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New Car Review: 2003 Land Rover Discovery

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SEE ALSO: Land Rover Buyer's Guide

Adventures in Vermont: by Annabelle Frankl

Living in LA, one becomes accustomed to every 2nd vehicle being an SUV of some description. Of course, ask the drivers of these vehicles if they’ve ever driven off-road, and you’re likely to met with a blank stare. Furthermore, the majority of the vehicles they’re driving would likely have a meltdown if they encountered the sort of terrain so easily navigated by the Discovery. Having only experienced driving a, very ancient, Defender on a farm in England many years ago, I was keen to get behind the wheel and put it through it’s paces in true, off-road style.

A quick hop from LA to Chicago and up to Albany, in upstate NY, where I was met by Neville, a fellow Brit, but long-time resident of Vermont – the home of maple syrup, apparently – for our hour or so drive from the airport to the Equinox resort, home of the Land Rover Driving school. Established in 1996, in Manchester, VT, in order to teach ordinary folks how to handle rough terrain, treacherous conditions and off-roading, it’s open virtually all-year and has had over 8,000 people through it’s doors. Interestingly, although only 14% of SUV users admit to taking their vehicles off the tarmac, around 40% of Land Rover owners take the road less traveled. (FYI, the schools are also open in other US locales, South Africa, the UK and are coming soon to Central and South America.)

This is the 3rd phase of the Discovery’s life; Series 1 was launched in Europe in 1989, in the US in 1994; the Series 2 hit the market in 1998; and now we’re into Series 3, with new design features, a new engine, improved power and acceleration and a host of new features, including front-end styling that’s reminiscent of the new Range Rover (to promote a ‘family’ feel to the range).

The journey to the Equinox was pretty, but uneventful, save for a torrential rainstorm, which the Discovery took in its stride, despite a fast build-up of water on the road. The ’03 Discovery comes equipped with permanent 4-wheel drive as standard on all models, and this is teamed with 4-wheel Electronic Traction Control (ETC), essential for off-road driving (more on that later), but also for superior on-road handling in slick conditions.

Having checked in it was time for a pre-dinner game of mini golf, Land Rover style. With obstacles ranging from tires to exhaust pipes, drive shafts to hoses, the journalists’ putting abilities were put to shame and we all hoped to fare better in the driving – of the 4-wheeled variety – the next day. After a welcome by Bill Baker and team and a yummy dinner, it was time to retire and prepare for a full day of off-and on-road driving.

Threats of rain held off and we set off in convoy for the driving school, so as to get better acquainted with the vehicles, try out their off-road ability on some not-too challenging terrain, and get to know our shipmates, as it were. I was teamed up with Natalie Neff, a product-launch veteran and writer for Autoweek, and Paul Ferraiolo, GM, Product Planning (but, apparently, not that adept at map reading!) Now, of course, I say the terrain was ‘not-too challenging’, but perhaps I should clarify this statement. Even in this ‘controlled’ environment, the majority of supposedly-rugged SUVs would have had an interesting time navigating the inclines and descents, the angles and the potholes. The common fear that an SUV will roll over (normally due to driver error rather than vehicle fault) was addressed immediately with a sharp 45 (felt like 85!) degree slope, which the Discovery handled with ease. Equipped with ACE (Active Cornering Enhancement), a system that, through hydraulic actuators powered by a high-pressure pump, automatically stiffens the suspension, the Discovery benefits from reduced body lean in cornering on-road and, off-road, allows for greater articulation and, hence, better agility. On slopes, the system will lock the suspension, allowing the driver to feel more confident, even when tackling the most acute angles.

The Discovery’s suspension – long-travel, coil-spring/solid-axle – provides for a firm, smooth on-road ride, easily absorbing bumps. Off-road, it allows for 8 inches of vertical travel in front, 11 inches at rear. Furthermore, the optional Self-Leveling Suspension uses sensors to detect changes in vehicle attitude and adjusts accordingly, so as to maintain the vehicle in a level position, a great option for a 7-seater, and one that has a 7700 lbs towing capacity. Similarly, the feature can be used to lower the rear suspension, so that a trailer may be attached more easily.

