UK: MOTOR MOUTH - A disappointing discovery.

UK: MOTOR MOUTH - A disappointing discovery. - The Land Rover Discovery is 10 years old. Driving an early model, I attracted huge interest: passers-by were curious and friends nagged to try it. You'd be surprised how few cars that can be said of. Land Ro

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Land Rover Discovery is 10 years old. Driving an early model, I attracted huge interest: passers-by were curious and friends nagged to try it. You'd be surprised how few cars that can be said of. Land Rover is as much a part of English Heritage as Bolsover Castle and people wanted this novelty to succeed. As retailers became aware of the selling power of Englishness, the Discovery was a clever confection, which looked backwards as well as forwards.

The original 1948 Land Rover was an inspired lash-up, a Solihull copy of the American Jeep. The Range Rover of 1970 that followed was a brilliantly intuitive design with agenda-setting styling and a bizarre, but effective, synthesis of agricultural equipment with Sloaney refinement. True, Americans had had their stonking Broncos and Wagoneers for years, but somehow it was Range Rover that accidentally stumbled into what was then virgin territory.

The Discovery, on the other hand, was a much more self-conscious concept, more of a marketing initiative than an engineering decision.

Cleverly, the body design aped important Range Rover signifiers, such as the grille and the clam-shell bonnet, and actually used carry-over parts for the front doors and windscreen, ensuring spontaneous brand identity.

But it was given some novelties too - cute lights in the lofty pavilion roof and side-facing dicky seats out back. The Conran Design Group did the interior. While the original Range Rover had a tough vinyl and rubber inside that could quite genuinely be hosed out, Sir Terence had the boys in the studio go all creative and provide something in a delicate, soft-feel, powder blue. Marketwise, this played its part in articulating aspirations, but was impractical and revised at the first opportunity.

Aesthetically, the Discovery was imposing rather than beautiful. In fact, let's be frank: it was ill-proportioned and ugly, like a Transit van customised by eager, but ham-fisted, amateurs. True, from some (very few) angles, it had dollops of Range Rover presence but, from others (most), it looked too narrow and too tall. It is still very high - you cannot get a Discovery into the underground car park of Chelsea's Marks & Spencer. This is significant because the extreme sport that is central London parking is about as near to the rough stuff as most Discoveries will ever get.

But the worst problem with the original Discovery was that, while it owed its existence to an idea from a shampooed-and-scrubbed marketing person, Land Rover's stern and grubby engineers were (commendably) not prepared to compromise the company's USP of exceptional off-road performance.

So the Discovery was given a high ground clearance and very long-travel suspension. Combined with the car's height this meant a centre of gravity somewhere near the driver's eyeline and a scary proclivity to roll around corners.

Under BMW's influence the designers have worked hard to fix these problems on the second-generation Discovery. Overall construction quality has improved, so if fit is not yet quite as tight as a fish's arse, it is tight enough.

There is now a huge BMW-like list of options, the interior has been tidied yet again and there are three forward-facing rows of seats.

Sensibly, the style is evolutionary but, while most of the external panels are new, ancient angular Range Rover front window frames have been irritatingly retained.

But most effort has gone into fixing the weird tarmac handling: a goodly lot of BMW's stability and traction expertise is now available on the Discovery so that, in theory at least, the old maritime-standard lurch, roll and pitch are under the command of Bavarian-accented electronics.

In practice, the ungainly size of the Discovery inhibits experimentation and most owners will probably not know if their ABS, ESP or WHY (What Have You) is actually fitted or a fake black box.

I kept feeling that, despite improvements, most of all in the neater and cleaner appearance, there is something misbegotten about the Discovery.

The hugeness is not very intelligently exploited and the internal ergonomics are seriously flawed. Even children found the third row of seats unpleasant.

The car remains clumsy to drive with something disconcertingly unconnected and all-at-sea about the dynamics. Land Rover has come a long way, but I'm not certain where it's going.

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