First Drive: 2003 Land Rover Discovery

Not a revolution, but changes underhood

Mary Beth Debicki
Oct 20, 2002
Photographers: Manrico Delcore, The Manufacturer
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.
2003 Land Rover Discovery Engine View
  |   2003 Land Rover Discovery Engine View
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.
With increased torque and power, better and more precise handling, responsive steering, and a sensitive braking system, the 2003 Discovery finally has "sport" in its utility. Part of being an SUV is, or should be, the ability to go off-road. This is a task at which Land Rovers have always excelled. The question is whether the improved on-road characteristics of the 2003 Discovery have been gained at the expense of its off-road capability. We wondered if Land Rover, like many manufacturers, decided to move away from the "utility" part of SUV. We needn't have feared on the second account. First, the press launch of the vehicle was held at one of two, year-round Land Rover off-road-driving schools in North America (which are part of a worldwide network of Land Rover driving schools), more than half the driving time was devoted to off-pavement roads.
And on the first question, Discovery's on-road improvements actually add to its off-road capabilities, as contrary as that sounds. More power and particularly torque are just as welcome for off paved highways as for driving down the Interstate.
To the amazement of many, ACE, the on-road handling wonder, is also a substantial asset when in low range. Thanks to a myriad of sensors, the system recognizes you're on rugged terrain and responds by increasing wheel travel to maintain traction. What's more, the ACE system locks the suspension to reduce body lean when traversing side slopes.
2003 Land Rover Discovery Interior View Dashboard
  |   2003 Land Rover Discovery Interior View Dashboard
The optional Self-Leveling Suspension, primarily designed to maintain ride height when towing a trailer or carrying a heavy load, also adds to Discovery's off-road capability. By pressing a fascia-mounted switch, the air suspension raises the body for an improved departure angle. If high-centered, the system automatically increases suspension height to help free the vehicle.
Four-Wheel Electronic Traction Control, which automatically applies the brakes to a spinning wheel, is carried over from last-year's model. Climbing a wet, muddy, loose-rock trail, traction control felt more aggressive than we remembered, engaging quicker thereby limiting wheelspin.
Strong engine braking, being able to start in second or third gear and hold a particular gear, has always given manual transmissions the edge over auto transmissions in severe 4x4 situations. Although Discovery is only available with an automatic transmission, the vehicle has some nifty features that do away with the need for a manual.
Hill Descent Control automatically applies the brakes to maintain low speed when descending steep terrain and takes place of a manual's stronger engine braking. Discovery's dual-mode automatic transmission, in Manual Mode, allows the driver to select a gear, and the gear selected is held without shifting. With these two features, you have the ease of an automatic while driving in city traffic and the advantages of a manual when gear-holding is necessary.
The interior remains much as in previous models with perhaps a higher level of fit and feel. Driver and front-seat passenger have ample room (unless they're over 6 ft or built like a linebacker) and enjoy new, more supportive bucket seats. Two adults can ride comfortably in the back seat, although getting in and out is a bit tight. The third row is only for children. The window and seat controls (front seats) are still awkwardly placed on the center console, somewhere under the driver's right elbow.
The 2003 Discovery is available in three trim levels. For $34,350, you get the loaded S model with Duragrain upholstery and 16-in. wheels. The SE ($38,350) adds leather, burled wood trim, sunroofs, Alpine 12 speaker 220 watt stereo with six-disc CD, 18-in. wheels, and Class-III tow hitch. The top-of-the-line HSE ($40,350) adds a Harmon Kardon premium audio system with in-dash navigation system and rear-proximity parking control. ACE is available as an option on SE and HSE models, while all models include free scheduled maintenance for four years/50,000 miles.
After two days of on- and off-road driving, we came away impressed with the '03 Discovery. It's hard to imagine that any body-on-frame, live-axle, 6000-lb SUV could be made to deliver better handling (on paved, gravel, and dirt roads) and be as extremely capable on bad trails as the latest Discovery. If you appreciate having an SUV with a frame, live axles, and a two-speed transfer case, that can do all the things an SUV is supposed to do, and do it in the most challenging terrain, as well as, yes, taking the kids to the soccer game, the '03 Discovery should be on your short list.
2003 Land Rover Discovery Front Drivers Side View Dirt Trail
  |   2003 Land Rover Discovery Front Drivers Side View Dirt Trail
Land Rover insiders tell us the next- generation Discovery is just a few years away and will have many of the improvements (unibody, independent suspension, etc.) of the recently introduced Range Rover.
2003 Land Rover Discovery Front Passenger Side View People Rock Climbing
  |   2003 Land Rover Discovery Front Passenger Side View People Rock Climbing


Land Rover's Challenge
In an attempt to recapture the lead in the automotive-adventure field, Land Rover announced the launch of the G4 Challenge. Beginning later this year, 16 countries will each select and train one individual who'll compete in "an exhilarating off-road driving and multisport challenge." The challenge will cover 4000 miles in five weeks of competition and travel around the globe with stages in eastern and western North America, Africa, and Australia. Competitors will use all four of Land Rover's models: Freelander, Discovery, Range Rover, and Defender. In addition to off-road driving, the Challenge will also feature kayaking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, and other outdoor sports, as well as testing the navigational skills of the competitors through jungles and cities. In the words of Bob Dover, Managing Director of Land Rover: "This will be the adventure of a lifetime."

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