Having ascertained that we were capable of handling the terrain, the convoy set off once more for Mount Stratton, a ski ‘resort’ in the winter, but today just our own, personal playground. A quick stop at the bottom allowed us all to prepare our lunch. Wrap your marinated kebobs in some tin foil, place carefully on the manifold, and allow to cook slowly for 30-40 minutes, depending on engine temperature! (And yes, we ate them for lunch and they were great!).

Using low gear, the access road up the mountain proved an easy drive for the Discovery. It’s evident when ETC, which brakes a spinning wheel and thereby sends traction to those wheels that have grip, is being used, since it’s relatively noisy, but it emits a reassuring sound, and certainly does the job of maintaining 4-wheel contact with the earth/rock/gravel. More testing driving was saved for after lunch, with a little jaunt through the forest and some serious up-hill, off-roading. Those who went first ensured a rougher ride for those who followed, further deepening the muddy tracks, and also laying dirt and mud onto the rocks, just to make sure that traction was at a minimum. With large, protruding rocks eating into our ground clearance, and on a narrow path, the ‘best’ route was not readily clear. Proceeding cautiously, and steadily, the Discovery made good ground, the new 4.6 liter engine providing constant power, and the ETC limiting the loss of traction. After a couple of stops – mainly due to rock protrusion – we were through the worst of it.

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The Discovery’s new all-alloy 4.6 liter, V8, electronically fuel-injected engine, standard on all models, provides 15% more power than its predecessor, and produces 217 hp and 300lb-ft of torque, accelerating from 0-60 in 9.5 seconds (around 2 seconds faster than before). Off-road it certainly got us out of all the sticky situations we laid on it, and on-road this more powerful engine has an increased top speed of 116 mph.

However, top-speed on the tarmac isn’t everything; first you have to get down off the mountain. Enter Hill Descent Control. Operating only in low range, the system supplements engine braking by automatically applying the brakes, as necessary, during steep descents. Of course, telling your brain (and your right foot) that you don’t need to hit the brake pedal – since this disables HDC - takes a little getting used to. But, once the driver has established how steadily, and stably, the vehicle is able to descend using the system, one becomes more accustomed to being ‘feet-off’ during the descent. When HDC is not in use the Discovery makes use of 4 disc brakes with all-terrain ABS and EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution) that adjusts the front-to-rear brake force distribution, maintaining stability of the vehicle under severe braking, and in line with the vehicle load.

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The tough driving out of the way, it was time to sit back and relax on our return to the Equinox. The new Discovery is extremely comfortable (as 2 sleeping passengers would attest!), and not just for those up front. The stadium seating and high roof mean rear passengers enjoy a more ‘airy’ ride. Seats are covered in either leather or ‘Duragrain’, and new interior colors include ‘Land Rover Black’ (a personal fave – very sleek), and ‘Alpaca’ beige. Front seats can be electrically –adjustable, and come with armrests (which were not terribly easy to adjust, all too fiddly). The air-conditioning system with Automatic Temperature Control (ATC) maintains a constant interior temperature, no matter what the exterior conditions – so no more fog-ups – and front occupants may set their own temperatures on each side of the cabin. Several levels of audio are available, as is an in-dash satellite navigation system (standard on the HSE model).

With 3 models available, the new Discovery can appeal to a broad range of consumers. The MSRP for the ‘S’ is $34,350, the ‘SE’ is $38,350 and the HSE is $40,350. All models are covered by a complimentary scheduled maintenance program during the 4 year/50,000 mile limited warranty period.

For your off-road needs, I can’t fault the new Discovery, as it ably and agilely handled all variables in both surface and angle, with smooth ascents and descents ensuring a confident drive. On-road, despite a little ‘floatiness’ in its ride on tarmac, it provides a quiet, powerful ride, offering a stylish alternative to all the other “let’s make an SUV since they’re so popular” brands, and delivering in the off-road department when many of its competitors would merely be spinning their wheels in the mud.

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