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We spend two days in the desert with Land Rover's new man-van.

Cows. They're heavy. They're vital. Some are considered sacred. Mess with them, and those who hold them in high regard will be quite displeased.

The Land Rover Discovery is such a beast. It's no Defender, we'll allow, but it's a nameplate with cachet. It's the kind of thing you don't want to get wrong. Also, it's big and heavy. Like a cow. OK, maybe we've gone a bit too far with that analogy.

To demonstrate their commitment to this bovine behemoth of the automotive landscape, Land Rover pulled out all the stops, inviting members of the media to California (err, Utah? Oh, and Arizona. Long story.) to evaluate the 2017 Discovery in a litany of environments, both on-road and off. How did it comport itself? Grab a coffee and get comfortable. We're going on a road trip.

She may not look like much...
We'll be honest. We're not entirely sold on the Discovery's new looks. It comes off a bit like a collision of form and function that the NTSB hasn't quite yet sorted out. From some angles, it makes perfect sense. From others (read: any from which you can see the rear third of the truck), well, it's a bit of a disaster.

We're willing to forgive several of the styling decisions that were made in the name of function. Take the up-stepped rear roof, for example, which is designed to accommodate real human beings seated in the third row. The Discovery features "stadium" style rear seating, meaning that row sits some two inches higher than the middle row; the corresponding roof bulge makes that feasible.

As thoroughly sensible as that particular engineering solution may be, it's not the most pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, it happens to be a prime contributor to one of the Discovery's most unflattering attributes: butt-in-the-air... uh... -ism. It's a design term. Very technical.

Seriously, though. If you view the Discovery from a rear three-quarter angle (especially a low one--where you're looking "up" at it to any degree), it looks like a wild animal, ahem, well, presenting. And from there, the bulge in the roof looks like it's there to allow for on-highway helicopter landings--a plus for Land Rover's U.N. and Red Cross fleet fulfillment, we suppose, but maybe not the most attractive element of the truck's design.

Again, this serves a practical purpose. The up-swooped rear body helps give the Discovery its 28-degree departure angle. Smaller SUVs accomplish aggressive departure angles with shorter wheelbases and wheels-at-the-corners engineering, but that's just not practical in a seven-seater.

The concept of wheels being at the corners, however, brings us to one of the new Discovery's aesthetic strong points. Thanks to air vents built into the front bumper and wheel wells, air is channeled in such a way to allow for improved aerodynamics while retaining a squared-off, wide-fender look up front. It's a subtle cue, but something Land Rover's design and engineering teams are quite proud of.

It may seem like we're bagging on the new Discovery, but honestly, as practical transportation for seven goes, you could really do much worse from a stylistic standpoint. For the money, you could strap a few kids to the dealer-installed luggage rack on a brand-new F-Type if you're really that concerned. Might not do much for the lines, though.

...but she's got it where it counts, kid.
Globally, the Discovery will be available with a handful of engines--two diesel and two gasoline. Each fuel type gets a four- and six-cylinder variant; here in the States, we'll only get the sixes. Both were on hand for us to sample, and each has its strengths and weaknesses.

Let's start, as we did, with the gasser. It's a supercharged, three-liter V6 which produces 340 horsepower and 332lb-ft of torque. For those keeping track at home, yes, that's the same supercharged vee that was found in the old LR4; for bonus points, it's also the same unit that motivates Jaguar's F-Pace 35t.

It's an excellent engine, especially in the F-Pace (and Jaguar's other models), but it has a lot more work to do here than it does in that smaller crossover, and this despite the fact that the new Discovery is a full nine hundred pounds lighter than the LR4, trim-for trim.

Yes, thanks to aluminum body construction and other strategic use of lightweight, higher-strength materials, the new Discovery with the supercharged gasoline engine starts at just 4,751 pounds, down from the LR4's 5,655. To use another industry term, that's a yuuuuuge improvement.

Still, the Discovery is no featherweight, and where this V6 feels energetic and punchy in smaller, lighter cars, it's not in its element here. It provides more than adequate acceleration, for sure, but it doesn't really feel quick. That it's somewhat outmatched comes through in the fuel economy numbers too--16 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway.

