I still remember falling in love with the first generation Discovery. Its boxy yet elegant lines, stadium seating, and alpine windows seemed to beckon me towards the driver’s seat with a promise of adventure, and there was no question of whether or not it had the capability to deliver on it. After all, this was an era when Camel Trophy trucks were still slogging their way through the jungles, and off-road capability still meant solid axles and loads of articulation, but over the years things have changed. With every successive generation of Discovery the refinements have become more luxurious, the systems more complex, and the target audience undeniably more affluent, yet each has managed to be more capable than the last, all while preserving the core nature and appearance of the Discovery. But when the torch was passed from the LR4 to the Discovery 5, many of us wondered if Land Rover had gone too far. The new SUV had lost its iconic square profile and body on frame design, exchanged for an aluminum unibody with an appearance echoing the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport. For many, this move represented the death of the Discovery, but with a rear locker, over 11 inches of ground clearance, and an optional diesel motor, we weren’t so sure. To find out if the Discovery was indeed dead, or rather alive and well, we filled one with camp gear, loaded up our cooler, and plotted a course for Anza Borrego.
Land Rovers have always blurred the lines between luxury motoring and four-wheel drive capability, but over the past decade, their interior appointments have rapidly passed from exquisite to encroaching on decadent. As I cruised down the California coast in our Lorie Blue Discovery HSE Luxury, I could hardly believe it was even related to the cloth seated D1 I had fallen for years before. The wood-trimmed doors and dash looked more at home in a private jet than a four-wheel drive, as did the heads-up display now reflecting my speed and cruise control settings on the windshield. Glancing toward the center console, an infotainment system gleamed with every feature and electronic goodie you could imagine. Cameras, technical displays, radio and climate controls, and even smartphone and tablet pairing are available, enabling you to control features like seat folding at the touch of a button.
Before long, Los Angeles traffic had descended upon me, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t stress me out. I don’t like cities anyway, especially with traffic. I decided to turn on the air-conditioned seats in order to provide a little relief, and while I was at it a massage seemed in order. Why not, right? Three clicks of the infotainment system and the seats were working out those knots as fast as the California traffic could induce them.
When a Subaru suddenly cut me off, the Discovery’s adaptive cruise control was braking before I even had the chance, smoothly reducing speed until my preset distance of a few car lengths was restored. Any drifting in my lane would activate the lane departure warnings, causing the steering to automatically correct drift. Usually, this would have annoyed me, but I didn’t mind it in the madness of this city. Still, it was time to get the heck out of LA, so I kindly requested the GPS to direct me toward my home where I could load up some camp gear and get on my way. Moments later, I was following the vehicle’s lovely British accent to a weekend in the desert.
Seating and Cargo Capacity
The Discovery 5 has seating for seven. The first five are spacious, to say the least, but the back row is better suited for children or smaller adults. At 6’4” I wouldn’t want to ride there on a road trip. Not that you could anyway, because with the third row up there is no room for any sort of luggage inside. You’d be lucky to fit a small grocery bag, much less actual camping gear back there. Thus, I quickly folded the third row down, and while I was at it dropped the second row, which can all be performed by pressing two buttons at the rear of the vehicle. On the whole, I couldn’t really find anything to complain about. Nor could I find any issue with the cargo space.
Just as the Discoveries before it, the D5 has a cavernous interior, with 73 cubic feet of space. You can pack a payload of up to a staggering 2,089 pounds, which by the way is significantly more than almost any other SUV on the market. It’s even more than the RAM Power Wagon. With the seats folded flat two people can easily sleep inside the back without feeling cramped. There are four conveniently placed tie-down points for strapping in bags and equipment, which worked perfectly for all of our camp and recovery gear.
