In 1995, we took delivery of the new-to-America Land Rover Discovery for a Four Seasons test. It was a distinctive, rugged-looking SUV with exceptional off-road ability but poor body control, flawed ergonomics, and limited cargo and passenger space. Even worse, however, was its appalling reliability. Ten years later, Land Rover created an all-new Discovery. It dumped the old SUV's pushrod V-8 and ladder-frame construction and in their place put a 4.4-liter, DOHC 32-valve V-8; a hydroformed frame supporting a much stiffer body; and an independent, air-sprung suspension. Land Rover North America badged the new SUV the LR3. In June 2005, our Tonga green LR3 HSE arrived here fresh from the Solihull, England, factory. Over the next year, we'd determine if the famous Land Rover values and abilities were intact but also if the old Discovery's many faults had been exorcised.
We were immediately smitten with the British SUV's styling. Although totally contemporary, the LR3 maintains the classic Land Rover design language--a boxy, upright stance, a stepped roof profile, and rear side windows that extend into the roof. "I love how it looks," said contributor Ronald Ahrens. "It's simple and honest: rectilinear perfection. The designers successfully produced raw drama, rather than having to contrive it, by using a tall profile, short overhangs, and large wheels."
It's not only the LR3's styling that is thoroughly modern: its driving dynamics also have leaped into the twenty-first century. Like most SUVs, our LR3 spent most of its year on pavement, but it handled the tarmac much better than past Land Rovers. The switch to independent suspension dramatically improved body control. The LR3 is still a tall beast, and since it weighs nearly three tons, it can feel a bit top heavy. Overall, though, the suspension tuning is excellent. As creative director Richard Eccleston noted, "The ride is just superb--it's better than in a lot of luxury cars."
While the ride and handling were universally commended, the drivetrain got mixed reviews. Occasionally, we felt a clunk in the transmission when pulling away from a stop. We've heard that other LR3s have similar issues, but it happened so infrequently to us that we never investigated. Our most common complaint was a lack of power. "It's not often that 300 hp feels weak," opined assistant editor Erik Johnson. "With the cruise set at 80 mph on the freeway, the transmission downshifts when the LR3 encounters even the slightest grade." Blame it on a peaky, Jaguar-based V-8 motivating a 5800-pound truck. That combination also contributed to the LR3's appetite for fuel; it downed a gallon of premium unleaded, on average, every fifteen miles. In Europe, an optional turbo-diesel engine provides better fuel economy and greater torque, but that engine isn't offered here.
We never drove our Four Seasons vehicle on off-road adventures comparable to those we've had with other LR3s in England, Scotland, and South Africa, but we did endure a few wicked Midwest snowstorms. On a drive to western Michigan through twelve inches of fresh snow, senior editor Joe Lorio found the LR3 exceedingly stable and comfortable, thanks in part to a set of Dunlop Grandtrek SJ5 winter tires. The aggressive rubber sacrificed steering feel and directional stability in warmer, dry conditions but was much appreciated when the flakes flew.
Whether we were plowing through winter storms or heading to the mall, the LR3's cabin was a welcoming environment, because it maintains the classic traits we love about Land Rovers--the upright driving position, the tall windows, and the airy feeling. Standard triple sunroofs and handsome, light tan leather upholstery enhanced the interior ambience. Thankfully, Land Rover has not succumbed to the trend toward rising beltlines and shrinking greenhouses that makes the interiors of vehicles such as the Chrysler Pacifica and the Hummer H3 feel like coffins.
The ergonomics are a big improvement over the old Discovery's. The controls for the low-range transfer case and the air suspension are neatly organized aft of the gearshift lever, and the thick steering wheel and control stalks are nicely placed. We liked the solid, rubber-coated switches for the climate control and radio, but there are a few too many buttons of a similar size. Some drivers found the nonadjustable front headrests intrusive and uncomfortable. With its optional third row, our LR3 comfortably sat seven adults, and third-row head- and legroom are better than in most large SUVs. Both the second and third rows fold flat, creating a huge cargo hold that easily swallowed senior editor Joe DeMatio's peculiar load of a full-size kitchen range and two mountain bikes.
Finally, to the big question: was the Land Rover reliable? The year got off to an inauspicious start. Only two weeks into the LR3's stay, warning lights for the air suspension, stability control, and hill-descent control began popping up frequently. Restarting the vehicle would fix the issue temporarily. After multiple visits to the dealer, technicians solved the problem by recalibrating the steering-angle sensor. Soon after, warning lights popped up again, as if to alert us that the LR3 wouldn't accelerate past 15 mph, a situation we'd noticed on our own. A restart brought the LR3 back to normal. Also early on, we visited the dealer twice to fix the driver's door handle, which wouldn't open the door. Around the six-month mark, a new coolant expansion tank was installed because of a false low-coolant warning, and the fuel tank was replaced on recall.
We saw less of our dealer in the latter half of the year, but three items still needed to be addressed: a sticky rear wiper, a broken rear-seat latch, and a burned-out brake light. In all, we made five unscheduled dealer visits--better than the twenty-plus warranty repairs to our '95 Discovery, but an area where Land Rover still needs to do better.
Where the old Discovery was a one-dimensional, off-road-oriented machine, the LR3 is enjoyable to drive in the real world. Interior packaging and ergonomics have gone from one of the worst to one of the best in class. Chassis dynamics also made a similar leap. Most important, Land Rover has succeeded in these areas while maintaining the brand's core values. Now Land Rover needs to continue to improve quality, put the LR3 on a diet, and offer a torquier, more fuel-efficient engine. Then the LR3 will be one of the best SUVs on the market.