While there’s no question that the newfound road-friendliness of the latest Defender has helped it become an instant sales success, the increased risk of it treading on the toes of the Discovery is real enough. After all, the latter was developed as a cushy middle-ground between stark utilitarianism and lofty Range Rover-based luxury. And while the Defender is still intended to be the 'best off-roader in the world', its price and comfort levels have elevated it to a similar market tier - especially in a world where the price difference between it and Discovery 5 seems insignificantly small when divided into PCP payments.
Land Rover is naturally aware of this, so with its 2021 update, the brand has sought to re-establish the model’s ranking with some telling improvements. Key to its refresh are suspension changes intended to enhance road comfort and handling, along with the more predictable upgrades to the seven-seat cabin that come as part of JLR’s latest interior architecture roll out. No less important is the offering of both diesel and petrol power with belt-integrated mild-hybrid technology, ensuring no less than 300hp and combined fuel economy in the thirties, not twenties - at least in the diesels. But they still account for the lion’s share of Disco sales. More on that in a mo.
First, the styling. Outside the car is much the same, boxy 4x4 shape with an offset rear plate. Look closer and you’ll notice a front grille with a hexagonal pattern, a sharper LED headlight design with DRLs and matrix technology, along with different wheel designs for the 19- to 22-inch rims. But it’s all very familiar. Inside, the latest digital architecture prevails, with Pivi Pro in the 11.4-inch curved touchscreen, rotary climate controls and a digital instrument cluster. No complaints there.
The Disco’s kit list grows with the new architecture, adding wireless charging, wireless Apple Carplay and Wi-Fi-connectivity for up to eight devices at any one time, as well as USB charging for all passengers and an upgraded steering wheel for the driver. Combined, these features add to the Discovery’s family-friendly vibe, hammered home by the retention of a third row of proper seats. The cabin feels as sturdy as ever, with some harder touch plastics on lower sections where Range Rovers would sport leather. But wipe-easy surfaces feel appropriate in a model that is still billed as “the most versatile SUV” in Land Rover’s range, as do wide cup holders and nicely supportive seats. It feels more honest as an SUV than an X5 or Q7.
Appropriately, our test drives in the launch cars for 2021 – using the six-pot petrol and diesel MHEV powerplants – involved both on- and off-road stints. And that’s off-road in the Land Rover sense, which is intended to mean peerless and way beyond what most buyers will subject their cars to. With the same height-raising air suspension and Terrain Response 2 tech equipped in all variants, along with Land Rover’s active rear locking rear diffs and no shortage of all-round, 3D camera visibility, the Discovery remains the benchmark of its class away from tarmac (and through water, with a 900mm wading depth) no matter what engine is under its bonnet. Key to its advantage is the drivetrain’s low range gearing, while the extensive choice of off-road modes is now bolstered by a custom setting, where you can individualise the setup. Rest assured, it remains imperious in any sandy/muddy/snowy/rutted scenario.
But so is the Defender. The difference is highlighted when back onto tarmac, where an advantage in refinement becomes clear. The Discovery rides very sweetly on its air suspension, with good absorption of bumpy surfaces and none of the underlying firmness that we’d normally associate with such a rugged chassis. The steering rack ratio is slow, making the Disco easier to control off-road, but the front end is surprisingly keen despite that, thanks to the air suspension’s ability to firm up under load. You sit high and upright, and are instilled with no shortage of confidence.
As ever, there is perhaps a shortage of real speed; the petrol six-cylinder, with 360hp and 369lb ft of torque on offer, aided and abetted by a sprinkling of 48v electric thrust, never feels anything more than brisk. The eight-speed gearbox is quick, and no doubt enhanced by the mild hybrid hardware, but with 2.4-tonnes to haul, the Discovery is better at building speed than surging ahead. That is, of course, all it needs to do, and thanks to the in-built noise cancellation system, road, wind and even engine noise are kept to a minimum. You can make out the six-pot’s smooth function from on the other side of the bulkhead when it’s working hard, but if you want to achieve the “up to 26.9mpg” combined achieved in a WLTP setting, those moments are best kept to a minimum.
Not surprisingly, Land Rover still sells more diesel versions than petrol ones - not least because 25 per cent of overall sales are attributed to the commercial variant. The 3.0-litre diesel unit gets the same mild hybrid tech, offering 300hp, 479lb ft of torque and “up to 33.9mpg” combined. It’s more adept at towing (up to 3.5 tonnes of braked trailer) while being pleasantly similar in character to the petrol. It, too, is punchy from the off, probably more so with the additional torque on offer. Again, it’s best described as brisk, but to a more effortless degree than the petrol. It’s quiet, as well. Expect it to remain the bigger seller.
Obviously, there will be other engines available in time, including a non-hybridised P300 petrol four-pot and D250 MHEV, custom-made for Discovery Commercial duties, one would think. But when it comes to buying a family-friendly SUV, those six-pot variants keep the Discovery nicely in its place among the most rounded offerings. That the model has gently enhanced the on-road driving experience while not losing its edge off road, highlights just how versatile the Discovery really is - and that's before you factor in the advantages of its boot space and enviable badge kudos. The niche it has carved for itself in the market was never really in question, although a light dusting of improvements has certainly done it no harm. Whether or not that convinces buyers to ignore the gravitational pull of a new Defender remains to be seen.
SPECIFICATION | LAND ROVER DISCOVERY P360 MHEV
Engine: 2,996cc, inline-six, turbocharged, petrol, plus belt-integrated starter generator
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 360@N/Arpm
Torque (lb ft): 369@N/Arpm
0-62mph: 6.5 seconds
Top speed: 130mph
Kerbweight: 2,342kg (DIN)
MPG: 26.7 (WLTP, combined)
CO2: 238g/km (WLTP)
SPECIFICATION | LAND ROVER DISCOVERY D300 MHEV
Engine: 2,993cc, inline-six, turbocharged, diesel, plus belt-integrated starter generator
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@N/Arpm
Torque (lb ft): 479@N/Arpm
0-62mph: 6.8 seconds
Top speed: 130mph
Kerbweight: 2,362kg (DIN)
MPG: 33.9 (WLTP, combined)
CO2: 218g/km (WLTP)
Price: from £56,440
1 / 19