Land Rover is a company that has something that other companies envy — a strong brand identity. Mention Land Rover and any of a number of visions could come to mind; the elders among us might recall seeing an old "Series II" (with the spare tire on the hood) chasing wildebeests across the Serengeti on TV, while anyone who keeps up with current trends might imagine the equally capable yet also supremely luxurious Range Rover running through the urban jungles of New York or L.A. Either way, every chap knows that Land Rover makes only rugged SUVs and has been building them long before the term "SUV" was coined. Heck, these guys don't even bother making cars!
Ten years ago, Land Rover introduced the Discovery to the U.S., a midsize SUV that featured the company's old-world English charm (meaning nice wood and plush leather) along with legendary off-road ability. But on pavement, it didn't score nearly as high, due to sluggish handling, tepid performance and horrid fuel mileage. Here in the States most people buy SUVs for use as commuter vehicles and family shuttles. Yes, those in the snowy climes can appreciate four-wheel-drive traction, but that doesn't explain the popularity of 'utes in Southern California. The point is, the Discovery's strengths were hardly ever (if at all) enjoyed by the majority of buyers while its weaknesses were nearly always apparent.
In 1999, the company heavily revised the Discovery and rebadged it the Discovery II. Although it looked nearly identical to the outgoing model, it had several major upgrades, including improved on-road ride and handling. Still, other annoyances remained, such as quirky ergonomics and difficult ingress and egress due to a tall ride height and narrow door openings. In short, the Discovery was still eclipsed by more real-world-friendly luxury SUVs like the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
Land Rover is confident that the new LR3, the Discovery's replacement, will be more than up to going tire-to-tire against the heavyweights in the midsize luxury SUV segment. This means that come November, the reigning Edmunds.com king of this segment, the Cadillac SRX, will be watching its mirrors for this Land Rover.
From the front, the LR3 is obviously a Land Rover, as it borrows design cues such as the odd-ball headlights and strong horizontal grille theme from big brother Range Rover. In profile, the tall greenhouse provides another strong clue about what brand of 'ute this is. Curiously, the handsome character line that runs along the body is erased on the doors — we guess the designers wanted to try something a little different from the status quo. In any event, the LR3 shouldn't disappoint those who also liked the looks of the Discovery.
Instead of either body-on-frame (referred to as "truck-based") or unit body (called "car-based") architecture, the LR3 uses a blending of the two called "body-frame" that offers the rugged nature of a full-frame style construction along with the carlike handling dynamics of a unibody.
In the cabin, the logical controls, abundance of room and ease of entry and exit are immediately noticeable improvements over the Discovery. The accommodating front buckets feature inboard, flip-down armrests in addition to the console's padded lid, and the same strong, angular lines that characterize the exterior are seen inside. Most of the materials are high in quality, though we would like to see either wood or aluminum accenting the center stack and door pulls rather than the textured, semimetallic plastic that was in all of the test vehicles we examined.
Seating and cargo configurations are plentiful. Standard five-seat versions get a 65/35-split second seat, while the optional seven-seater versions get a second-row split into three equal sections. Regardless of which style you choose, all those seats fold flat and offer a large cargo area measuring 6.5 feet in length. Maximum cargo capacity ranges from 87.4 to 90.3 cubic feet, depending on whether the LR3 is a five- or seven-seater. During our test-drive, we took turns riding in the third row and were delighted at how comfortable the seats back there were. Although the tall back cushion is somewhat slim, it's contoured so that there is adequate back support, and legroom is surprising thanks to a deep footwell (allowed by the independent rear suspension) that prevents one's knees from kissing one's chin. Large door openings and well-placed grab handles help folks get in and out of the LR3, whether they're riding shotgun or hopping into the rear-most seat.
Adding to long-trip comfort are generous cupholders, bottle holders in each door and the option of a built-in cooler for the console bin. Other cabin features include a nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with an in-dash CD changer, two gloveboxes and useful options such as a heated windshield and a roll-out load floor for the cargo area. Fanatical audiophiles can order an optional 14-speaker, 515-watt Harman Kardon system. Land Rover also went all-out with the safety features; stability control (called DSC), seat-mounted side airbags for front occupants and full-length side curtain airbags (that extend to the third-row seats if those are ordered) are all standard fare.
