Dripping with new-found sophistication, the fifth generation Land Rover Discovery may be more technologically advanced, but it's as happy amid the mud and rocks as any battered Series III.
In the metal
This is perhaps not the final word on the styling of the new Discovery, as our cars (late-model prototypes; full production doesn't kick off until February) still wore some small modesty panels of disguise tape and there are still some final tweaks to make to the materials and fit and finish of the cabin. That said, it's a car that works much better in the flesh, so to speak, than in photographs. Thus far, the fifth gen Disco had been looking a bit too Range-Rover-y, and a bit too much like an up-sized Discovery Sport for our liking. While it's (sadly) true that it does lack the bluff, upright character of its predecessor, when you get up close and personal with it, the new Discovery definitely finds more of its own character. It has a chin that Mr Incredible would be proud of, and it's nice to see that there is still a vestigal remanent of the old stepped 'Alpine Roof' from the 1987 original. It's handsome, albeit perhaps not ground breaking, but I think few will be disappointed with it.
Inside, it's actually very familiar as all of the fixtures and fittings are basically transplanted from the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport. There's no question that Land Rover is making huge efforts on the quality front, as it must do to convince those who've had poor reliability experiences with older models, but unfortunately, the overall effect is the same as that in the Range Rovers - a bit too plain and under-styled. Still, there are some very good points. The new ten-inch InControl Touch Pro infotainment system looks great, although it's a little fiddly to use compared to the best German or Swedish systems. What really pleases, though, is the Discovery's sheer practicality, which seems to have been engineered into the very fabric of the car.
Obviously, it's big and spacious, with three full-size seats across the middle row and even the third row seats can accommodate a tall adult in no small comfort. All those back seats fold electrically, controlled either by switches in the boot, the infotainment system or a smartphone app. Because the Disco can be had with an LTE wifi connection, that means you can fold the seats from half away around the world, should the mood take you. The boot is vast (although Land Rover's official figure of 1,137 litres in five-seat form is a little misleading as it's measured to the roof, not to the luggage cover) and while we will miss the old split tailgate, the good news is that the new one-piece composite lid is lighter and there's still a fold-out shelf at the back of the boot that acts as a handy seat for picnics, and can hold a weight of up to 300kg.
There are also multiple USB points, 12v power plugs, there's space for as many as four iPads to be stashed in the centre console (slide back the cup-holders to reveal the secret compartment, and there's another one behind the flip-down climate control panel) and, of course, the classic 'curry hook' bag holder, which now folds flush with the side of the centre console when not in use.
On a bigger scale, the Discovery remains one of the most practical cars around. It can tow a maximum weight of 3,500kg, there's an optional fold-out tow bar and if your Disco has air suspension then the rear of the car can be raised and lowered from a switch in the boot, to make hitching up easier, or to allow your dogs an easier jump up into the boot.
On the tech front, there have been many additions to the Discovery's armoury. The Terrain Response Control now has an automatic setting that scans the car's parameters every 100 milliseconds to decide on the correct setting, there's active cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, lane keeping and a trailer assist function that does the steering for you when backing up with a caravan or horsebox.
On a more fundamental mechanical basis, the Discovery is changed utterly. Out goes the old, heavy, steel T5 platform from Discovery 3 and 4 and in comes an 85 per cent aluminium platform (plus a little composite, steel and magnesium) which is closely related to that used by the Range Rover Sport. All that alloy means the Discovery has lost weight, a huge amount of weight - 480kg in fact. That allows Land Rover to put a four-cylinder turbodiesel engine into the Discovery for the first time in more than a decade, and most of next year's expected 500 Irish Discovery buyers are expected to go for either the 180hp model with 159g/km of CO2 or the 240hp twin-turbo version with CO2 of 164g/km. Even the big old TDV6 diesel has benefited from the weight loss, dropping to 189g/km and slashing its annual motor tax bill in half.
How that lower weight and greater sophistication will play out on tarmac, we don't know yet. For now, Land Rover has only allowed us to drive the Discovery in an environment that is meat and drink to it, but probably anathema to the majority of its owners - a soaking wet Scottish hillside, with rutted tracks churned up to the consistency of whipped chocolate pudding.
