First drive: 2017 Land Rover Discovery

First drive: 2017 Land Rover Discovery
First drive: 2017 Land Rover Discovery

We get a sneak peak at Land Rover’s new SUV

I’m standing in a teepee in a forest in deepest Perthshire. There’s a fire pit blazing at its centre and everyone is huddled at the door, trying to cool down. It’s December in rural Scotland and it’s 15C outside, perhaps not what Land Rover envisaged when they decided to host an event at their driving centre near Dunkeld.

On the bright side, the warm, wet weather has made the trails that bit muddier, slippier and more taxing. Perfect, in other words, to see just how capable the new Land Rover Discovery really is.

I was lucky enough to be among the journalists invited along for an early drive of the fifth generation of Land Rover’s best-selling family SUV. There were a couple of caveats – this was a prototype, so not all the bugs had been ironed out; and this was an off-road-only drive, so no chance to test its road manners.

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Fine by me. As with its predecessors, Land Rover claims the Discovery has unrivalled all-terrain capabilities, so some time messing around in the mud sounds perfect.

However, climbing up into the driver’s seat (and it is a climb, even with the new lower access ride height) the first thing that hits you is the quality of the interior. The old Disco was no bargain-basement motor but getting into the new model feels like slipping behind the wheel of a Range Rover. The Discovery shares most of its switchgear with its big brother and feels every bit as swish and luxurious, although the fact we’re in a high-spec model probably helps. Nonetheless, even in pre-production finish this looks and feels a place you could happily spend a lot of time.

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Anyway, onwards and upwards. A trundle along some roughly-finished forestry roads shows off the adaptive air suspension of our test model (steel springs are standard fit). There’s a pattering beneath the wheels but nothing to upset those in the cabin.

Of course, a gravelled road is hardly a challenge so we swing off between the closely-packed trees and venture into the hills of the Atholl Estate. Led by local experts Gilbert and Ruaridh in their Defender we wind our way along an ever-narrowing and ever-rougher track between the pines. The track rises and falls constantly and tight corners hide sharp inclines coated in a slick layer of mud. For an added challenge the track is studded with partly hidden rocks and roots.

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From the driver’s seat it feels rough but it’s only from watching the huge articulation of the Defender’s axles and the churning of its tyres that I really get a feel for just how tough the going is. The new Discovery ploughs on regardless, up and down through massive ruts, opposing wheels hitting opposite ends of their suspension travel as we traverse holes and rocks.

All of this is done with the Terrain Response 2 4×4 system in auto mode where it monitors the surface and adapts the drive to match. So when Gilbert stops beside what looks like a collapsed Jenga tower made from boulders and suggests I select low-range and rock-crawl modes, I suspect things are about to get tricky.

I’m not wrong. That massive rocky incline is the next part of the course. As I crash, bash and bounce up its improbable surface, I have a moment where it hits me that I’m doing this from the comfort of an, airy, quiet, leather-clad cabin, not the cramped, dark cockpit of a Defender. Regardless, I’m glad when I make it up without being the one to break this precious prototype.

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The new Discovery may be 480kg lighter than its predecessor thanks to an aluminium monocoque structure and panels but it’s still a 2.3-tonne SUV so pulling it up those rocks requires some grunt. The car will be available with a 2.0-litre diesel in two tunes and a 3.0-litre petrol but ours features a 3.0-litre V6 diesel. Its 443lb/ft of torque makes light work of hauling it around. Our top speed of 20mph isn’t much of a test but for a diesel it’s impressively quiet and smooth.

From the rock crawl a spell in mud and ruts mode dispatches another stretch of unfeasibly rough, twisting trail as the mist begins to swirl between the trees and the sun begins to set. Then we reach the “water feature” and an opportunity for the Discovery to show off once more. As well as improved off-road ride height, Discovery 5 has an improved wading depth of 900mm. Knowing this doesn’t lessen the spectacle of the bow wave washing along just below the top of the bonnet.

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Climbing into the passenger seat so someone else can drive gives more of an opportunity to examine the cabin. From here it looks and feels just as luxurious as from behind the wheel. There’s a mix of leather, wood and metal finishes and twin panoramic roofs flood it with light. It’s also huge. The new exterior design makes the Discovery look smaller but inside it’s just as spacious. Our diminutive PR chaperone looks lost in the rear seats and even I with my bulky frame have ample room.

Riding shotgun also gives me a few minutes to play with the new InControl system and its 10-inch touchscreen. This does everything from controlling the stereo and ventilation to showing live camera feeds from outside the car to aid off-road manoeuvring. My time testing it was brief but it’s clear that this is quick, clear and responsive – everything the old system wasn’t.

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Along with capability, versatility is Land Rover’s other watchword for the new Discovery. As with its predecessors the fifth-gen model has seven seats, each capable of accommodating an actual grown-up human being. For the first time anywhere these seats can be folded up and down in any pattern you like using controls in the boot, on the main touchscreen or via a smartphone app.

Designed to suit the rigours of modern family life it can be had with up to six 12V charging points, nine USB sockets, two HDMI inputs and offers wifi for up to eight devices. Among the 50 litres of in-cabin storage space is a hidden cubby big enough to hold four iPads, you know, just in case.

On a more practical note there’s 1,200 litres of boot space in five-seat mode, a 3.5-tonne towing capacity, hands-free tailgate operation and a powered internal tailgate that doubles as a seat.

How well all this new in-cab tech and the plethora of driver aids works will need to wait for a full on-road appraisal but my pottering around in Perthshire has shown that Land Rover are deadly serious about making the Discovery the most capable and versatile family SUV out there.

 

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