Once loaded, the air-suspension quickly compensated for the additional weight, leveling the vehicle and restoring its normal driving characteristics. This has always been one of my favorite aspects of modern Land Rovers. Their air suspension allows you to operate unloaded or at GVWR with equal comfort and no sagging or harshness, a massive benefit for those of us daily driving these SUVs. Instead of worrying about packing the perfect amount of weight to avoid the effects of over or underloading the vehicle, you can simply take whatever you need and let the Land Rover do the rest. Now I can guarantee that someone out there is ready to make a quip about field failures, but for all the grief people like to give their air suspensions, they almost always last longer than any of us would run a coil-sprung or leaf-sprung alternative. I mean, be honest, how many people actually run a suspension for 70,000 miles without service? I certainly never have.
With everything secured, I fired up the truck’s 3.0-liter, turbocharged V6, reveling in the gentle thrum of the diesel. It was nearly silent in the cab thanks to the abundant sound deadening, but it still somehow felt right. I plugged in the directions and saw there were nearly two hours of twists, turns, and mountain grades ahead. Plenty of opportunity to evaluate this SUV’s handling on the pavement. With that in mind, I threw the Discovery in drive and headed for Anza Borrego.
It was less than 30 minutes before I hit the first bends in the road, and only minutes after that when I found a smile stuck to my face like the Discovery’s tires were stuck to the tarmac. In each perfectly sculpted corner, I would roll onto the throttle, letting the 8-speed transmission convert the diesel’s 254 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque to pure joy. It wasn’t blinding acceleration by any means, but the smooth and progressive pull was enough to keep me happy. As expected, the air suspension compensated for the additional camping supplies without issue, preventing the increased body roll you would normally receive on standard springs. Fuel economy was excellent, receiving an average of nearly 26 miles per gallon. This is largely due to the diesel, but also to the vastly improved aerodynamics and decreased weight of the new Discovery. Sometimes not looking like a brick can have its advantages.
I peered through the windscreen at a man waving frantically from a Jeep TJ. I had a suspicion of what he wanted already, but I slowed the Land Rover and rolled down my window anyway. “Is everything alright?” I asked. He peered up and down the length of the Discovery, evaluating its capability, and as I expected, finding it unsuitable. He looked back at me, and with a little too much satisfaction in his voice replied, “you need to turn around, that thing won’t make it.” I tried not to grin. Now it was my turn to feel a bit smug. “Don’t worry, it’s more capable than it looks.” I clicked the air suspension up to the off-road setting, raising the Discovery to an impressive 11.1 inches of ground clearance. Coincidentally, it raised the man’s eyebrows an almost equal amount. I looked back at him and said, “It’s got a locker, and I am carrying plenty of recovery gear and a tire repair kit. Thanks for checking on me though.” I waved my thanks and headed off down the trail.
Despite my confident retorts, I was actually a tad worried about what lay ahead. I doubted traversing the obstacles themselves would be an issue, but the sharp rocks and debris littering the wash was another story entirely. This HSE Luxury package was equipped with ludicrously large 21-inch wheels wrapped in paper-thin 275/75/R21 road tires. While they’re enough for most people, I couldn’t help but feel like I was tiptoeing on balloons through a pin factory, just waiting for the inevitable pop. This feeling only deepened when I began navigating the canyons.
With the tires aired down to 25 PSI, I couldn’t stop imagining a rock carving through the sidewalls like a hot knife through butter. It was unsettling. I did have one HUGE advantage in my favor though, the Drive Assist camera system. When placed in this mode, cameras in the nose and mirrors project a view of the trail in front of you onto the infotainment system. This allows the driver to self spot, guiding the wheels and tires through the most narrow of margins. It undoubtedly saved my bacon several times on the trip, and prevented the wheels from acquiring any trace of rock rash. Something for which I, and I’m sure Land Rover, are extremely thankful.
