Tested: Land Rover Discovery 3
2.7l, turbocharged V6
140kW @ 4 000r/min
440Nm @ 1 900r/min
Zero To Hundred
Yes, with EBD, DSC
Land Rover’s Discovery has always been the red-haired stepchild of the company’s product portfolio.
Defender, despite its anarchic nature and lack of cross-axle traction (only fixed with the 2007 upgrade), is curiously revered as an icon in the 4x4 community.
Range Rover, after defining the luxury SUV segment, remains vastly popular.
Even Freelander 2, despite its predecessor’s deservedly horrid reputation for mechanical frailty, is championed as the best soft road 4x4xfar.
Discovery though, has always been regarded as just a bastardised Range Rover or, more accurately perhaps, a compromised parts bin exercise.
With the fourth generation Disco due to go on sale locally in the fourth quarter, I was given an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Disco 3, in HSE trim, powered by TDV6 power.
Was the disdain with which Defender owners treated me – no polite wave from the Land Rover fraternity – justified, or is Disco 3 the thinking man’s Range Rover?
All the wrong credentials?
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Discovery range, despite being a rabid Defender hater.
The Disco’s aspiration to some modicum of comfort, its simple and uncluttered styling, the passable ergonomics and the right ingredients to best most competitors in the SUV market space, appeal to me. As a whole though, something was always amiss.
Unfortunately, due to Land-Rover’s vacillating ownership, staggered funding and some rather curious engineering integration, the Discovery range (especially its second incarnation) gained a reputation for electronically-rooted reliability issues.
Chunky styling unmistakably Land Rover. Ability to navigate challenging
obstacles with ease is vexing if one considers the lack of solid axle
suspension. Disco 3’s easily accessible talents negate the need for the
services of a 4x4 instructor, most of the time…
Disco 3 is a thoroughly better thought out vehicle though.
Firstly, its construction, employing hydroforming (the use of fluid pressure to form shapes) allowed designers to transform high-strength steel into a unique body-frame.
Hydroforming enables designers to fashion shapes, curves and bends with steel which is practically impossible with traditional construction methods.
Combining the strength of a conventional ladder-frame chassis with the packaging ingenuity of a monoque, the hydroformed body-frame houses electronic control units and sensitive mechanical parts within the body-frame in a way that would be impossible (or extraordinarily costly) with a conventionally-tooled monocoque or ladder-frame chassis.
Secondly, although Disco 3 features independent double-wishbone suspension at all four wheel corners (absolute blasphemy in the eyes of Defender owners), its cross-linked air suspension negates much of these independent wheel attachments presupposed lack of off-road ability.
As each air-suspension unit is cross-linked with the other on both fore and aft axles, as one deflates, the other inflates - effectively mimicking the behaviour of a constant clearance solid axle. On-road, the ride quality and lateral force management benefits of the all-round double-wishbone suspension ushers in steering feedback and high-speed body-control Disco 2 owners could only dream of.
So Disco 3 doesn’t have a ladder-frame chassis, or a solid rear axle, even. The body-frame chassis and cross-linked air suspension sounds innovative enough, yet it’s dismissed out of hand by 4x4 traditionalists. Perhaps they have a point?
Disco 3 appears to have all the wrong ingredients for an uncompromising off-road vehicle then, or does it?
Cabin features chunky controls (especially those offset steering wheel satellite controls which stay well clear of your hands when off-roading), plenty of room and excellent visibility. Slightly compromised by light trim colours - which mark with desperate ease...
Well, at least it looks decent
Even in 2009, five years after launch, the flatteringly simple shape (it’s essentially a box, look at those flanks with no shoulder line or styling creases present) is both original and recognisable. I particularly like the asymmetric, curved shutline of the horizontally split tailgate.
The cabin is brilliant too. Fascia surfacing is quite flat and vertically slanted in terms of architecture (not to mention the glut of hard plastics), yet it works well and ergonomics are superb.
A surfeit of stowage spaces litter the cabin, with Disco 3’s sturdy door pockets especially well suited to stowing miscellaneous items which always manage to find their way on off-road expeditions.
Large glass surfaces, combined with the commanding driving position and stadium rear seating, imbue the Disco 3’s cabin with a sense of airiness. Travelling with five adults hardly inhibits of personal leg- and shoulder room.
The transmission control panel between the seats is devoid of a secondary lever for the transfer case, or a handbrake girdle, thanks to Land Rover employing electro-mechanical control for both the parking brake and all-wheel drive system’s differential and reduction ratio override controls.
Consolidated 4x4 control panel ingenious. Terrain response dial enables four different off-road driving drivetrain maps (fifth setting is for default geenral driving).
Like a tank, with air suspension
It’s big. It’s comfortable. It has a server room’s worth of electronics sorting the all-wheel drive system and, oh yes, it’s properly heavy too.