We'll come right out and say it: There's no replacement for displacement. The six may be adequate, but we wish it were a V8--something the Discovery hasn't offered since 2013 (may it rest in peace).

Then there's the diesel. Another three-liter unit (turbocharged this time), this engine is good for 254 horsepower and 443lb-ft of torque. Those numbers put it squarely in the running with the offerings from other European manufacturers--well, just BMW, really.

At the risk of sounding like clichéd automotive journalists, this is the engine we'd pick. Yes, it makes for a heavier (by 160 pounds) and more expensive (by $2,000, give or take) truck, but it's more true to the Discovery's character than the gasoline offering. It's more efficient too, returning 26 mpg on the highway and 21 in the city. You won't get that from a V8 in this segment.

The Td6 develops peak power and torque way lower in the rev range than the supercharged six, and though the latter actually boasts a higher tow rating (8,201 pounds vs. just 7,716), the diesel conveys that "we can do this" confidence that is missing from the gasoline experience.

The rest of the powertrain is pretty standard fare for a more rugged SUV. The Discovery comes exclusively with permanent four-wheel-drive, a standard locking center differential and "Terrain Response" drive mode selection. A locking rear differential is optional (and our test vehicles were so equipped), as is a two-speed transfer case (also equipped; it's standard from the HSE trim on up). Both engines are also mated to eight-speed ZF transmissions; the gasoline engine gets the 8HP45 and the diesel is paired with the more robust 8HP70.

Keeping it shiny-side up
Between that slimmed-down, sleeker body and the road you'll find an SLA double-wishbone suspension in the front and an integral link independent setup in the rear. Depending on how you option the Discovery, you'll get either coil springs or an adjustable air setup; our evaluation cars featured the latter.

Coil-sprung cars boast a maximum ground clearance of 8.66 inches. The air suspension gets you not only the benefits of adjustability, but another 2 1/2 inches of maximum clearance. That topped-out ride height is only available at speeds up to 50 mph, however, at which point the Terrain Response system will automatically lower the car to improve aerodynamics and stability.

The additional ground clearance translates to improved approach, departure and breakover angles; the air suspension also grants an additional 4 1/2 inches of wheel articulation. If you're planning to use the Discovery the way the Queen intended, you'd best spring (sorry) for the air suspension upgrade.

A drive through the desert
Our two-day drive took us on a route bracketed by Lake Powell to the east and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve to the west. We crossed open river valleys, climbed and descended snow-capped mountain ranges, enjoyed borderline-short-sleeve temperatures and bundled up in the sub-freezing winds at nearly 8,000 feet--and that was just what we did on-road.

At first blush, the 2017 Land Rover Discovery is a luxury vehicle through-and-through. Slip into the cabin and you're greeted by luxurious appointments, a larger-than-life infotainment screen, more USB and 12V outlets than you can count (we did, actually; seven and 12, respectively) and an occupancy system that makes the Honda Fit's "magic seats" look like a birthday party clown's drunken routine.

Fire it up, however, and you're reminded of the Discovery's less refined provenance. The gas pedal feels (and travels) like a pickup's. The cabin, while isolated, allows the suspension to communicate quite clearly. One of the options in the infotainment center is a "4x4 information" screen that shows you the four-wheel-drive system's responses in real time. Bogged down? Goose the throttle and watch as the differentials lock to distribute torque as needed. Neat.

The center console, likewise, is simply littered with buttons and dials and status lights for the 4x4 system. Here you'll find the Terrain Response toggle, the low-range selector, height adjustment buttons and--somewhat incongruously--the auto stop/start switch. Hey, it's gotta go somewhere.

Put (or leave) the Terrain Response system in auto and get on the road and you'll soon forget that any of that stuff is even there. When you're focused on the drive, these truck-ish features escape your consciousness fairly quickly. We allowed that to happen as we drove east from St. George, Utah, to Zion National Park.

After the gorgeous canyons of Zion spat us back into the high desert, we found ourselves at the first off-road course. It was no more than a gussied-up fire road carved through soft (and very fine) desert sand. Our handlers encouraged us to raise the Discovery's ride height but otherwise leave the 4x4 system to its own devices, meaning no low-range for this particular adventure.

The Discovery did occasionally threaten to get bogged down in some of the deeper sand--an unfortunate side effect of the car's fully inflated all-season tires. We were never in any real danger of getting stuck, but a decent set of all-terrain tires alone would have boosted our confidence in the Discovery's sand track capabilities.

After another beautiful stretch of on-road driving, we ended the day with yet another off-pavement detour, this time combining the same sand track driving of the previous foray with some limited rock-crawling. Brief though it was, there were enough tricky spots to mandate the presence of Land Rover Experience guides and their beautiful, UK-market Defender. Up-close photographs were omitted to preserve Leftlane's PG-13 rating.

Here, our handlers stopped us with one front wheel about a foot and a half in the air to demonstrate the new Discovery's improved rigidity by opening and shutting the doors and tailgate. It was a neat (if awkward) showcase.

Racing the sun back west
We opened day two with yet more off-road shenanigans--just another taste of mild rock-climbing followed by some packed fire roads that allowed us to test the Discovery's stability at higher speeds. Even pushing 60 on washboard-rough dirt and gravel, it never became unmanageable. This dirt track whetted our appetites for some real four-wheeling, which we'd encounter just a short drive later.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is located in the gap between the Moquith and Moccasin Mountains in extreme southwestern Utah. Over the eons, water and wind conspired to deposit massive dunes of sandstone carved from these two ranges. The result is one of the most beautiful off-road playgrounds in the United States of America.

You can camp there, too, or something. Who cares?

From small ripples to massive hills of sand towering hundreds of feet above the ground, the park offers challenges for every level of capability. And while the dunes are a spectacle of nature just on face value, perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that, being sand dunes, they shift as much as 50 feet over the course of a year. Any two visits to the park could be completely different. Just imagine what it would be like if your local road course were capable of such fluidity.

Our handlers aired down our tires and gave us a briefing on putting the Discovery into low-range. We then proceeded in small lead-follow groups onto the sand itself--what we thought was just sand, anyway.

Not content with simply afflicting us with a crisp winter wind, Mother Nature saw fit to deposit crisp, crusty snow atop the shadier portions of the dunes. The result was a long, winding course comprising packed dirt, packed sand, loose sand, wet sand, frozen sand, ice, snow, and areas where some or all of those existed in such close proximity that it was impossible to discern precisely what surface we were facing.

Not that it seemed to matter.

Yes, the course presented challenges. There were places where the deeper, softer sand overwhelmed the Discovery's tires, aired-down though they were. We'd get stuck, then un-stuck, stuck again and then unstuck again until we finally got the approach just right. We'd encounter frozen sand on a sharp descent and simply point the steering straight ahead and pray that the rest of the truck followed. It did. Every time.

Our final obstacle was a steep run up the tallest dune we'd seen all day. The slope had been exposed to the mid-day sun long enough to be dried out and soft. There was no run-up. Our guide encouraged us; "I think this group can do it."

And we did. Our group consisted (coincidentally, actually) entirely of diesels, and each thundered up the side of the dune, heeding the calls to stay in the throttle until the very, very top. Only one bogged down on the slope and had to turn back. There was no time for another try. We had to get back on the road.

The boring, straight, paved road.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2017 Land Rover Discovery is still a rugged, capable truck where it counts, and a competent, comfortable luxury family hauler to boot. It lacks the polish of some other seven-seaters, but for those who value ruggedness over refinement, the Discovery still ticks all the boxes. We wouldn't call the Discovery's show-floor setup ideal for all venues. In this catered environment, yes, it was sufficient, but we wouldn't venture out on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes on our own with the OEM Goodyear tires, guide or no guide.

The average buyer won't notice, however. Your run-of-the-mill snowfall or fire road adventure won't flummox the new Discovery, and that's more than many will ask of it. Those who demand more can easily source the necessary upgrades to make that possible. Frankly, there won't be many.

2017 Land Rover Discovery HSE Luxury base price, $63,950
2017 Land Rover Discovery HSE Td6 Luxury base price, $65,950

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Land Rover.

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