The gulley, (no, make that ‘the ditch’) was easily two feet wide and just as deep. I was approaching it in the Discovery 4 and my Land Rover Experience instructor was sounding remarkably nonchalant. He told me to turn the Terrain Response dial to the ‘Rock Crawling’ position and, in his words, “just let the car do the rest.”
We crawled along with just a hint of throttle and I waited for the inevitable lurching and banging that would accompany the manoeuvre. The Discovery edged forward and the instructor just kept on chatting. Any minute now, I thought.
But there was no noise, no drama, no violent lurching, just a smooth transition from one side of the ditch to the other.
Welcome to the world of the Land Rover Discovery 4, a luxury ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ or SUV. It’s not a new car; it’s been about for eighteen months or so but I hadn’t got round to driving it before. I’d driven the old model (the series 3) and thought that it was a very good car. Off-road, towing, long journeys, it absorbed them all but didn’t ever wow me in any kind of meaningful way. Competent? Yes. Memorable? No.
The model that I’m driving is the updated version of the Discovery 4, a sort of Discovery 4.5, if you like. The most significant change is that the diesel engine is three litres in size rather than 2.7. It also now has ‘Gradient Acceleration Control’, ‘Hill Start Assist’, three new paint colours, and the words Land Rover on the grille badge are silver in colour instead of gold.
I’d driven it on the road earlier in the day and had been impressed. It wasn’t the fastest thing on the roads, but then it wasn’t the slowest, either. A top speed of 112 mph (180 kph) and a 0-62 mph (100 kph) of 9.6 seconds are fast enough for most of us when combined with the ability to cruise all day at 80 mph (130 kph) and sip diesel at the rate of about one gallon per 30 miles (9.3 L/100km).
Body roll was noticeable by not really being there to any great degree and the steering was fine too, nicely weighted and accurate. The (optional) 20” alloy wheels had lower profile tyres on than I’d have liked and made it a bit crashy at times but really, for a huge (2600+ kgs depending on model) it drove very well.
A lot of the credit must go to the new 3.0 twin-turbo diesel engine that produces 241 bhp and, far more importantly, 442 lb/ft of torque, usefully more than the old 2.7 engine. The twin turbos are used sequentially and the biggest compliment I can give is that they help to make it feel like a much larger engine with none of the on/off power delivery that some turbo diesels have that make them feel like they are powered by an elastic band.
The majority of the torque – 368 lb/ft – is produced from tickover meaning that the Discovery has an effortless, loping feel to it that it at odds with the lofty driving position. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice feeling, it’s just that it takes some getting used to, as I’m old enough to expect to have to thrash a diesel Discovery to make decent progress.
Inside everything is as you’d expect of a car that costs a minimum of £36,700 ($60,500, €42,300). Lots of leather, nicely finished, and tough enough that you know that it will look just the same in ten years. It retains the ability to seat five people in comfort with room for the luggage that they’ll need for a two week holiday, or seven and with in a long weekend’s worth. Oh, and they are all proper seats; no tiny dickey-seats in the boot here.
But it’s away from the tarmac that it impresses the most, being the most accomplished off-roader that you’ll ever need – unless your name is Ranulph Fiennes. I’ve been driving in mud and water for over thirty years now and thought that I was a pretty good judge of what’s possible in comfort, what’s possible with a bit of noise and low-level vehicle damage, and what would be foolhardy to try unless your life depends on it. I now need to recalibrate.
The Terrain Response ‘Rock Crawling’ position raises the car on the air suspension. It also softens the throttle response and applies the brakes a little bit if you’re doing less than 3 mph to stop you rolling backwards if you are a bit hesitant with the accelerator.
The ‘Sand’ position sharpens the throttle response to ensure that the engine reacts instantly if the going gets a bit soft and you need more power in a hurry. It also cuts out the hill descent control, so you don’t get a big wedge of sand building up in front of the wheels, something that might stop you dead, which isn’t what you want when you’re trying to get down a sand dune in the Sahara. I tried it on a more modest sandy slope in the UK and I can report that it does exactly what it should. I was sceptical about the difference between the various Terrain Response settings and I’m happy to say that they aren’t just a marketing gimmick; they really do work.
When ‘Hill Descent’ is engaged you can just nudge the car over the top of the hill and then sit back, feet placed flat on the floor, and let the Discovery work out what it needs to do to get you safely down at a slow walking pace.
It’s the same with ‘Hill Start Assist’, an automatic feature that retained my foot-brake pressure just long enough for me to move my foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator without letting it roll backwards. It works, and most impressively, you don’t notice it working.
However, if ‘noticing things working’ is what floats your boat then you can watch a very clear diagram of what the wheels are up to on the centre console display or even see which of the three differentials are locked. Better still, you can select one of five cameras that are dotted round the car and then view them on-screen – and even zoom in, which is handy when you’re trying to hitch up a trailer or caravan.
The Discovery 4 is the ideal vehicle for anyone who needs to tow, travel off-road, keep mobile when it snows, or take seven people across entire continents in absolute luxury. This Land Rover really is one of the very best SUVs in the world.