2015 Land Rover Defender 110 VS. 2017 Land Rover Discovery
Discoveries are rarely planned. However, one should never discount the power of serendipity. For instance, discovering that some of the best off-roading in England is in the hills just above the ghastly all-girls boarding school you were forced to attend as a teenager is in fact, awesome. However, discovering that if you do tear around on those hills in a Land Rover Discovery Sport, Heath and Safety officers will confiscate and crush said, Disco Sport. However, you then discover that there’s a place close to the forbidden hills where you can drive all sorts of Land Rovers over all kinds of off-road terrain without the fear of the Queen crushing anything. So, you go there instead to have a little fun and discover if the new Land Rover Discovery can hold its own against the old school Defender.
First Discovery – You can go home again, but you can’t.
Recreating the past is impossible. Many a Land Rover purist laments the disappearance of the Defender, the stalwart British institution that emerged in 1948 and remained virtually unchanged until it ended production in 2016. A future model is currently in the works that should arrive in the U.S. in 2018. But everything evolves. Customers have modern needs, and Land Rover has to sell cars.
The Land Rover Experience (LRE) in West Country, England sits in the county of Devon about 160 miles southwest of London. It was a mere 33 miles due south from the former St. Audries School for Girls, which was situated in a country manor house that would make Lord Grantham jealous. There, in the deep Thatcher years, my old friend Stephi Juckes and I stole communion wine from the chapel and dreamed about marrying Don Johnson.
LRE has over 33 locations worldwide, including nine in the United Kingdom where anyone can test vehicles and owners can learn more about their cars (prices vary from location to location). Stephi and I had two vehicles in mind to try, the fifth generation 2017 Land Rover Discovery and the now-out-of-production Land Rover Defender. We wanted to know if the lamentations were warranted, if the newbie could keep up.
From the outset, the analog feel of the Defender is physical and good. Driver and vehicle work together, and driver better know what she’s doing—when she needs to lock differentials and transition into lower gears, or that you should lift off the clutch without giving it throttle. On the stripped down Defender, there is no new-fangled screen or automatic computer anything indicating how to get out of a muddy ditch. The springy clutch, the stiff six-speed manual transmission—even bending forward to disengage the hand brake was a workout. And we loved this antiquated relic from the Elizabethan Age of automobiles.
On the modern, mother-boarded Disco, every drive mode button or touch-screen command is easily within arms reach. Most are situated in some convenient form on the steering wheel. Don’t know how to stop sliding down a loose rocky incline? No problem, there’s a button for that, the hill decent control feature. Sure, it’s possible to figure out off-road driving manually, but the Discovery is so intelligent, and prone to show off, that it simply knows what it needs to do without you thinking too much.
It quickly becomes clear why customers who learned how to drive in the old-school Defender, went to war or worked their farms in them are so upset by its departure.
Second Discovery – Good or bad, looks are always deceiving
“You don’t make them like you used to,” a long-time Land Rover customer once said to Will McKean, a senior instruction at LRE, to which he replied, “That’s right, we don’t. They’re better.” Stephi and I joke that St. Audries always elicited an inaccurate response, too. “What a beautiful place to have gone to high school,” people said. They didn’t have to clean out cattle grates with a spoon as punishment. Yes, the exterior is post-card beautiful, but inside it was mean. Utilitarian and rugged, the 2015 Defender 110 is ever-prepared for disasters of all variety and is markedly different than the boldly redesigned 2017 Discovery, which is leather clad and elegant, as if heading to an evening at the opera.
From its new aluminum unibody that replaces a steel ladder construction in the previous upright, boxy gen, the 1,000-pounds weight loss as a result of that new architecture, to the dramatically different overall shape, including a controversial squared rear end, the Discovery is a fancy looking rig. “The cars get prettier, so it’s hard to convince people that they’re still just as capable, if not more, than their predecessors,” McKean explains. Before we steer the Defender into the 35-acre wooded off-road course with its muddy inclines, rocky edges and water holes, we manually lock the differential and shift into low gear on the transfer case. The Discovery, in contrast, comes standard with electronic features like All-Terrain Progress Control, which acts like a slow-moving off-road cruise control limiting speeds to 19 mph to help the driver more easily navigate over rocks or up steep stuff. All he has to concentrate on is steering. Manually choosing which mode is more appropriate, from grass/gravel/snow, to mud and ruts, to sand, is an option, too. Again, just a touch of another button. Terrain Response 2 technology, available in this fifth gen Disco for the first time, will switch suspension settings and recalibrate both drivetrain and chassis for whatever hurdles arise.
