I am charging down a muddy, boulderstrewn track, having slushed through deep, seemingly impassable linear ruts just a wheel-width wide, and tackled a few steep slopes. That all seemed easy enough, but now comes one of those ‘uh-oh’ moments: a rock garden comprised of what seems like undercarriage-ripping ledges and jagged peaks. So far, I have felt very little of the territory outside, being cushioned in a supportive cowhide pew and doing the occasional wheel twirl or throttle input while the new Discovery 5 “Prototype” does the rest. We’re on the Blair Atholl Estate near Pitlochry in Scotland − a territory mapped out and extensively used by the fellows from the UK’s Land Rover Experience. These 4x4 enthusiasts and trainers are in charge of one of the places where this vehicle did some if its capability and durability testing, so it should be in its element.
That’s the background to why SA4x4 is sitting in the all-new Disco in a land of freezing mud, while rain lashes outside and the track gets more slippery. So far, I’ve been hellish surprised, really. This is because, raised to its new height of 283mm ground clearance (40mm more than before), and with the added capabilities of the Terrain Response 2 system being deployed seamlessly in the background, this vehicle has clawed its way over large bumps and undulations, and up what seemed like impossibly steep and muddy sections with such ease and so little wheel slip that I am scratching my head to know how. But now we face a proper test, a chance to properly appraise the rock-crawling ability and the strength of the far-less substantial bash plates. One of the launch crew directs me this way and that to keep the vulnerable bits away from the rocks and the wheels in traction, and − with a few lurches and settling slides − we are in the clear. Amazing, especially considering that we are running on 20-inch rims and highway profile tyres.
One of the vehicles behind us stops mid-section, with the axles at full counter articulation, and opens the new single-piece tailgate, just to demonstrate the 20% improved stiffness of the new monocoque on which the Disco 5 is based. This integrated bodyshell comprised of nearly 85% aluminium, is the single most important departure from the Disco 4s ladder-frame solution to toughness, and a key factor (along with dozens of other innovations) in a weight-loss programme which has shed 480kg from the previous gen’s tally. Kerb weight is now down to 2174kg for the base model, although still at 2300kg for TdV6 versions. This chassis solution, borrowed from the latest Range Rover, is known in JLR parlance as the “full-sized SUV” architecture, so has been extensively field-tested. And what we are driving, though billed a prototype, is pretty much the vehicle that will have gone into production at Solihull in January this year.
So far, we haven’t bashed the bash plates, not one of the plastic wheel-arch panels has ripped out of place, and the vehicle has not faltered before obstacles that would no doubt have had a less clever vehicle scrabbling for traction and bucking about as it hefted from rock ledge to muddy drift. No doubt the course has been optimised for Land Rover abilities, but there’s also no doubt about the new Disco 5’s ability off-road skills. It might not feel so happy about doing this day in and day out, and most owners would be understandably nervous about scratching the bodywork, but one can have no quibble with an approach angle of 34 degrees, a departure angle of 30, a breakover angle of 27.5 degrees, and 500mm of wheel articulation. That is surely off-road DNA in spades. The Terrain Response 2 system has been further optimised, and a new setting called All- Terrain Progress Control added: basically a speed control setting variable from a dead crawl to some 30kph, which prevents drivers from making unplanned throttle stabs when rocking and rolling.
One can now choose a model with no low range, which uses a full-time 4WD system with a front/rear axle bias of 42/58 that can divvy axle torque 22-78% to the rear and 62-38% to the front. Most will likely opt for the more traditional transfer box: a centre differential which locks the axle split 50/50 and can provide maximum drive (0-100%) to alternate wheels on either axle.
Unchanged drivetrain, new suspension
All models use an uber-smooth eight-speed ZF-sourced conventional auto box, as before, and little has changed mechanically: air suspension for the top models, coils for the entry model, double wishbone front suspension and integral link rear, both now on sub-frames. Much attention to the steel sub-frames and ancillary links to the chassis has further improved NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels, giving the driver even greater isolation from outside conditions. Steering feel and feedback is negligible, and weighting of this electrically-assisted system is automatically moderated according to the terrain being traversed. The bottom line is that you hardly notice the steering, and there is none of that harsh kickback one expects on a more basic vehicle.
