Since its launch in the U.S. in 1994, the Land Rover Discovery has operated on the muddy banks of the sport-ute mainstream. While Explorers and Pathfinders became plusher and more powerful, the Disco grew more off-pavement capable — and somewhat less urgently, it grew more user-friendly.
Progress gets the good press. And that’s why, for those who worry about high-centering only in the changing rooms at Nordstrom’s, the Disco has mostly been relegated to the second stage. Other utes have had better power or more flexible seating or a smoother ride — or bigger rebates.
In the 2003 model year, Land Rover is making the kinds of changes that don’t spoil its backwoods talents, but just might raise its profile in the sea of soft-utes spoiling our suburban nation.
Little big changes
Optional on all models is the third-row seat – which adds the “7” designation to the name and a hydraulic step on the rear. Also available are dual sunroofs and a cold-weather package with heated seats. Active Cornering Enhancement (ACE), which uses hydraulics to control vehicle roll characteristics, can be ordered on the SE or HSE, too.
Now that the Range Rover contains a BMW-derived powerplant, its former V-8 engine is installed in the Discovery, and to great effect. Sure, the 4.6-liter V-8 owes its innards to 1960s GM engineering, but it’s smooth and torquey, and it’s been brought to modern times and meets ULEV standards, as well.
With 217 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, it motivates the Disco with more authority than it’s ever mustered, even without a fifth cog in its ZF four-speed automatic transmission. Land Rover says it will accelerate to 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, and they claim better NVH characteristics too. Take their word for it: the Disco finally pulls to highway speeds without laboring too hard. It’s immediately apparent how much effort has been removed from the powertrain.
The drivetrain changes have been met with tweaks to the suspension geometry and damping, for smoother ride motions. The brakes grab better, too, through revised calipers and new pads. Safety equipment includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes and electronic brake force distribution; Park Distance Control is optional. And as for styling, the Disco wears a new set of headlamps, revised trim, and new interior touches like cupholders attached somewhat precariously to the console, mimicking Mickey Mouse ears about the shift lever.
The stock goodness boiled into the off-road gear remains. Four-wheel drive with low range is only the beginning of the off-road package in the Disco. Add on anti-lock brakes with all-speed traction control and a two-speed transfer case, as well as Hill Descent Control, and the Disco is still one of the most capable trailblazers sold in the States.
It’s true that Discos used to be more mechanical, tactical off-road pieces. The electronics largely relieve the driver of most burdens except picking the best safe path on a trail. The traction control locks down on wheels to find the one with the best traction, while Hill Descent Control maintains control even on slick downhill slopes. Activation of the low range and HDC takes common sense but a little acclimatization curve.
And it’s true that the rear bench isn’t great for four-hour rides, and that the third-row seats occupy nearly the whole cargo area even when folded away. The Disco wasn’t designed for household duties, unlike the wave of recent crossovers, and it’s endearingly anachronistic in this sense.
A new Discovery is due in the next few years, and as Land Rovers grow closer to their new Ford cousins, it seems logical that the next Disco won’t be such an iconoclast. It’s an uncommon profile in any parking lot — and with warranty and luxe powertrain on board, less of a real-world compromise. Seekers, apply within.
2003 Land Rover Discovery
Base price: $34,350
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 217 hp/300 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 185.2 x 74.4 x 76.4
Wheelbase: 100.0 in
Curb weight: 4576-4908 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 12/16 mpg
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking, four-wheel traction control, Electronic Brake Distribution, Hill Descent Control
Major standard equipment: Keyless entry, dual climate controls, leather and wood trim, power windows/locks/mirrors, AM/FM stereo with CD player
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles