Once, Land Rover was a company which on the one hand made farm trucks and on the other made luxury cars. There was nothing in the middle.
But in 1989, that changed.
The Discovery was Land Rover’s family car – and its success since then has underpinned a stellar transformation in the company’s fortunes. Where Solihull once fed off scraps in the car market, now it dines at the top table.
Discovering the Discovery: Land Rover’s family 4×4 has come a long way in 28 years. We take a look back through the generations, starting at the 1989 Series I
The confidence that comes from such success is clear for all to see in the fifth-gen Discovery, of which 4,000 UK orders have already been placed.
The new vehicle’s bloodline was clear to see when reviewers climbed behind the wheel this week at the official launch in Utah but does it still have the essence of the Discos that came ahead of it?
Ahead of Ray Massey’s review of the new Discovery, which will be published this weekend, we take a trip down memory lane to look at the best of the 4x4s.
The first Discovery
There are Land Rover enthusiasts – and independent specialists who work on them for a living – who’ll tell you that the first Discovery was also the best.
Its underbody rusted like crazy, but it was beautifully simple and its live axles made it a proper go-anywhere truck. Best of all, you could fix the turbo-diesel engine with a stick and a lump of rock.
Back then, family car buyers were just getting used to the idea of 4x4s. With its magnificent seating position (for driver and passengers alike), the Disco 1 set a standard which has rarely been equalled since.
It’s still lovely to drive today. In a wafty, floaty, pitchy way, an unrefined way and indeed an underpowered way, but despite being old-fashioned its appeal is timeless. No family-orientated 4×4 will ever be like this again.
The Discovery was initially only available as a three-door version; the five-door body style became available in 1990
Both the three- and five-door versions were fitted with five seats and had the option to have two jump seats fitted in the boot
The Discovery 2
Those Landy fans and specialists who love the Tdi-era Disco will tell you that its replacement, the Discovery 2, was hamstrung by its reliance on electronics.
People say this less about later models, though clearly it’s even more the case with them – perhaps it’s a more apparent issue with the Disco 2 as it’s otherwise still very much an old-school off-road truck.
But the complexities are apparent. The live axles were retained, but in an attempt to control them Land Rover fitted active anti-roll bars which were meant to keep its body flat in fast corners.
When the Series II arrived in 1998, Land Rover said it had been updated with 720 differences to the original 4×4
Fans of the Series I car were not all too happy when the replacement model arrived with bigger rear overhangs, with the impression that it wouldn’t be as capable off-road
Electrical woes plagued the second generation Land Rover Discovery
Some models had air suspension on the back, too, and if you mention either of these things to a Landy fan now he’ll be likely to mutter darkly into his ale.
The TD5 engine beneath the bonnet may have been more complex but it was significantly better, and a lot more refined. The one we drove was actually a V8, however, with a nice lazy auto box and Land Rover’s full G4 Challenge livery for added effect.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Discovery 2 isn’t as pure an off-road machine as the original Disco, but it has the same towering driving position and we certainly couldn’t find much wrong with the way it warbled its way around both off and on-road.
When the third iteration of the Discovery arrived in 2004, it featured a modernised look but still retained key features of the Discovery, such as the stepped roofline and steeply raked windscreen
The Discovery 3 was revolutionary, featuring a new ‘Integrated Body Frame’ design comprising of the engine bay and passenger compartment built as a monocoque and a basic ladder-frame chassis for the gearbox and suspension
Discovery 3 was also the first model to feature fully independent suspension
Going modern in the Discovery 3
It was all change when the Discovery 3 came along, however.
DISCOVERY: THIS IS YOUR LIFE
1989-1998: Discovery Series 1
1998-2004: Discovery Series 2
2004-2009: Discovery Series 3
2009-2016: Discovery Series 4
2017: Discovery Series 5 arrives
Now, the electronic driving aids really were to the fore – the only way to make the leap to independent suspension while retaining the off-road ability for which the Discovery had become renowned.
All four corners rode on air springs, the drivetrain was far more modern than the Discovery 2’s and the interior was from another dimension.
The engine, meanwhile, was the 2.7 TDV6 also found in classy Jaguars. Compare that to what the TD5 was also found in (clue: it’s the Defender).
The result is a much more modern vehicle to drive, smooth and classy on the motorway but enormously able in the rough.
The luxury Discovery 4
The Disco 3 was so good that though the Disco 4 looks like more of an SUV and less of a wagon, they’re notable less for their differences than their similarities.
With the 2.7 growing to 3.0 litres, the Discovery 4 is even smoother and quieter than the Disco 3.
You could argue that it already drives the way the all-new model looks like it ought to drive, so slick is its demeanour on the road.
The Discovery 4 was the car that truly took Land Rover’s family off-roader upmarket, pushing firmly into the territory that in previous years would only have been occupied by Range Rovers.
Discovery 4 was an evolution of the model before it, with a focus on addressing reliability issues that had hampered Disco 3
The fourth Discovery took a more premium direction, with major interior upgrades and a more luxurious and contemporary cabin
Globally, Land Rover has shifted more than 350,000 Discovery 4 models
The fifth generation Discovery arrives
But here the fifth generation Disco is, and that’s where this story ends.
Suddenly, we have a Discovery that looks like a Range Rover, and many of the aforementioned Land Rover enthusiasts are less than happy.
Not that they were too happy when the Disco 1 grew a bigger rear overhang and became the Discovery 2, or the Disco 2’s live axles morphed into the wishbones of the third iteration. They didn’t even like it when the Disco 3’s grille went all Range Rover meshy for the Discovery 4.
But each rendition of this vehicle has been winning people over. So the 2017 Discovery has a simple brief. All it needs to do is keep on doing what its forebears have been doing all along, and Land Rover’s place at the top table will be assured.
Land Rover showcased the fifth generation Discovery in Paris last year, previewing the car on a replica of Tower Bridge made from Lego.
We’ve already had a go in the latest car during an off-road test drive ahead of the car arriving in showrooms this spring