Dirt Roads and Sand
Once I had a few miles behind me, and felt confident the tires weren’t going to deflate on the next rotation, I was able to relax a bit and get a feel for the Discovery. The ride quality was excellent, and I was pleased to find that it was still relatively smooth in the off-road height, which usually feels rough due to the air suspension operating at higher pressures for maximum lift. At 30 mph, the Discovery soaked up ruts and bumps with ease, while corrugations were nigh imperceptible. With the radio playing, air-conditioned seats on, and massaging features fully engaged, it was unlike any four-wheel drive trip I had taken before.
Not that I was complaining of course. Rolling through the desert I was completely relaxed, and the Discovery felt like it was in its element. It floated through the soft washes with ease, utilizing the Terrain Response 2 system to map engine power in a perfectly timed symphony of adjustments toward the wheels. To anyone driving the vehicle, this trail seemed like a cakewalk, but as I passed smaller vehicles bogged down in the sand I knew that wasn’t the case. The Discovery was simply making it look easy. That provided more time to talk, more time to enjoy the scenery, and more time to spot the amazing wildlife living all around us.
The relaxed drive changed pace when a series of more technical obstacles arose. Since I was operating solo, I couldn’t afford to screw things up, or it would be a long walk home through the desert. I tapped the suspension to off-road mode, giving the Discovery 11.1 inches of ground clearance, an approach angle of 34 degrees, departure angle of 30 degrees, and a breakover angle of 27.5 degrees. These aren’t Jeep Rubicon numbers, but they are some of the best on the market. Compare them to the TRD Pro 4Runner’s figures for example, with its 9.6 inches of ground clearance, a 33-degree approach angle, and 26-degree departure, and you’ll find the Discovery holds a clear advantage. But tackling the terrain ahead was going to be about more than just clearance. The Disco would need to prove its traction aids and suspension were up to the job.
Rotating the Terrain Response 2 system to rock mode, I pointed the Discovery toward the boulders and let the vehicle slowly walk up and over them one at a time. The torque from the diesel felt perfectly paired to the 3.21:1 gearing, allowing the truck to creep through the terrain instead of requiring a heavy combination of throttle and left-foot braking. Control through the meat of the power-band was excellent, with a smooth and predictable response, and little surge from the turbo. It didn’t feel like a luxury car trying to be an off-roader. In fact, it felt really, really good, like it was designed to be there. Of course, the cross-axle obstacles still lay ahead, and I knew the Discovery 5 had less articulation than any generation before it. At 20 inches of total wheel travel, it was at a 3.6-inch disadvantage compared to its predecessor the LR4, and I wondered how that would affect its performance.
Above photo by Land Rover
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. The first time I was able to experience the truck’s articulation was on a simple drop into a wash, which ran at an angle to the road. The Discovery dipped its front end in, articulating with some minor groaning as the airbags exchanged pressure through the compression and extension cycles. It nearly reached the limits of its wheel travel, but was able to keep all four tires on the ground. As the obstacles became larger though, I realized that this Landy simply didn’t flex like I had hoped, and certainly didn’t feel like the Rovers of old. It would climb the obstacle, and lift one or two wheels high in the air before settling to the other side. It was somewhat disappointing, but not unexpected. The reduction of articulation while increasing traction aids has become a component of Land Rover’s formula.
Above photos by Land Rover
When the original Discovery was released, it combined capability with luxury in the only way it could, with loads of articulation and only the center differential lock. These trucks were capable without a doubt, but sports cars they were not. Tight turns and twisty roads induced substantial body roll, and drivers needed to be well aware of the vehicle’s limits.. As technology advanced though, Land Rover was able to improve the Discovery’s road manners drastically while still allowing it to tackle difficult terrain through computer-aided traction control systems and clever suspension designs. Total articulation may have been sacrificed, but in most ways, capability was not. Which explains why this Discovery never failed to tackle an obstacle, and rarely faltered or slipped while it did so. The terrain response programs reacted to each unique situation, and when things got serious, the automatic locking rear differential was there to finish the job. Despite my longing for solid axles and coil springs, I couldn’t deny that this Land Rover was still a Discovery off-road.
