O.K., we were WRONG!
When Land Rover introduced the Discovery replacement in New York earlier this year, we were less than enthusiastic (see our previous story). The LR3 (or Discovery 3 as it will be known outside the North America) didn’t catch our eye nor our imagination as the original Discovery did when it was introduced in 1989.
We’ll be the first to admit we were very biased. We’ve driven Discovery I and IIs all over the world and have always enjoyed their unique, distinctive and functional shape. Back in New York, Land Rover talked about integrated computerized drive systems that would simplify off pavement driving. We feared this was techno-speak for “all-wheel drive” and signaled a move away from Land Rover’s roots as a maker of vehicles at home in the Kalahari.
In the days following LR3’s unveiling, we made up our minds to replace our 1997 Discovery (with over 200,000 miles) with a 2004 Discovery (Series II) and thus get the last “true” Discovery. Steve Haywood, LR3 chief program engineer, convinced us to wait and reserve our judgment until we had driven LR3, and we grudgingly agreed.
Fast forward to Montreal where we were part of the first cadre of North American automotive journalists to drive LR3. The folks responsible for the vehicle, Geoff Upex, Land Rover’s design director, and Steve Haywood, stood by a cutaway LR3 and talked in detail about the vehicle. Our ears perked up when they mentioned “frame” and “low range”. When they said “locking center and rear differentials” they had our complete attention. These were precisely the features we feared gone from the Land Rover lexicon.
Once inside the vehicle it becomes clear that form truly does follow function. Far from being the product of “fashion trends”, the LR3’s shape is purely functional. LR3 preserves Land Rover’s “Command driving position” and thanks to the stepped roof, the 2nd and 3rd row passengers still enjoy “stadium seating”. The interior is roomy with all seats accommodating “95 percentile” of adults. The Alpine windows had to go to allow for 3rd row air bags, but the cabin remains light and airy thanks to the full width glass roof. The split and asymmetrical tailgate increases rear visibility and lowers load height.
Walking around the LR3 we began to understand its looks. Minimalist, we think, best describes the LR3’s exterior. Shape and form were reduced to exactly what they needed to be. This exercise in reducing the “superfluous” explains the lack of styling lines through the doors. Most vehicles have them, but they are not needed, so they are gone. Also LR3 only has one air intake because “it doesn’t need two” according to Upex.
After an early morning breakfast we walked around the hotel to a fleet of waiting LR3s. This was it, D-day (drive-day), time to see just what this latest Land Rover was made of.
Sitting behind the wheel felt both familiar and new. The inside is all new, yet is very Land Rover. Large instrumentation, a minimum of switches, and strong vertical lines give the LR3’s fascia a simple and efficient look. There are nonetheless plenty of storage compartments and, yes, drink holders. From the driver’s seat, LR3 feels at once roomy, there’s plenty of elbow room, and compact, all the controls are within easy reach. Behind the driver are 2 or 3 rows of seats, which when not needed fold flat into the floor crating an amazingly large and useful flat load-space. The passenger doors have grown wider making getting in and out of the vehicle much easier than in previous models.
Pulling away from the curb it was clear that there was something new under the hood. Acceleration, both from a stop, and to overtake interstate traffic is much improved. A Jaguar 4.4 Liter V-8 with 300 bhp and 315 lb-ft of torque smoothly and briskly pushes LR3 down the road. This engine represents an increase of nearly 100 horsepower over the previous model. The Jaguar engine has been modified to withstand the extreme environments that Land Rovers often find themselves in. For example, oil capacity was increased by nearly 2 liters to cope with the angles Land Rover’s are designed to operate in. All engine seals were also modified to guard against the ingress of dust, water, and mud during water fording and mud/sand crossings.
The engine is mated to an electronically controlled 6-speed transmission with “intelligent shift”. The tranny offers a “sport mode” that alters the timing of gear shifts and throttle response, as well as “Command Shift” which gives the driver the option of manual control over the gears. In low range, the tranny allows for moving off in a higher gear, which is particularly useful in slippery surfaces.
The combination of fully independent suspension with cross-linked air springs, with hydraulically operated, power assisted rack-and-pinion steering gives the LR3 precise car-like handling, not to mention a very comfortable ride for all 7 passengers. We were particularly impressed with the steering. It is solid, predictable and precise; one no longer feels that it is an effort for the vehicle to make a sharp turn.
To sum up: LR3’s on-road manners are among the very best in the SUV world. Granted it doesn’t handle like a Ferrari, but it is not a sports car, it is a dedicated four-wheel drive vehicle.
We were anxious to get off the pavement and see if LR3 could still cut the mustard. After all, being supremely capable off road is what has always set Land Rovers apart. And because nearly half of all Land Rover owners do take their vehicles off road, off road capability is something the marketing folks at Land Rover take seriously.
Four hours of off road driving convinced us. The LR3 is a Land Rover, moreover, it is perhaps the most capable Land Rover ever built, and yes this includes the iconic Defender. The trails we drove didn’t pull any punches. We encountered deep mud, mud mixed with rocks, and solid rock faces. Through it all the LR3 performed flawlessly.
The keystone of LR3’s off pavement prowess is Land Rover’s “Terrain Response” system. Land Rover engineers analyzed over 50 different off road terrains and determined the individual engine, transmission, suspension, traction and other vehicle system inputs needed to optimize the vehicle’s performance in each terrain. According to Steve Haywood “we concluded that these [system inputs] can be distilled into just a handful of programs – and those are the settings we offer on Terrain Response”. The driver chooses from among 5 terrains, such as sand, mud & ruts, rock crawling, and the terrain response “black box” configures a number of vehicle systems for optimum performance.
Terrain Response adjusts the air suspension for maximum ground clearance, adjusts the automatic gearbox to optimize gear change points, and alters the throttle map and accelerator pedal response. Traction control and brakeforce distribution are also adjusted to the terrain setting. Even Land Rover’s patented Hill Descent Control is adjusted and downhill speed rates vary depending on the terrain. Finally, the center and rear locking differentials use different locking rates depending on terrain.
When Terrain Response was introduced in “Range Stormer”, Land Rover’s first ever concept vehicle, we feared that it would limit the driver’s choices. What we found is that Terrain Response actually augments the type and number of vehicle systems that the driver can modify to suit his/her off road driving style.
Terrain Response gives experienced drivers the ability to experiment with a myriad of different vehicle system configurations and choose the best he or she thinks will handle a particular obstacle. Yet the novice off roader simply turns a dial and the vehicle is automatically configured for a particular obstacle.
Using Terrain Response is easy, intuitive and best of all, doesn’t require reading the owners manual! The driver simply matches the terrain he/she is about to tackle to one of 5 settings: pavement, grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand, rock-crawling and LR3 does the rest.
Many of the electronic “gadgets” in LR3 are not new. Previous Land Rovers have had traction control, hill descent control, dynamic stability control, adjustable air suspension, etc., what is new, however, is how well the systems work together. And it is this seamless integration that allows LR3 to effortlessly conquer impossible terrain all the while exuding a sense of stability and surefootedness.
After 2 days with LR3, we were convinced. Land Rover’s LR3 is not only a true Land Rover but it represents the next step in the evolution of the SUV.
*Photos by authors and Land Rover North America
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