I’ve been thinking a lot about Land Rover lately. The first spark came while living with the Automobile Four Seasons 2017 Land Rover Discovery earlier this summer. An extended trip to England in August added fodder, helped by healthy banter in a small pub not far from Jaguar Land Rover in Gaydon. Times are a-changin’ quickly at Land Rover and I’m not sure how I feel about all that’s happening.
I’ve spent a ton of time in all generations of the Land Rover Discovery. It started shortly after the Land Rover dealership opened in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1995. My then-boss and his girlfriend each owned a Land Rover Defender—a yellow, 1994 Defender 90 soft top and a white, 1995 Defender 90 station wagon. Yes, it was quite a pairing. Both vehicles had, shall we say, character-building issues on a regular basis and it was my job to get the utilitarian British SUVs fixed and serviced. The local dealership had a fleet of loaner Series 1 Discovery models, so I scored quite a bit of seat time as the faults on both Defenders were sorted. A close friend later bought a Discovery II and we regularly travelled around the Midwest in the updated Landie.
Then, early in my on-staff stint at Automobile, we had a green Four Seasons LR3 (3rd-generation Discovery) and I also drove many press vehicles of that era on my regular trips to England. When the LR4 (Discovery 4) came along, I floated into various examples in both the USA and the UK. And now there’s an all-new Discovery. Yes, it’s noted to be the fifth generation of the iconic British 4×4, but it’s technically only the 3rd as the Discovery 2 and LR4 were simply updated versions of the original Discovery and LR3. No matter what generation you call it, the new Disco is a big change for Land Rover.
Discovery is no longer simply a Land Rover model, it’s a sub brand. Land Rover is split into three sub brands or families—Range Rover, Discovery, and Defender. Range Rover is the most developed of the three with the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, new Range Rover Velar, and the Range Rover Evoque. The new Discovery family launched with the Discovery Sport for 2015. It somewhat fit what I envisioned the Discovery brand to represent—less luxurious and more utilitarian compared to a Range Rover—but it’s off the mark in other ways, including interior quality and powertrain. The new full-size Discovery is a clear step up from its baby brother, but I wonder if it’s the right step. Big brother lacks the proportional styling of the Discovery Sport as well as the rough and tumble, utilitarian boxy look of its predecessor, the LR4. Quite simply, the new big Disco isn’t very good looking. It’s also expensive, especially when you start adding the Range Rover-esque options.
Speaking of the posher subbrand, I feel Land Rover is trying to make the new Discovery too much of a Range Rover and not enough of a Discovery. My daughter informed me after a few days riding around in the big, three-row Land Rover that she thinks the new Discovery is trying too hard and it reminds her of something the snobby, popular girls at her school would want to own to match their questionably styled designer clothing and pretentiously named Starbucks drinks. I think the middle-schooler may be onto something.
The LR4 was flawed but eternally likeable, especially before Land Rover added big wheels with lower-profile tires, standard side steps (in the USA), and blacked-out styling packs toward the end of production. It’s a vehicle that could be found at the valet parking stand or covered in mud in the country, especially in the more basic spec available in Europe. It was pretty much classless, unlike the decidedly upper-class fifth-generation Discovery.
The chatter in the local pub in England revealed that some home-turf buyers aren’t 100-percent sold on the new Discovery either. My friend Peter purchased a brand-new Discovery 4 (LR4) a few months back because he didn’t like the latest Discovery. He’s not in love with the styling and much prefers the old-school look of his Disco 4. He’s owned Land Rover products for years. I asked Peter what he’ll do when it comes time to replace his Discovery 4. He said he’d keep it, as long as it’s still reliable—something that hasn’t been the case with many of his Land Rover models. Otherwise, Peter said he may not need a 3rd row or the extra space much longer and may go with a different Land Rover model next round. He doesn’t like the idea of having to get a new Disco, as he wants either “a proper Land Rover”—or a Range Rover.
Which brings us to the last component of Land Rover’s three-legged stool—the Defender. Until recently, the Defender was a stand-alone model, albeit available in a plethora of configurations and wheelbases—except in the U.S., where it hadn’t been sold since 1997. That came to an end when production of the nearly 35-year-old utilitarian Land Rover ceased in early 2016. If you include earlier iterations, the iconic Land Rover had a 67-year run. Impressive. But what does the future hold? We know that Defender will change from a model name to a brand, just like what has happened with both the Discovery and Range Rover. My farming friends in England want a direct replacement for the Defender in the subbrand’s portfolio but safety and emissions standards may make that difficult. Plus, in part due to the lack of U.S. market access, sales of the old, basic Defender weren’t huge, making it a difficult financial case for the company.
As the Discovery brand has gained a posher character, there’s room for the Defender brand to spread its wings and fill in where, say, more basic versions of the old Discovery 4 (LR4) fit. The company will surely expand the Defender brand, adding lifestyle models that carry the rugged design elements of the old Defender but feature all the luxury and comfort that the majority of today’s buyers demand, but I’d still love to see a proper, minimalist successor to the old Defender on British country roads, covered in muck and featuring character-building dents and scratches. Fit electric motors if you have to, I don’t care. Just build it. My friends at the pub sure agree. Like Big Ben, The Beatles, fish and chips, shit weather and bad teeth, the Defender is an icon of Britain.