Sensors and software adapt the new Discovery to terrain changes so drivers can focus on enjoying the ride
The new fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery goes on sale in 2017. Known affectionately as the ‘Disco,’ the seven passenger luxury SUV got a radical redesign and now sports a softer and sleeker image. Land Rover invited PSFK to spend a couple days behind the wheel driving on and off-road around northern Arizona and southern Utah. They planned a route intended to demonstrate the broad terrain conditions the new Discovery was capable of driving through and over. We wondered if the Discovery’s new stylish image reflected less concern for off-road prowess and more for surface street aesthetics?
The answer turned out to be quite the opposite.
I’ll admit I wasn’t too keen on the new Discovery exterior design the first time I saw it. My personal opinion is that peak Discovery design was reached with the LR3 or Discovery 3 (above) back in the early mid to late 2000’s. It had a refined machine aesthetic that just looks right from every angle. The unique design elements that make it a Discovery are also well represented on the LR3. There’s the stepped roof, a result of the ‘stadium style’ interior seating, the asymmetrical tail gate and very short from the rear body overhangs. I’d want to drive the LR3 off-road because its design character compliments its intended use. Driving off-road generally isn’t done at high speeds so there’s no need for rounded shapes to gain better aerodynamics and hence better performance. But the Discovery isn’t a uni-tasker so I gave the new model a second look and it started to grow on me.
The overall shape of the new Discovery isn’t an extreme departure from other contemporary large SUV’s on the market. The front end has been bulked up, some of this probably to comply with pedestrian collision legislation. The stepped roof has been minimized which makes the silhouette shape appear more generic.
Both the front and rear fascia’s have nicely designed lighting elements. The headlights in particular have a distinctive illuminated outline that is visible even in bright sunshine. The surfaces get busier on the lower portions of the bumpers with layers of vents, trim pieces and simulated skid plates. These are eye-grabbers in photos more so than in real life.
The Discovery’s real surprise was revealed on the first off-road section following a drive through the amazing Zion National Park. I’ll admit I’m a novice at off-road driving so steep terrain or tricky sections with a lot of rocks and soft sand are still intimidating. And that’s what was on order for the next several miles. Land Rover driving instructors were on hand to go over the technology improvements on the Discovery that would aid in safely traversing the mixed terrain types ahead.
The improvements not only made the driving quite easy, but immensely fun.
On the dry stream bed stretches, composed of fairly soft sand, two systems helped get through it cleanly. The Discovery has an air suspension that can raise the vehicle nearly three inches. This helped get through ruts in the sand and clear rocky sections. Air suspensions historically have been associated with a bouncy ride quality but the system on the Discovery was notably smooth.
Acting as something like a behind-the-scenes driving assistant, the next-generation of Land Rover’s Terrain Response 2 is magic. From a dial on the center console, the Discovery can be set up to drive in grass, snow, sand, mud or rock crawl. These sorts of settings in 4×4 vehicles aren’t new but Land Rover’s is programmed to constantly monitor conditions while driving and adapt steering, throttle and suspension to keep it from getting stuck. That’s a bit of a dry explanation for a driving experience that creates a lot of confidence. Driving became less about worrying whether the Discovery would dig itself in or fail to climb a rock and more about the fun of effortlessly getting through some tricky and challenging terrain.
The boost in confidence is a good thing to have when faced with driving up a particularly steep slope. In these instances you can’t actually see what’s in front of you and rely on a spotter and vehicle traction to get up. In this case, the Discovery has another improvement to help out. All-Terrain Progress Control technology is something like semi-autonomous driving for off-road situations. The system aids in getting up steep slopes by taking control of the throttle and brakes. The driver only needs to steer. It sounds scarier than it is, the system operates at a very low speed and adjusts really well to maintain traction. Land Rover’s previous generation of this system performed well, but it had a distinctive pulsing quality to the speed which wasn’t that smooth. This upgraded system is silky smooth and takes the fear out of attempting difficult ascents.
The more time I spent driving, the less worried I was about getting past obstacles that arose. I could work on my technique like shuffling the steering wheel to keep my hands in an optimal position. In fact, at particularly technical points, I only needed my fingertips on the wheel to make fine steering adjustments. It wasn’t a job of muscling the steering wheel around to remain in control and that’s what made it fun.
Day two’s drive destination was the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park located east of St. George just above the Utah state border. Spread across more than 3,700 acres, the dunes range from small hills of sand to enormous slopes. Taking the Discovery for a drive through them offered yet another challenge to not get stuck.
Growing up in the Midwest snowbelt, I’ve had a lot of experience driving in deep snow. But sand is completely different and more tricky. It takes being smooth and steady on the power to keep momentum up so as to keep from digging in. The Discovery’s sand setting again made it pretty easy to drive and through some sand swirls off the front wheels. This felt like driving through a giant sandbox for real.
Getting to experience the Discovery in this way was bittersweet. It was two days of fun-packed driving followed by handing the keys back. The nagging question though is, how many Discovery buyers are actually going to drive their vehicles off-road and take advantage of these capabilities? I’d speculate probably a small percentage, and that’s a shame.
Land Rover supports owners gaining off-roading knowledge and experience through their global network of Experience Drive Centers. Each of these facilities has professional drivers on staff that offer training on safely and confidently using Land Rover vehicles to explore off-road terrain. The new Discovery does a lot more of the work through advanced engineering and technology but doesn’t make going off-road any less of a thrill.
Disclaimer: Land Rover paid for travel, hotels provided meals for a stay in LA and Utah as part of this drive program.
Photos: Land Rover, Dave Pinter