But Then There’s That Unibody…
One of the biggest points of contention with Land Rover purists is the Discovery’s departure from body-on-frame design to an aluminum unibody with the Series 3. Sure, it sheds weight, but structurally is it as sound? Well, we wondered the same thing, so we decided to go straight to the source and ask Land Rover how it compared to the previous generations of Discovery. Their response was simple, and to the point. The new Discovery uses “aerospace levels of aluminum manufacturing and engineering,” it is “the stiffest Discovery we’ve ever done.” The platform uses a lightweight monocoque body constructed of 85 percent aluminum, 43 percent of which is recycled for sustainability. The underside of the vehicle is pressed from a single piece of aluminum providing the truck with greater structural integrity and longevity. It’s then fused together in a similar fashion to modern aircraft, giving it immense strength in all conditions. The suspension architecture is then mounted on the front and rear steel subframes, which provide “high levels of stiffness for enhanced steering response, chassis performance, and greater refinement.” These are also specifically designed to withstand off-road impacts, as well as provide additional protection to the chassis and powertrain.
Coming from a background in aviation, I can say that the methods and materials used in the Discovery’s production appear to be top-notch, and should indeed be strong enough to withstand any amount of off-road travel you put it through, but there are still some disadvantages. The biggest of which is a lack of aftermarket support, due to the immense difficulty of working with an aluminum unibody, independent suspension, and integrated plastic bumpers. Products like bumpers, sliders, and skid plates that normally bolt to the frame are difficult to design for the D5, and that is a disadvantage for some enthusiasts looking to build an off-road or overland vehicle. Slowly but surely, some options are coming out, but they will surely be fewer and farther between than what was available for previous generations.
So is the Discovery Dead?
After several days on the trails, some more time carving up mountain roads, and a few nights sleeping in the cargo space, I found myself cruising back towards Los Angeles, contemplating the nature of the SUV around me. There was no question that it was an entirely different animal than the Discovery I had first fallen in love with years ago. It was faster, more fuel efficient, easier to drive, and so comfortable that I really can’t even compare the two. Yet it also has less articulation, a much smaller pool of aftermarket parts, and prohibitively large wheels making overland travel difficult. Of course, I knew all of that going into the test. The real question was, did it capture the spirit of the original Discovery?
The answer, I’m happy to say, is yes. Although different, the Discovery 5 is a shockingly effective 4WD, and without a doubt more capable in most conditions than the original on which it was based. The enthusiasts may not all be embracing it yet, but just as they did with the Discovery 2, LR3, and LR4, they almost certainly will as the magic intersection of falling resale prices and available accessories meet. In the meantime, maybe we can convince Land Rover to revive the Camel Trophy, as it seems time once again to prove their vehicles are capable of going the distance in remote and rugged terrain. Besides, we think they look rather good in Sand Glow.
- Excellent factory ground clearance, approach, departure, and breakover angles
- Traction control system and locker provide impressive trail performance
- Trail cameras provide self-spotting
- High payload and towing capacity
- One of the most comfortable interiors on the market
- Air suspension is comfortable and compensates for load
- Abundant gizmos and gadgets
- Impressive fuel economy
- Enormous wheels and ill-suited stock tires
- Limited aftermarket options for bumpers, sliders, and lifts
- Limited articulation
- Cost prohibitive
By the numbers
Year – 2018
Model – Discovery HSE Luxury
Base price – $52,600 USD
Price as tested- $81,395 USD
Motor – 3.0L turbo-charged diesel V6
Horsepower – 254
Torque – 443 pound-feet
Fuel economy – 21 city, 26 highway, 23 average
Payload – up to 2,089 pounds
Towing capacity – up to 8,200 pounds
Clearance – 11.1″
Approach angle – 34 degrees
Breakover angle – 27.5 degrees
Departure angle – 30 degrees
Total wheel travel – 20 inches