The Land Rover Discovery began life late in 1986 as “Project Jay,” a parts-bin exercise designed to give the brand a competitor to the popular Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Pajero. Cobbled together using as many parts from the original Range Rover as possible to save on development costs, it was positioned as a “leisure vehicle.” The Discovery was first shown at the 1989 Frankfurt Motor Show as a three-door model, and proved to be a hit with the introduction of a 5-door model in late 1990.
The Discovery was introduced in North America in Mid-1994 as a 1995 model. Sales were slow due to Land Rover’s dismal reliability and a starting price nearly $10,000 more than Jeep’s newly introduced Grand Cherokee ($29,995 vs $20,185). The Discovery Series 2 was introduced in 1998, but sales continued to lag as reliability failed to improve. The first two series of Discovery models had garnered such a poor reputation in North America that the name was changed to LR3 when it was redesigned in 2004.
The LR3 was a quantum leap forward in design, a truly modern interpretation of the original Discovery concept, Alpine roof and all. The chassis design, called an Integrated Body Frame, used a monocoque body construction for the body and engine compartment mated to a traditional steel ladder frame for toughness and adaptability. The underpinnings of the LR3 were also used as the basis for the Range Rover Sport, introduced in 2005.
Fast-forward to 2009, and the introduction of the LR4. Based on the same Integrated Body Frame construction as the LR3, the LR4 aimed to move upmarket with upgraded interior materials, better seats, and more upscale exterior details like body-colored trim and LED lighting. As other SUV’s have moved to a lighter and more modern unibody construction, the LR4 remains the lone entry still clinging to a ladder frame.
For 2014, with just three model years left to live, the LR4 received a host of changes, the most noteworthy of which was the switch from a 5.0-liter V8 motor to the supercharged 3.0-liter V6 found in the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and most Jaguar models. With 340 horsepower, it’s an absolute honey of an engine, propelling the 5,600lb LR4 to 60mph in 6.7 seconds. The ubiquitous-for-a-reason 8-speed ZF automatic transmission shifts seamlessly and quickly. Manual shifting is available in sport mode with steering-wheel mounted paddles if you want to play “Are You Smarter Than An Automatic Transmission?”
Riding on the latest version of the adjustable-height air suspension pioneered by Land Rover in the early 90’s, the LR4’s ride is eerily serene. Around town, the variable-assist power steering makes maneuvering the big truck a breeze. On the highway, the isolation of the body from the frame reminds us why Land Rover stuck to body on frame construction as long as they did.
The tradeoff, of course, is in the handling. The body pitches up and down a bit over undulating secondary roads, and offramps and emergency maneuvers can get a little hairy if you drive it like a sports sedan. But therein lies a huge part of the LR4’s charm: it’s an honest-to-goodness truck, not a car-based crossover. Why does everything have to drive like a sedan? Where’s the fun in that?
The interior is cavernous, and seats 7 adults comfortably. The third row seats, beneath the LR4’s signature elevated Alpine roof, will accommodate an average-sized adult for an hour or two with no problem. Each row has its own glass roof panel (only the front one is operable), and the rear seats have their own climate control. The beltline is low, which makes for excellent visibility all around. The available Surround Camera System in the bumpers and side mirrors reveals curbs and rock outcroppings to keep your LR4 off the sidewalk and out of the body shop.
In classic Land Rover fashion, you sit upright, looking down on the unwashed masses below. The seats are supportive and proved comfortable for the long haul on a recent road trip from Toronto, Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia and back. The dash and console are composed of a tasteful mix of soft-touch plastics, satin aluminum, and piano black trim.
There is one glaring design flaw in the LR4’s interior: the infotainment system. The slow response time of the touchscreen makes even simple tasks like changing the radio station dangerously distracting. Graphically, the system looks like it was cribbed from cashier terminal at Staples, circa 2002. It’s been replaced in newer Land Rover and Jaguar models by the vastly improved inControl Touch Pro system, but an infotainment system this poorly executed is totally unacceptable in a luxury SUV costing over $70,000.
Electronic quibbles aside, the LR4 is a truly endearing vehicle. There will be no 2017 LR4, as the company prepares to launch the monocoque-construction Discovery 5 for 2018. The new Discovery (note the name change) will adopt the design language first introduced on the Range Rover Evoque, and will essentially be the production version of the Discovery Vision Concept introduced at the 2014 New York International Auto Show. It will be several hundred pounds lighter than the outgoing LR4, and compete with other 3-row crossovers like the Ford Explorer and the upcoming Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
While new Discovery will undoubtedly be more efficient, better-handling, and more competitive than the LR4, I can’t help but feel that we are losing an icon to progress. From its humble beginnings as a hail-mary from the parts bin, to this distinctive and luxurious swansong, the big, boxy Discovery is a true original, and will be sorely missed.