Those who griped that the Discovery was a slug should be happy with the LR3. Using a larger and slightly tweaked version of Jaguar's 4.2-liter V8, the LR3 comes packing more horses than even the Range Rover. Specific output stands at 300 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed ZF automatic transmission sends the power to all four wheels and varying driving conditions are handled by Land Rover's "Terrain Response" system. Terrain Response offers five driver-selectable modes that include two for on-road conditions ("general" and "slippery") and three for off-road situations — "mud/ruts," "sand" and "rock crawl." Automatic, electronically locking center and rear differentials further optimize the LR3's go-anywhere capability.
During our on-pavement portion of our drive, the LR3 struck us as utterly refined. Acceleration and cruising are effortless; there is always plenty of thrust on tap thanks to the V8's broad power spread and the automatic's well-spaced gear ratios and quick reflexes. In fact we were stunned to see that the LR3 weighs in at 5,400 to 5,800 pounds (depending on seating configuration and trim level); the adroit performance had us thinking more along the lines of 1,000 pounds less than that. Land Rover pegs the 0-to-60-mph time at 8 seconds flat, which jibes with our seat-of-the-pants intuition. Adding to that "lighter than we thought" impression was the strong braking afforded by the big discs that measure over 13 inches front and rear.
As we wound our way through the curves of Montreal, Canada, the LR3's rack and pinion steering felt light yet responsive and body roll was well controlled. Fully independent air suspension offers standard, off-road and even "access" modes (the lowest setting allows for easier ingress/egress). When one considers that the wheelbase (114 inches), suspension design and steering systems are similar to those used in the Range Rover, the firmly controlled, on-road comportment should come as no surprise to anybody who's had the chance to take a drive in Land Rover's flagship.
A Land Rover event wouldn't be complete without some serious off-roading, so we hit the trails (and the rocks) assisted by the Land Rover's team of superb off-road driving instructors. Although we didn't take advantage of the LR3's 28-inch fording capability, we did put the Terrain Response system, long-travel suspension (10 inches front, 13 inches rear) and aggressive approach and departure angles (up to 37.2 and 29.6 degrees, respectively) to the test. The Hill Descent Control (HDC) was also employed. This technology automatically modulates the brakes to keep speed in check when ambling down hills — the driver doesn't even have to touch the brake pedal.
We started out on light dirt roads with the Terrain Response set to "general" and switched to "mud/ruts" and "rock crawl" when we encountered those conditions. By adjusting parameters such as throttle response, transmission performance and ride height, the Terrain Response system optimizes traction. For example, in the "mud/ruts" and "rock crawl" modes, throttle response is much more gradual, so as to enable smooth, steady progress and minimize abrupt movements (that can spell trouble when negotiating a rocky ascent).
We spent half the day playing in the mud and rocks, with many conditions so challenging that a spotter (one of the off-road driving pros) was needed. Thanks to the incredible ability of the LR3, the excellent coaching of the instructors and our cool demeanor, not once did we lose control and both the LR3 and this editor came through without so much as a scratch or bottomed-out suspension. And we didn't witness any mishaps involving the other dozen or so LR3s, either.
With the LR3s suitably muddied, we ended the day. Of course we realize that most folks aren't going to hit terrain as technical as what we experienced. But this exercise served to prove that even though the LR3 is polished on the pavement, it hasn't sacrificed any of Land Rover's legendary off-road prowess.
Following in the tire tracks of the top-shelf Range Rover, the well-rounded LR3 does the company proud. With pricing ranging from $45,000 (for the loaded SE) to $50,000 for the really loaded HSE (which ups the luxury quotient with standard DVD-based navigation system, rear park assist and xenon headlights), the LR3 should put Land Rover's midsize SUV squarely on the radar of discerning enthusiasts.