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First Drive: 2017 Land Rover Discovery

Latest Landy lives up to the brand’s storied off-road abilities while moving in softer and smoother directions

Basem WasefWriterManufacturerPhotography

GEORGE, UTAH - Somewhere along an unpaved trail near Zion National Park, a 2017 Land Rover Discovery squirms its way sideways through a muddy bog. I can imagine a crotchety Landy fanatic squinting skeptically at the seven-passenger family hauler, doubtful the 21st century ride will make it - after all, the newfangled Disco has nine damn USB outlets and can supply Wi-Fi for up to eight devices. While the struggle in the mud is real, just before sliding into an embankment it adjusts its trajectory and powers out of the knee-deep mess unscathed.

Land Rover brass might not have orchestrated the rain-drenched sludge (or the prior day's whiteout mountain pass snowstorm, for that matter), but they did have a hand in a Discovery towing a jackknifed 18-wheeler back onto the road, a heroic gesture that just happened to be social media-friendly (#aboveandbeyond). Regardless of premeditation or intent, the inclement conditions were the perfect storms to put the screws to the new Discovery.

Modern Packaging, Rugged Backstory

Real deal Land Rover Discovery fanatics are a hearty bunch, likelier to be TIG welding a field repair than valeting their softroaders at the local watering hole. As such, the move to modernize the Discovery is a particularly controversial one, especially within this famously finicky micro-niche where the threat of a dumbed-down, crowd-pleasing people mover is clear and present.

Price-wise, the Land Rover Discovery slots above the Discovery Sport at the top of the Land Rover range. At the core of the new Disco is a new aluminum unibody that replaces the steel ladder construction, resulting in a remarkable weight reduction of up to 1,000 lb (curb weights start at 4,751 lbs for the gas version, and 4,916 lbs for diesel). Land Rover claims the entire bodyside is pressed from one panel of aluminum, resulting in fewer joints and greater structural integrity.

Discovery comes packaged with two powertrain options: a 3.0-liter supercharged V-6 producing 340 hp and 332 lb-ft (starting at $50,985 in SE trim), or a 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel V-6 with 254 hp and 443 lb-ft (starting at $59,945 in HSE Td6 trim). Both engines are mated to an 8-speed ZF transmission, and the starting price undercuts the late, great LR4 by $910.

This fifth-generation Discovery is the first to incorporate Terrain Response 2, which senses driving conditions and automatically adjusts drivetrain and chassis calibrations to general, grass/gravel/snow, mud & ruts, sand, or rock crawl conditions. The settings can also be manually dialed in. Air suspension-equipped Discovery models can drop up to 2.36 inches for load-in access or raise 2.95 inches for improved off-road clearance. An available auto access height feature drops the vehicle by 0.6 inches when the ignition is turned off or a passenger unclips a seatbelt; opening a door further drops the suspension another inch for easy ingress or egress.

Unlike the Discovery Sport's third row seating, which is best suited for members of the Lollipop Guild, the big boy Discovery's tertiary perch is capacious enough for a 95th percentile adult, a fact that seems plausible because my 5 foot, 11-inch frame fit comfortably in the back of the bus, with sufficient leg and headroom to enable claustrophobia-free sitting. One particularly cool feature: the available powered inner tailgate, which complements the fold-up liftgate with a flat surface that folds open to form an outward-facing shelf. Though relatively slim, the tailgate can support up to 660 pounds. In other packaging news, the load space can be configured to hold as much as 82.7 cubic feet of cargo.

Road Manners: Extreme

Our feature-laden HSE Luxury model (starting at $64,945) packed all the necessary goodies for a comfortable drive, including 16-way Windsor leather seats, a heated steering wheel, and an 825-watt Meridian sound system with enough stereo separation and dynamic range to make you feel like you were nestled snug inside a high-end home theatre. In its highest trim, the interior delivers a winning combination of tidy leather surfaces, pleasantly discreet swaths of wood, and a clean HVAC design that uses three rotary dials and a minimum of hard buttons. We're still not sold on the rotary shifter, which jams frustratingly if it's dialed too quickly. Patience grasshopper, you'll shift to park in due time. Also intermittently annoying is the 10-inch touchscreen, whose navigation functionality can be counterintuitive. Our early car's screen froze once (which was perhaps attributable to the fact that it was an early build). The glitch was rectified by a soft shutdown performed by the support team.

