Fitting neatly into the rich middle ground of the four wheel drive market, the Discovery is outstandingly good as a posh sort of Land Rover, less so perhaps as a down-market Range Rover. But at £15,750, it is a cut above small Japanese jeeps, which may be splendid farm and leisure carry-alls, but have limited capacity and little luxury.
At £10,000 cheaper than the average Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, it challenges the well established Mitsubishi Shogun, Nissan Patrol, and Toyota Land Cruiser. It may not be often nowadays that a European or North American manufacturer makes something better, than the Japanese and at no greater cost, but the Discovery shows it can be done. It is quiet, - the old transfer gear whine has gone - it handles well except for a trace of wiggle on the straight caused by the flexing of the tyre sidewalls, and it is a strong performer off and on the road.
It is more habitable than a Land Rover, car-like rather than agricultural, yet it has the high and low gear ranges that provide a tractor-like grip on slippery slopes, and make it vigorous across country. The price is the same for both the powerful 3.5 litre petrol V8, or the exemplary new 2.5 litre diesel, the 200Tdi, which promises 26-28mpg against the petrol's 18-20mpg. With its 19.5 gallon tank it could cover nearly 550 miles between refuelling stops.
The diesel is slower, but the addition of a turbocharger means it does well over 90mph, and has lively acceleration. It is less quiet, but once up to speed, the noise is lost in the swishing of the tyres, an inescapable penalty it seems, of a usefully deep tread which does not clog with mud.
If it has any pretensions to be a working vehicle, however, and not just an effete runabout for Chelsea farmers, the Discovery deserves tougher upholstery. Good strong plastic, like the Mark 1 Range Rover's, which looked like leather but had the consistency of rhinoceros-hide, would be better than the tweedy fabric used for the seats. Muddy Barbour jackets deserve something stronger, and wet green wellies will soon spoil the soft carpets. They can always be covered with rubber mats, and waterproof seat covers are available, but the seats really need to be made for more rough-and-tumble.
A five-door Discovery will not be available until next year, which will make it easier to get into the back. Meantime, the three-door has two useful optional seats by the tailgate, and a split bench seat which all fold away tidily and easily. The seat belts are on dog-leash clips which hook on to a large eye-bolt, so they need not lie about the floor getting dirty or damaged.
There are some clever details. The radio can be controlled from an alternative set of switches within fingertip range, which is a useful safety feature. There is a detachable shoulder bag stowed between the seats, and another usefully large pouch behind the rear seat, designed to take the detachable sunroof glass. The high ground-clearance and sturdy chassis frame mean that loads have to be lifted waist-high through the single side-opening tailgate door.
The Discovery has a comprehensive list of extras. The two folding seats at the back cost an additional £375, air conditioning is available for £1,290, and there is a roof rack at £200, which fits neatly in the lowered part of the roof above the driver, like an old-fashioned station taxi.
In some ways, the Discovery is a slightly less rustic, second generation Range Rover. It would have been nice to get back to the big door handles of the old Range Rover, which could be operated with frozen hands wearing heavy gloves. Instead we have square pull-up catches, clumsy relics of the bad old corporate days of British Leyland.
No matter, the Discovery is the second splendid Rover within a month, and coming after a disappointing Ford, shows what a change a couple of years makes in the motor industry. It looks good, although one hopes the appliqué graphics on the outside turn out to be what car salesmen call a delete option.
The Range Rover heritage in Discovery, is an enduring tribute to the late William Martin-Hurst, the Rover Managing Director who picked up its aluminium V8 engine just as Buick was pensioning it off. It is also a testimony to the design skill of Spen King and David Bache who created the Range Rover, much as we know it today, more than two decades ago. Read about every Land Rover since 1948 in The Land Rover File.