Presumably not many Discovery owners will ever venture this far off road, this high up a mountain, or this deep into a forest, but it is part of the brand and model's legend and customers like to know that the capability is there. Chatting to Jaguar Land Rover CEO, Ralf Speth, he told us of a night when he had to drive to Munich airport to collect his daughter from a flight in the midst of a dreadful snowstorm. "Even the snow ploughs, they were not working" he said, "but with a little effort I was able to get through and pick her up. So you see, even if mostly people don't need these sorts of capability, the one time they do need it, they really need it." Point made. Point taken.
We did have a brief spin in the 3.0-litre supercharged petrol V6 model (340hp, taken from the Jaguar F-Type, eerily smooth and powerful but no-one in Ireland is going to buy one and we got 5mpg from it while off-roading...), but with the 2.0-litre Ingenium four-cylinder engine not available yet, it was into the familiar 3.0-litre TDV6 model that we climbed. It's an ageing unit now (it dates back to 1998), but by heck it's still game. With 600Nm of torque from just above idle, the lighter Discovery surges forward into the muck and the mire. While it's hard to evaluate the performance of a vehicle when you're concentrating on (a) not getting stuck and (b) not tumbling off a Scottish precipice, two overriding impressions of the new Discovery remain - first; it's exceptionally refined, with very well controlled engine noise even when revving in low-ratio gears, and the cabin is wonderfully comfortable. The air suspension (which will be an option on the most basic model) felt supple on the heavily rutted tracks in the diesel model, but somewhat less so in the petrol V6. A difference in wheels and tyres? We'll have to wait and see. The other is of slick, well-weighted steering that seems to have at least a modicum of road feel coming through. The Discovery, in spite of its five-metre length, feels wieldy and relatively agile and the excellent driving position means visibility is still excellent.
All this talk of greater sophistication and becoming the 'Digital Discovery' might have you worried that Land Rover is trying to knock the corners off its off-road capability. The fact that a low-range gearbox (essential for off-roading) is an option might reinforce that thought. Not a bit, as it turns out. While Land Rover is doubtless using the Disco's sleeker styling and greater connectivity and electronic options to entice urbanites, out in the highlands of Scotland on a soaking December day, the Disco was getting down in the mud like a pro.
With Terrain Response constantly juggling the settings, and add-ons such as Hill Descent Control and All-Terrain Progress Control (which is launch control for slow, slippery conditions) helping, the Discovery makes even rough country such as this seem effortless. No matter how deep and claggy got the mud, we ploughed on, never once becoming stuck. Even rivers and sudden flash-floods couldn't stop us - the Discovery's wading depth is now up to a huge 900mm and that depth is not limited by the air intake - it actually breathes through the panel gap around the bonnet, not the side vents which are now fakes - but by the fact that at that depth, the rear wheels start to float. Land Rover's advice if this should happen? Open the back doors and the weight of the water will restore traction...
If proof were needed that the Discovery remains incredibly rugged, then we found it on a sharp edge of Scottish flint. Hidden in the mud, it shredded our left front tyre and left us literally bumping and scraping along on the alloy rim. Land Rover's advice was that we had to get to firmer, flatter ground to change the tyre, so we had to keep driving. Keep driving for more than a kilometre, across terrain that would tax any car with four fully functioning wheels. But the Disco, in spite of the unpleasant noises, carried on regardless and once the tyre had been swapped, continued on our test with nary a concern. Toughness like that doesn't come along often.
What you get for your money
Basic Discovery models will not be hugely well equipped, as items such as air suspension, seven seats and the low-range gearbox will all be optional on the basic model. Also, Land Rover is going to discontinue the quasi-commercial 'Business' model in spite of it being one of the few cars that actually meets the newly-enforced standards for five-seat commercial vehicle status. All of which might be disappointing but for one fact - the dramatic fall in the Discovery's CO2 figures, combined with the availability of a four-cylinder engine means that a basic car will cost €58,000 when it goes on sale in February. That represents a significant saving on the current car, on most rivals and actually undercuts popular mid-spec versions of much smaller, less practical vehicles such as the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and in-house rival the Jaguar F-Pace.
OK, so we don't quite have a full picture of the Discovery yet. We haven't driven it on tarmac and we haven't driven the all-important 2.0-litre version yet. But what we have done is driven a car with handsome looks, an enormously comfortable and practical cabin, a smooth and quiet V6 diesel and off-roading ability that makes mountain goats seem clumsy and unsure of their footing. It may well be more sophisticated, more digitally advanced than before and be fully specced up for the smartphone generation, but the new Discovery is still a true-blue Land Rover where it counts.