Land Rover's 2003 Discovery is not revolutionary, but it does offer some solid improvements. While most manufacturers are in a headlong rush to de-evolve their SUVs into minivans and station wagons, the Discovery is sticking to its utility-vehicle guns. Underneath its aluminum-alloy and galvanized sheetmetal, there's still a boxed-steel ladder frame with six crossmembers, live axles front and rear, permanent four-wheel drive, and a two-speed transfer case. The Discovery can tow 7700 lb, carry nearly 1500 lb, and seat up to seven all in forward-facing seats with three-point seatbelts. Still, there is room for improvement.
The Discovery's previous V-8 engine, a 35-year-old veteran originally from Oldsmobile, has evolved to a 4.6L, increased hp by 15 percent, torque by 20 percent, and, as a result, 0 to 60 times are bettered by 15 percent. The 4.6 engine gives the Discovery a much needed kick in the pants. Because the 300 lb-ft of torque peak at a low 2600 rpms, the Discovery's acceleration off the mark has been significantly improved, and freeway passing, accelerating from 60 to 75 mph, can now be done with ease.
Driving the winding and hilly roads of the Vermont/New York border, we found the Discovery's handling has taken what amounts to nothing short of an evolutionary leap. Even with coil springs all around, this 6000 pounder nimbly cuts curves with little body lean. Add the optional "Active Cornering Enhancement" or ACE, Land Rover's yet-to-be-copied active-suspension system, and the Discovery handles curves better than many SUVs sporting carlike unibodies, independent suspensions, and lower proportions.
When the pavement turned to washboard gravel, we were pleasantly surprised the typical collection of squeaks, rattles, and clunks we'd heard in past Land Rovers have been substantially reduced. In fact, the Discovery is remarkably quiet. Steve Haywood, chief program engineer for the '03 Discovery, says considerable effort and money were spent in reducing noise, vibration, and harshness of the vehicle.
That same washboard gravel road showed how the 2003 Discovery's tweaked suspension geometry and revised shock absorber-dampening deliver a smooth ride. In addition, steering feedback has also been improved, allowing us to take advantage of the increased engine power while tackling the winding roads of Vermont. There's also less brake-pedal travel, and the braking system has better feel, particularly during hard braking.
We unintentionally put the handling and braking improvements to the test when we rounded a blocked curve at 45 mph and met a road-grader coming at us in our lane. Brake! Hard left! Oncoming traffic! Hard right! Breathe. We were sold on the improvements.