The Discovery's gas-burning powerplant plays nicely with the 8-speed gearbox, delivering punchy acceleration that coaxes a respectable 0 to 60 mph time of 6.9 seconds. Though the diesel's EPA figure of 23 mpg combined beats the gas model's 18 mpg average, its torque is mostly available at lower rpms, petering out by the time the engine reaches its most crucial point in the powerband. Crawl up steep hill at walking speeds, and you'll want the diesel. Squirt across the highway and drop a couple gears to pass slow traffic, and the gas engine is the right tool for the job; the diesel simply doesn't have the higher rpm oomph to pull it off.

The Discovery's cabin offers airy headroom for front seat passengers (not to mention reasonably spacious headspace for the middle and rear rows, thanks to the stepped-up roofline), but seeing one on the road presents a curious optical illusion: though it appears narrower than its Range Rover Sport big sibling, the Disco's width is actually identical. The proportions are deceptive because at a height of 73.5 inches, the Discovery is a full 3.4 inches taller than the RR, lending it a more top-heavy dimensionality that's perceptible during sharp cornering maneuvers and high-speed lane changes. But when driving through the aforementioned snowstorm, the Discovery felt sure-footed and secure, negotiating the winding road with confidence. When the route eventually dropped to lower, snow-free elevations, it became apparent that a large portion of its comfortable ride quality comes from the air suspension's compliant damping, which smoothens surface irregularities and lends the Discovery an appropriately premium feel to how it addresses the road.

Negotiating The Nasty Bits

Venturing off the paved routes near Canyon Point, a remote outpost best known as the spot where the Amangiri resort is nestled amidst ancient rock canyons reveals a reassuring amount of off-road capability from the new Discovery. When the air suspension is in its lifted state, up to 19.69 inches of wheel articulation are available, which is a full 4.73 inches more than the coil suspension offers. That considerable travel translates to surprising capability across rutted trails and rock crawls, revealing only the suspension's bump stops when velocity exceeds reasonable levels. Despite our rig's off-the-shelf tires, the Disco negotiated several challenging passes with ease. At one point, Land Rover guides helped us position the 2.5-ton vehicle into a precarious three-wheels-on-the-ground balancing act. The Discovery stayed put - not the greatest of all automotive tricks, truth be told - but more impressive, its power tailgate was able to open and shut cleanly, demonstrating the chassis' considerable resistance to flex.

While we learned that the Discovery's standard issue rubber is less suited to sand dune driving (which was executed with the tires bled to 18 psi), the slip-n-slide effect was never strong enough to get us stuck. Perhaps the greatest of Discovery's bag-o-off-road-tricks is the so-called All-Terrain Progress Control, which serves as a sort of low-speed cruise control system that can crawl between 1.2 mph and 19 mph, managing slip control and engine/brake functions while the driver focuses solely on steering. The semi-autonomous buzzword is a scary one in the off road world (after all, isn't half the fun the challenge of taking full control of your rig?) but more surprising is how smoothly the system works, pausing briefly as it passes over sketchy surfaces before gently rolling back into forward momentum. If anything, consider the system as an instructive tool in learning how to more seamlessly negotiate tricky surfaces. "Tread lightly this way," suggest the computers. "I dare you to out-smooth me."

Fears: Assuaged

If our two days behind the wheel of the 2017 Land Rover Discovery revealed anything, it's that Land Rover has gone to significant lengths to ideate, design, and execute a package that lives up to the brand's storied off-road abilities, even if its un-boxy styling suggests otherwise. The delightfully gnarly Camel Trophy competition (and its spinoff, the G4 Challenge) may be defunct, but the Discovery's counterintuitive blend of capability and comfort bring a touch of that exotic extremism to everyday life. Next stop on Land Rover's quest to climb every mountain and ford every stream? The unapologetically rugged Defender, whose rough-and-tumble personality is being reinterpreted by Land Rover designers and engineers as we speak. Based on the surprisingly civilized offroad capabilities of the Discovery, our crystal ball says the Land Rover brand's bandwidth will only grow, offering a shade of on- and off-roading gray for every driver under the sun.

2017 Land Rover Discovery Specifications

ON SALE Summer
PRICE $50,985 (base)
ENGINE 3.0L supercharged DOHC 24-valve V-6
340 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 332 lb-ft @ 3,500 - 5,000 rpm;
3.0L turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6
254 hp @ 3,750 rpm, 443 lb-ft @ 1,750 - 2,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 16-21/21-26 mpg
L x W x H 195.6 x 81.6 x 73.4 in
WHEELBASE 115.0 in
WEIGHT 4,751 lb (gas); 4,916 lb (diesel)
0-60 MPH 6.9 sec (gas); 7.7 sec (diesel)
TOP SPEED 133 mph (gas); 130 mph (diesel)