Hardcore overlanders will scoff at the level of digitisation onboard the Disco 3, especially its proprietary terrain response system.
Replacing a conventional transfer case shifter and differential lock dial, terrain response assesses throttle input against a set of four off-road surface/traction parameters (grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand and rock crawl), continuously locking or the centre-differential, or allowing limited slip on the fore and aft differentials. It adjusts suspension ride height too.
When either the rock crawl or mud and ruts settings are engaged, the air-suspension jacks to maximum height, enabling Disco 3’s 240mm of ground clearance to by buoyed by 255mm worth of wheel clearance fore and 330mm at the rear.
Powered along by a Jaguar-sourced 2.7l turbocharged compression ignition V6, Disco 3 distributes toque via a ZF-supplied six-speed automatic transmission.
Despite the V6 generating 140kW and peak rotational force of 440Nm at 1 900r/min, it’s burdened by the Disco’s whale-like mass of 2.7t. It’s not quick.
On-road, the ZF ‘box shifts with alacrity, allowing some decent highway cruising speeds accompanied by reasonable overtaking performance. Getting underway though, with four passengers onboard, there is nearly 3t of inertia to overcome, and the Disco 3 can be a little sloth-like around town.
Off-road, the independent air-suspension and innovative terrain response system turns conventional 4x4 wisdom on its head. I am afraid to report it works awfully well – most of the time.
With 18-inch wheels leaving little room for tyre tread elongating deflation ('19s are optional for masochists) and 2.7t of kerb weight, sand driving can be a chore. And if you get stuck, finding somebody with a 4x4 of comparable tare mass or sufficient towing capacity to recover you can be an issue.
The traction control system can be meddlesome in sand (where the Disco suffers badly on its standard tyres and due to its mammoth weight), especially as one has to disengage the DSC each time after starting the car up or changes modes on the terrain response dial, even with low-range engaged.
At times terrain response disengages the rear differential lock for inexplicable reasons too, to enable a smaller turning circle when all you really want is secure traction at the back.
The air-suspension irritatingly deflates from the highest setting at speeds above 50km/h too, which as anybody who has tried to make up time on the overland routes of Africa with those forbidding middelmannetjies will know, is way too low a speed parameter with an hour or two to sunset and 100km to go to your destination.
Aside from these foibles, Disco 3 is superlative.
In rock crawl mode, with the automatic transmission in second gear, even careless throttle action is absorbed seamlessly by the terrain response system.
For novice off-roaders, Disco 3 is by far the easiest of the serious overlanders to pilot. In experienced hands – shod with more off-road biased rubber than the standard Goodyear HPs – it’s practically unstoppable, conquering obstacles with scant drama and in flattering comfort.
Basically a box (a big, very heavy box), yet makes most other European and Japanese SUVs seems contrived by comparison. Repositioning of the spare wheel from the tailgate to under the loadbay a neat touch.
The plastics are cheap, yet the seats are superb. Ergonomics even more so, and those hard-wearing thick rubber mats are very practical indeed. Light trim colours are sure to show wear extraordinarily quickly if the kids come along on safari, though.
Double-wishbones attaching each wheel, air-suspension in operation, it’s hardly going to ride like a Defender, now is it? Can be a little cumbersome around town, yet high-speed cruising ability way ahead of first- and second-generation Discos. Heavy, yet very capable off-road.
Horizontally split tailgate a boon. Opens up to enable the bottom section for use as a viewing seat, and the larger, glass section as a shade inducing surface - perfect for impromptu lunch stops in the bush.
With the arrival of the new Disco 4 imminent (with a suite of more powerful engines) you should be able to secure a good deal on a run-out Disco 3.
Its weight is an issue (recoveries are not the work of a moment if you get stuck), yet the flip-side is an awesome 3.5t towing capacity.
Those standard tyres are rubbish off-road too, and you can’t fit 16-inch wheels for long-range safaris into Africa because the brakes are too big. But much the same can be said for Disco’s Japanese competitors.
Concerning the terrain response system’s electronic complexity and its possible vulnerability in harsh operating conditions? Well, most high-end SUVs drivetrains are increasingly being digitised and terrain response is easily the most accomplished of all current systems.
If you’re tired of only conquering the polo field’s muddied parking lot in your Range Rover, and yearn for something with equally aspirational image value, ample room, loadability and redoubtable off-road ability, well the red-haired stepchild of Land-Rover’s model portfolio has finally come good third time around.
Wonderfully original styling - inside and out
Unconventional blend of on-road ride comfort, off-road ability
Ever tried to jack up a 2.7t vehicle with an EU-spec jack?
Mass and road-biased stock tyres mitigate against sand/mud driving ability
Unwieldy in urban environments