It's Discovery's 25th year in North America, and over the past quarter-century, the model line has changed drastically. The Discovery 5 has moved even further upmarket, while radically changing the Disco's iconic styling. As someone who daily drives a 1994 Discovery 1, I wondered just how different the new truck was. What better way to do that than to go to a Land Rover rally?
I've been deep in a rolling restoration of my D1 for a while now, and it wasn't too up to the 1,100-mile round-trip to the Ottawa Valley Land Rovers Birthday Party weekend in Ontario. So it was off to the Alamo Rent-a-Car lot at Newark Airport to pick something up last-minute to take up. I saw a white Discovery 5 sitting on the lot, enquired about the price, and figured I could justify it. A half-hour later I had it parked next to my D1 in my driveway.
The first thing I noticed looking at them side-by-side is how much bigger the D5 is. With the noses of the two trucks lined up, the rear bumper of the D1 about lined up with the back of the rear wheel well of the D5. It's also significantly wider. Of course, the same applies to any modern version of a vehicle made in the 1990s, and the D5 has a lot more safety gear stuffed in the chunkier doors. That said, it's also that bit wider that I could see it being an impediment on East Coast off-road trails, where there are more tight trails lined with trees. It's over 3.5" wider than an LR4, and 8" wider than a D1.
I fiddled with the entertainment setup before heading downtown for some late-night grocery shopping. There are some nice touches here that reflect that this is a car of British heritage (and in this case, manufacture; this Disco was built in January 2019, and is one of the last to come off the line at Solihull before production moved to Nitra, Slovakia.) The entertainment system seems to ship in British English and to connect your phone via Bluetooth, there's a picture of a red British phone box in the middle of some remote landscape someplace like the Outer Hebrides of Scotland or the Yorkshire Dales.
I've never used Android Auto before since when my car was built, a cell phone was the size of a small brick, so I was excited to try it for the first time. Land Rover finally included Android Auto and Apple CarPlay on all models in 2019, after years of people begging for it. After installing the app on my phone, it was pretty easy to set up, and I was mirroring Waze and Spotify on the dash display in no time, as well as making hands-free calls and sending text messages and Facebook messages via speech-to-text. The built-in navigation was pretty nice too, but having Waze built-in with its live alerts trumps that any day. I liked the backup camera too – without the massive greenhouse of the D1, it helped a lot. (Yeah, I know, they’ve been a thing on cars for a decade…)
The model I rented was a basic rental spec, so it rode on coil springs with a single-speed transfer case, instead of the optional air springs and twin-speed case, and only had five seats. The interior trim was more basic, with Piano Black trim instead of wood, the basic leather instead of upmarket Windsor leather, no heated or cooled seats, and the standard stereo. Even so, it felt upmarket and considering this specification retails at around $54,000, it's not a bad deal for a premium-brand large SUV. You can get a Disco 5 up into the $70,000 range very quickly with options, and if I was going to use one as an off-road truck, the twin-speed transfer case and rear locker would be an absolute must. But the simple truth is that the vast majority of Land Rovers never leave pavement, and the cost-cutting measures match the real needs of the market while also slightly improving fuel economy.
Nonetheless, it was a fine highway driver. The trip to Ontario is about 7 hours, not including any potential delays at the border. The D5 rode gloriously. The coil springs were still supple, and though the ride was not as soft as a brand-new Range Rover, it was still extremely comfortable and could serve as a fine grand tourer. It was a bit swingy in high-speed cornering, but it's a tall SUV, and it's still heavy even after losing quite a bit of weight by going to an aluminum unibody.
The 3.0-liter supercharged V6 engine, the same as in base model Range Rovers and the last LR4s, has some incredible get-up-and-go considering the weight it carries around. Highway acceleration is a breeze, and the Disco has no problem holding speed. In fact, due to its controversial aerodynamic shape, it also holds speed remarkably when you take your foot off the accelerator. With the D1, or even an LR3 or LR4, I'm used to taking my foot off the pedal a tenth of a mile or so outside of a town and letting wind resistance slow me down. Here, I found myself barrelling into a small Canadian village on more than one occasion, slamming on the brakes to avoid an international incident. The truck has no drag and keeps going.
