At a time when so many new models are compromised for the sake of cost savings, it's refreshing to see a vehicle debut that holds nothing back. Formerly known as the Discovery (and still the Discovery 3 for the rest of the world), the LR3 is the first Land Rover product fully developed under Ford ownership. Not surprisingly, with the recent success of the flagship Range Rover (they've almost doubled volume since the new generation came out), Land Rover is modeling the LR3 after its bigger brother; yet, in some ways, the LR3 is more impressive than the (much more expensive) Range Rover.

After a companywide search for a possible shared platform for the Discovery replacement, Land Rover smartly fought for its own frame. Knowing there could and should be other Land Rover versions based off the same platform (we're hoping for a new Defender and maybe a pickup variant), a completely new frame called the T5 was designed with strength and versatility in mind. The wheelbase of the vehicle is 14 inches longer, although much of that is hidden in the overall length, with shorter overhangs front and back. In fact, the overall length of the LR3 is increased only five inches over the one it replaces. The track width of the new vehicle is increased two inches, due in large part to the all-new four-wheel independent, electronic air suspension (similar to that of Range Rover).

The rear independent suspension is similar in strategy to the Ford Explorer rearend where the axle shafts pass right through a hole in the frame; however, because the LR3 requires more 4WD-friendly wheel travel, the porthole is larger and flanged, enabling the wheels to flex over a wider angle. And although there's less suspension flex when compared with the previous long-travel live-axle/coil-spring suspension of the Discovery, the airbag springs seem to allow the wheels to tuck deep into the fenderwells and stretch down to the ground exceptionally well. In fact, from full compression to full droop, wheel travel is 13 inches in back and more than 10 inches in front.

Similar to Range Rover, the LR3 driver can select a taller stance for challenging terrain, normal mode for typical on-highway driving, or a lower "access" mode to offer a shorter step-in/step-out height. In addition, the air suspension has a "cross-link" feature that'll push one wheel down for better traction if the opposite side is under extreme compression, simulating, to a certain extent, a live axle over rugged terrain. Most of the suspension technology benefits we've identified thus far have to do with off-road driving, but where the new vehicle far surpasses the previous generation is clearly in the pavement ride and handling categories. With grippy, street-biased 255/60R18 tires and a new power rack-and-pinion steering system, response and road-hugging ability are vastly improved (maybe the biggest improvement to the vehicle to date) with a huge portion of the characteristic body roll eliminated. Combined with a thick steering wheel, a wider track, and a lower overall center of gravity, the LR3 performs in a league with the Infiniti FX45 and BMW X5 in driving dynamics.

With all these advances, quite possibly the biggest change for Land Rover (and maybe the entire four-wheel-drive industry) is the development and integration of its all-new Terrain Response technology. Land Rover has taken a sophisticated, computer-controlled four-wheel-drive system and given it a twist--literally. With a control knob that allows the driver to adjust myriad computer-controlled variables on the vehicle (throttle response, traction-control sensitivity, differential control, transmission shift points, gear starts, and more) by selecting one of five separate terrain settings (general mode, grass/gravel/snow, mud and ruts, sand, and rockcrawling), the setup will configure the vehicle's traction and four-wheel-drive system for you. Depending on the setting, it'll allow or limit more wheelspin, preload or lock open the differentials, utilize the cross-link air suspension, advise use of low-range, engage Hill Descent Control, or change the throttle sensitivity. However, before you get too depressed about how these systems seem to take all the fun out of playing in the backcountry, Land Rover has included an impressive feature on the navigation system that monitors and reports individual wheel traction, differential status (locked, preloaded, or unlocked), suspension height, front-wheel direction, and which mode the Terrain Response system is operating in. The graphics are tremendous, delivering information in real time, allowing you to see what's happening underneath the vehicle. This is a trend we like. The system allows the driver to concentrate more on the obstacles in front of and around the vehicle, rather than worrying about the switches and levers inside the cockpit. It's worth noting that, even with the system in the general mode and in low-range, the LR3 comfortably tackled rocky trails and deep sand as well as anything else we've driven.