load bay is no bigger, though its pint-sized pair of rear chairs (along with all other seats) now have reel safety belts.

With time, upmarket drift has shifted the Discoverys cabin closer to a car. Comfort is up but utility down, so where you once might have squeezed a couple of sheep into the originals back seat, youd definitely think twice about that now.

&#42 Suspension

Beam axles still hold both ends off the ground, but track widths (now wider at the rear than front) have grown; and the rear unit is located by a rods-and-link Watts setup rather than the old A-frame. All but base model cars have coils up front and Range Rover-style air springs at the back, in an arrangement that allows self-levelling and will let the driver stand outside to raise or lower tow ball height for theoretically painless trailer connection. That trick aside, a dash switch raises the rear end by some 40mm for more clearance off-road; or, if the chassis clouts the ground at speeds under 10km/hr, the car will hoist itself.

The really significant step forward comes in ride control, where Land Rover tackles a basic dilemma with electronics and hydraulics. For grip and clambering ability away from tarmac, an off-roader needs soft springing and plenty of axle travel. Yet at even moderate road speeds, such a setup produces roll and wallow. With all its bigger models Land Rover has resolutely put off-road ability first, latterly curbing body sway with conventional anti-roll bars and accepting some loss of axle movement at the extremes.

Now ACE (Active Cornering Enhancement) breaks the circle. Soft springs are teamed with a roll control module on each axle – a thick horizontal bar mounted on the body and connected to the axle, a bit like an anti-roll bar but not fashioned from spring steel. At one end of the bar is a link, at the other a short ram. Oil for the ram comes from an engine-powered pump, with a microprocessor and solenoid valves controlling flow. Body-mounted accelerometers pick up cornering force and even before the car starts to roll, the controller can stiffen the rams to stop it.

Cunning calibration keeps the body essentially flat until cornering force goes over 0.4g, at which point progressive roll is allowed back in. This lets the driver sense more clearly whats going on.

So whats the practical payoff? Nothing less than a major upgrade to handling and driver satisfaction. Try to push the old Discovery around bends and as roll builds, the car mushes and leans. Ask it to slalom and it can get in a right tizz. Do the same with the new one and it simply sweeps through, better able to use the grip from 255-section tyres and keeping its passengers happily pink rather than rendering them green. When grip finally expires under power the shift to understeer is gradual, at which point lifting the throttle nudges the back gently out. If you like driving, youll appreciate the new Discovery.

On ride quality the picture is a little more blurred. Discoverys always have travelled easier than most 4x4s and ACE plus substantially softer springing hoists the new ones comfort further. Small road knobbles arent filtered much but the system is quite brilliant at ironing out potholes, railway crossings and other substantial events. Yet body sway still features heavily, and in two areas things seem to have regressed. Some surfaces that pass unnoticed under the old car set up a light shuddering in the new, and big ripples at 90í to the direction of travel put more thump into the cabin. Steering shake from hard road hits is less than it was, but can still happen. These quibbles aside, enjoy the more comfortable passage over road and track.

&#42 Off road

A 1999 Discovery sets up a formidable battery of acronyms against the Great Outdoors. ACE for the bumps, HDC (Hill Descent Control) for the banks, ETC (Electronic Traction Control) for the bogs. Not to mention ABS and EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) for the brakes. But we couldnt use much of any of it, as mud laying over chalk turned the test cars road-going tyres into slicks and brought proceedings to an early halt.

Slithering around base camp did show that the motor has TRS (The Right Stuff), as it pulls back to idle and has no obvious power bumps. Traction control uses the brakes to grab a spinning wheel and shuttle torque across an axle, in theory making all diff locks redundant; in consequence theres no traditional locking unit between front and rear axles.

&#42 Sum-up

Todays version is quiet and a cinch to drive, pulls briskly and has handling that approaches a well-sorted saloon, yet it will still take you anywhere on the average farm. Alongside it, an early 90s model is crude. But heavyweight technology is used to whip the new one into shape, which will exact its price when something goes wrong. As a day-to-day working prospect, both the newcomers cost and ritzy interior count against it.

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