Third Discovery – Obstacles are better gone through than around
The Defender’s stocky 110-inch wheelbase and 12.4-inch ground clearance, combined with its inline four, 2.2-liter turbo diesel engine with full-time four wheel drive has proven, like its country of origin, that it can conquer pretty much anything. That includes the ability to swim in up to 19.7-inches of water. We expected that.
What we didn’t expect is the Discovery to best it. While the Disco’s ground clearance at 8.6 inches up front and 8.9 inches at the rear is lower than the Defender by almost three inches, the Discovery has a max wading depth of 33.4 inches. That’s over a foot deeper. Stephi reminds me of the old pool at school we called “the sheep dip.” “I’d love to have driven this thing through that,!” she says. Like a leaky boat, the Defender takes on water as we drive through a muddy pit. The Discovery’s plush carpeting stays bone dry.
“There’s plenty of flex in the Defender to accommodate for its articulation, but with its body-on-frame construction the doors won’t shut if you’re twisted up and have to get out of the vehicle. That’s not an issue in the Discovery,” McKean says as he demonstrates opening and closing every door including the tailgate while we’re perched at an impossible sideways angle, one wheel jutting up in the air.
Sloped tracks, muddy ruts, steep inclines covered with loose rocks, nothing slowed the Discovery down. And while we enjoyed the hands-on experience of driving the Defender, we were impressed with the hard-working 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel that makes 245 horsepower and 443 pound feet of torque. The 8-speed ZF transmission that we’re normally used to running through its ratios in cars flying around tracks at impossible speeds is a work horse in the lower gears crushing over rocks and down mountains.
For any hardcore off-road enthusiast quick to judge the British badge and requisite high price tag, one only has to look to the Ford Raptor (base price $49,785) and Ram Power Wagon (base price $51,695) who have dipped their toes into a similarly pricey pond. The entry level Discovery logs in at a comparable $49,990. Maybe the comparison is crumpets and hot dogs, but the point is American trucks are more expensive, luxurious endeavors in their own right these days, too.
Fourth Discovery – Kids, and adults, will be kids
When we returned from our two-car trek-a-thon, we saw the immaculately clean, neglected Disco Sport we’d driven close to 600 road miles to get here. Unlike Stephi and me being punished for coming back a day late from a holiday weekend (perhaps our lie about a derailed train was a bit over the top) we thought it only fair that the little kid get a turn to cut loose a bit, too.
Our Sport was equipped with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo diesel, which isn’t available in the U.S. We were grateful for the extra torque that comes in at 480 lb ft, even if we only had 180 hp at our disposal. Our $74,910 HSE Luxury Sport held its own. Even with a shorter 108-inch wheelbase and lack of a low gear, it’s still possible to maneuver this shorty over obstacles that call for unreasonable looking articulation and around steeply angled pitches that feel more extreme because of the SUV’s size. You just have to be pickier with your line and use the brake and throttle more judiciously.
By the time we waved goodbye to LRE we were exhausted. We’d packed a lot into 24 hours—drove three different Land Rovers over every kind of terrain we could get our hands on and took one surreal trip down memory lane. As it happens, St. Audries School mercifully closed in 1990. The house that a melodramatic Brontë novel might be a suitable location for did a brief stint as a Buddhist commune before being sold to a company that plans fancy country weddings. Stephi and I were glad to see that now it’s a place where happy memories are made. But the best discovery of the day was this: time doesn’t stop, not even for middle-aged ex-school mates. Yes, we lose things we cherished, but the tough stuff fades in the rear view, too. And where we are now is a cumulative product of all of it. From the past Defender to the present Discovery, things have come along way, and they’re all good.