Engines to the SA market remain unchanged: a choice between the ever-popular 190kW/443Nm TdV6 3.0-litre diesel, and the rather thirstier 250kW/332Nm Si6 sequential turbo petrol. When the quality of our fuel improves, we may well get the smaller-displacement and highly efficient four-cylinder crop of Ingenium engines, which come in two diesel flavours: 132kW/317Nm Td4, and 177kW/368Nm Sd4.
The outer skin
There is an elephant in the room, or perhaps that is just the Luddite in me taking issue with Land-Rover-designer Gerry McGovern’s messing with the much loved boxiness of the previous model. Those slab sides and cliff-like front end were distinctive, having evolved in an evolutionary way from the first three-door Discovery 1 launched way back in 1989 – with the first five-door going public in 1990. But that’s all gone, replaced by a shell far closer in appearance to a heavily puffed out Discovery Sport, and taking modern cues from both the Range Rover and Range Sport. The forward slash of the C-pillar and wrap-around rear-end are frankly rather Fortuner-like, and the rear-end looks just a tad too high and narrow. The old roofline kick-up which allows for stadium seating is now only just perceptible, though headroom has, in fact, increased to 950mm at the rear, which is partly due to better packaging of the rear suspension. Distinctive daylight running lamps, and innovative headlamp tech which glows to amber when indicating, have lots of appeal, and the rear tail-lamp horizontal LEDs are part of the package that makes it look extremely elegant from some angles. The fact is that progress and fuel efficiency demand a lower drag coefficient, better pedestrian-safety scores and a whole lot of innovation in the infotainment and connectivity index in order to lure both replacement buyers and Conquest purchasers who might not before have put a Discovery on their wish list.
Land Rover Discovery 5 Gallery
The interior is superb: simple lines, better button-classification, premium finishes, and some 45 litres of interior stowing space, including a hidden panel behind the climate control. It can be specified with up to six 12V charging points and nine USB ports able to link up to eight devices to the 3G Wi-Fi hotspot. What the exterior design does disguise is that it is 141mm longer than the old car (now 4970mm long), and the wheelbase is 38mm longer, which means that up to seven full-size adults can be more comfortably accommodated. Even the third row, which folds flat into the boot space, is accessible for normal people – we tested this out briefly. Up to 21 seating configurations are available, and each seat is on a servo, controlled from buttons in the boot area, via the driver’s touchscreen or even remotely, using a smartphone app. Sensors prevent children and pets from being crushed inadvertently. A powered tailgate can take a 300kg load, enough for two heavily-built fellows to change their boots or quaff a rum-and-coke while perched on top.
Of course there are rafts of new developments in the electronic interface. It works well, and apart from one glitch when we needed to reboot the system to give us access to the wading sensor menu (and the myriad other apps now on offer), it all works better than any JLR product that has come before. The list of both standard and optional safety systems befits a vehicle in this price class, including Adaptive Cruise Control, a surround camera system (brilliant series of off-road modes to see exactly where each wheel is being placed), an intelligent speed limiter (we drove only off the road, so no comment here), ultrasonic sensors used as part of the Park Assist suite which offers automatic parallel and perpendicularparking and parking exit functions, and a new Autonomous Emergency Braking system. Towing is still rated at 3500 kg braked, and here there is no disappointment – it has an auto deploying hitch, a rear-height adjust function to match the trailer, and Advanced Tow Assist − a hitch assist which does all the reversing automatically.
New formula, new price
It’s all-in-all a great vehicle, and an inevitable advance in line with modernising trends, which clears a space for Land Rover to build a properly boxy replacement for the Defender. The ladder frame is history, but new materials and advances in chassis engineering mean that the Discovery has not abandoned its off-roading brief.
Over 27 years, the Discovery has found more than 1.2 million buyers, and the fifth iteration, with its techy take on a multitalented lifestyle vehicle, promises to expand that network of followers. There’s a cost for all the complication, though, and current Rand weakness means that when it is launched in South Africa in the first quarter of this year, you can expect to pay from R980 000 for the Td6 S base model (coil springs, cloth seats), up to R1.44m for the fully-specced First Edition launch variant, and a bit more for the Ti6 petrol versions. A quick glance at the configurator on Land Rover’s website, offering colour, trim and desirable functional choices, should get options rapidly ticked for all those specifying in the fertile middle ground.