2003 Land Rover Discovery First Drive

2003 Land Rover Discovery First Drive

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2003 Land Rover Discovery SUV

(4.6L V8 4x4 4-speed Automatic)

Many of my fellow auto cynics think Land Rover's Discovery is past its sell-by date. Despite its revised front and rear styling (now similar to the new Range Rover's), they point to the Disco's body-on-frame layout, solid front and rear axles and pushrod-operated V8 as proof of outdated technology.

Another perspective — though a little counter-intuitive — is that it is those very anachronisms that Land Rover fervently needs in order to retain its macho offroad image. The company's Freelander, for instance, is so thoroughly modern that it does not even have a low-speed transfer gear set, something dyed-in-the-mud offroaders deem absolutely necessary for proper bogging. Never mind that the little "sport-cute" is more than competent when the road gets soft and bumpy.

The recently released all-new Range Rover might represent more of a heresy for the wellies-and-L.L.-Bean crowd. All dressed up in modern sheetmetal, the '03 Range Rover sports a unibody frame, all-wheel independent suspension and a BMW-sourced engine. Never mind that it's more competent offroad than its predecessor, the new Range Rover's combination of high-tech and modern styling is enough to send country-squire wannabees searching for a time machine. So, until a new Defender comes to our shores (not likely before 2005), it is the Discovery that must satisfy the hoary old traditionalists of the English brand for whom '60s technology and '70s styling aren't anachronistic, but a warm, familiar security blanket.

The one thing both the cynics and traditionalists alike would agree upon, however, is how years of development by Land Rover have allowed evolution to triumph over dated engineering. Its engine, for instance, has been a staple of English motor cars for more than 30 years, and, before that, the aluminum-block V8 saw duty in various Buick and Oldsmobile sedans. Yet, in this latest guise, as a 4.6-liter, the aging powerplant does more than yeoman duty in the 4,619-pound Discovery.

Newly liberated from the previous-generation Range Rover, the 4.6-liter has 29 more horsepower than the 4.0-liter version that powered the '02 Disco. More important than the 217 hp, though, is the larger engine's 300 pound-feet of torque, which occur at a low 2,600 rpm.

Not only does the SUV accelerate far quicker (Land Rover says it can do 0 to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, versus 11.2 seconds for the outgoing model), but it also doesn't have to be driven as hard during normal acceleration. Below 4,000 rpm, the overhead-valve engine is every bit as quiet as a modern double overhead camshaft design — and just as smooth. In fact, the powertrain's major fault is a four-speed automatic tranny that can be a bit clunky and is occasionally reluctant to downshift when passing at highway speeds.

If the engine is surprising, then the suspension system is a revelation. Simply put, a body-on-frame chassis with big, heavy live axles at both ends has no right to behave this well. Normally, such a setup should result in a rough ride, tramping over washboard bumps and awkward handling.

In the new Discovery's case, there is still a hint of the system's comfort limitations, with a series of bumps confusing the heavy axles as to which direction they should be going. The right combination of bumps can also cause some skipping sideways and severe potholes can send a tremor through the entire vehicle. Overall, though, the ride is no worse than any number of other truck-based utes with supposedly superior independent front suspension.

But — and you have only to drive any pickup with a similar suspension to realize how big a but this is — the Discovery is actually one of the better-handling sport-utilities on the market. At the top end of the model lineup, there is Land Rover's Active Cornering Enhancement (ACE). Similar in operation to the much-ballyhooed active suspension that was banned in Formula One racing for being too much of an advantage for the richer teams, ACE was launched on the Discovery Series II in 1998. By alternately stiffening the appropriate sway bars, the active system greatly reduces body roll during hard cornering.

For 2003, Land Rover modified the damping rates and steering geometry, with the most noticeable difference being more precise steering and excellent feedback through the steering wheel. It is quite amazing how well the Disco can be put through corners, and I can think of a number of more modern SUVs that could not match its pace. However, the seemingly minor changes Land Rover made have had a more dramatic effect on the standard model than ACE-equipped versions. Previously, anyone purchasing a Discovery would be best served by opting for the ACE system, so great was its advantage over the standard system. For '03, this is no longer the case. While I still recommend the ACE package, it is not absolutely necessary, as the standard suspension copes just fine.

If the new Disco's performance is surprising, its interior accommodations are not. The cabin is familiar territory for long-time Discovery fans, albeit with much better fit and finish. The rear seats can be a little firm and their backs too upright. Access to the rear is also very tight, as the rear-door openings are very small — a result of the Discovery's short 100-inch wheelbase. The cargo area, however, is adequate, even allowing Land Rover to offer a third row of seats (although they are really only useful for pre-teens).

The Discovery's switchgear are most charitably described as quaint. The toggles for the windows are on the center console, located beyond the driver's easy reach. The buttons for the power-adjustable seats are on the sides of the same console and are finicky to operate. The dash is also busy and not as organized as the new Range Rover's. One improvement for 2003 is that Park Distance Control has now been made available for greater safety while parking.

The interior remains fairly attractive, though, at least if it is clothed in monochromatic black. The base S version's Duragrain seats are just as aesthetically pleasing as the real deal. And they don't make you as sweaty during hot weather while being just as easy to clean. In fact, the only reason I wouldn't definitely recommend the base S model over the more expensive SE and HSE is that the ACE suspension isn't available as an option; Land Rover requires you to spring for the two top-of-the-line models before making the active suspension available. If you don't need the ACE's increased cornering prowess, the S model offers excellent value.

The S model starts at $34,350, a $1,000 increase over the outgoing 4.0-liter's base model. That is a fairly modest sum considering Land Rover includes all scheduled maintenance, including oil changes, for the 4-year/50,000-mile warranty period. Even base models get four-wheel traction control, antilock brakes, dual-zone air conditioning and front airbags. On the downside, side airbags — neither front nor rear — are offered.

Move up to the $38,350 SE and you get real leather and burled wood trim, a premium 220-watt audio system, six-disc CD changer, dual power-operated sunroofs, 18-inch alloy wheels with 255/55R18 M+S radials (the standard items are 255/65R16s) and an integrated Class III tow-hitch receiver.

The top-of-the-line HSE retails for $40,350 and adds an even more powerful Harman-Kardon audio system, an eight-way power adjustable passenger seat (the standard item is six-way adjustable), Park Distance Control and a self-leveling suspension. The optional SE7 rear seat package can be added to any of the models for $1,000.

As with most Land Rover models, the real value is in the lower two iterations. In this case, those not needing the ACE suspension will get maximum value out of the base S model. Those opting for the more expensive SE might as well go whole hog and get the ACE system. In either case, you will get a surprisingly competent vehicle that rises above its humble underpinnings.

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