The other benefit to this is fuel economy. Even with the gas engine, I was pulling over 22 miles per gallon. That's with a lead foot, too -- I have a soft spot for revving noises. I got almost from Ontario to my house in one tank, about 400 miles, with lots of local driving on the Canadian side over the weekend. On the highway, it coasts effortlessly, and on a slight downhill, I could let off the accelerator and maintain speed while improving fuel economy. What a difference from driving a glorified brick!
Storage has always been the Disco's strong point, with some trademark unexpectedly useful compartments in every model. The D1 and D2 had pockets over the visors to shove maps in and nets in the headliner, the LR3 and LR4 have an array of very useful cupholders and hidden bins, and the D5 doesn't disappoint. Under the center stack, there's a massive bin that's perfect for shoving your phone in, especially if it's connected to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay and you don't need to access it. There's twin center cubby containers, massive cupholders, and decent door pockets.
The rear cargo area is massive, though unlike the LR4 it replaced, it's not nearly as squared-off and loses some utility. (One of my friends who went from an LR4 to a D5 laments that she can't fit nearly as many bales of hay in the back of her new truck.) I picked up a Rover V8 engine for a future project from a fellow OVLR member in Ottawa, and also carried a large lot of Series III parts for someone from the event to another place in Ontario. The truck ate the cargo up, with room to spare. The rear floor on the five-seater model is a piece of heavy fiberboard, which comes out to reveal a huge cargo storage area. I was a bit wary putting an engine on top of this, especially in a rental car, so I bridged it with a big piece of wood and strapped the engine down to the factory cargo tie-down points. It was probably overkill, but I didn't feel like buying Alamo a new cargo floor, either.
As for the elephant in the room: did I off-road my rental Land Rover? Alas, no. I'm not opposed to the idea of violating a rental agreement now and then, but I refrained this time for a few reasons. First, I had the disassembled engine in the back of the Disco the entire event, and I didn’t want to damage that as much as I didn’t want to damage the vehicle. Second, the Birthday Party trail network is extremely narrow and wet, and even a Series I can have an issue with it sometimes; with the rental-spec single-speed box and an extremely wide profile, I wasn't comfortable getting to know it there. There are some other events where I might have taken the risk, but not this situation. Honestly, though, I think it’d be fine.
So, the biggest flashpoint about the Discovery 5...the design. This is where my feelings on the vehicle get extremely mixed. I love the design of the Disco 1 and 2, in all its clumsy, funky awkwardness. It's an immensely useful vehicle, incredibly versatile even though it's shorter than a new Toyota Corolla. The LR3 and LR4 are postmodern masterpieces, and even though they were derided by enthusiasts when they came out, the design has more than stood the test of time.
The D5 was intentionally a massive break from that tradition, and its lines went very soft. It's still immensely capable -- probably more so than an LR4 when fully equipped with low range -- and it's still immensely useful. Two of the Discovery hallmarks checked off, then. But...that design...that rear end...I couldn't get my head wrapped around it. The front is fine, even if it's mostly indistinguishable from a Range Rover. However, the rear...that takes some getting used to. I'll admit, over the course of my weekend with it, I did warm up to it. The rear license plate looks awkward, but I appreciate that it's a tribute to the original Discovery, and it does make the truck look different in the sea of sameness on the roads. On the whole, it's missing a little bit of character. Maybe it'll build that up over time, as the LR3 certainly did after coming out to immense criticism. Maybe the D5 needs to knock down a barrier or two (beyond its many roles in helping humanity with the Red Cross and Red Crescent and helping end malaria), has to become a bit more pervasive in the Land Rover culture.
So, what did I think of 25 years of progress? Styling aside, the Discovery has kept to its core mantra: the jack-of-all-trades Land Rover, comfortable in both town and country. Where its gained is the town side of things; better highway performance, better fuel economy, more comfort, more toys and tricks. I even liked this basic spec model, and it's a great value daily driver like this if you don't need all the toys, or the off-road gear (as many don't). The fuel economy wasn’t shabby either and makes such a large vehicle a bit more justifiable.
Would I buy one? If my driving habits could justify it, absolutely -- though I wouldn't get rid of my D1 for it. (I’d also wait to see what the new Defender 110 offered in this size bracket.) Modernity is nice, but the first time I drove my D1 into town after handing the D5 back, I had a massive smile on my face the entire time. It's been a quarter-century since the Discovery came to American shores, but I wouldn't say that it’s better now; it's just as good, in its own way.
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