2017 Land Rover Discovery: Newly domesticated off-road superhero

Thirteen different systems and 23,000 lines of code. That's how much computing power is needed in the 2017 Land Rover Discovery. No, not for the entire vehicle. Just the power folding seats, which can be raised and lowered using an app on your phone.

You've come a long way, Landie.

Historically, there's been a tendency to view truly capable off-road vehicles as the big, dumb knuckle-draggers of the automotive kingdom. Pig-iron frames, gargantuan knobbly tires and oversized, dirty engines pushing coffee-can sized pistons. Perhaps better than any other vehicle on the market, this new Discovery proves just how outdated that notion is -- not only is this British-built SUV a fully modern proposition, it's one of the more involved and tech-rich vehicles on the road, thanks to its deeply complex off-road systems and considerable luxuries.

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Don't be alarmed, we're trained professionals.

Land Rover


It doesn't take much more than a cursory glance to realize this Discovery isn't just new, it's a step change over the LR4/Discovery range that preceded it. To this point in its evolution, the Discovery has looked like a set of those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, each boxy, stepped-roof generation fitting neatly inside the next. And then there's this new model, which has a vestigial roof kickup and a funky asymmetrical license plate pocket that's a nod to past Discovery designs, but other than that, it looks very, very similar to other Land Rover models.

That means it's handsomely modern, if somewhat indistinct from its stablemates. It's also decidedly less brawny looking than its forbear. It's not immediately clear if this slicker, more homogenized appearance will trouble faithful Discovery owners, but if I'm being honest, the new look doesn't sit entirely well with me.

While the 2017 model's more tailored flanks shout "urban sophisticate" more than they say "rugged outdoorsman," the opposite is actually true. This isn't just the most capable Discovery ever, it may be one of the fiercest off-roaders the Green Oval has produced.

I should know: On our lengthy two-day drive event in the wide-open spaces along the gorgeous Utah-Arizona border, my gas- and diesel-powered Discovery testers scrambled up slippery rock formations, bombed over Martian sand dunes and juked their way through muddy river beds in highly entertaining fashion. Portions of our test route were genuinely tough -- particularly the salmon-colored Coral Pink Dunes of Kanab, Utah, and on street-minded tires, the Discovery wasn't completely infallible, but it was damn near, and it was unfailingly impressive.

Like any good workout regime, when it came time to develop this new Discovery, Land Rover engineers settled on a strict diet. Using a new aluminum-intensive monocoque instead of the old model's unibody-with-frame construction has enabled weight savings of up to 1,000 pounds over its LR4 predecessor, yet the new chassis boasts superior rigidity and can tow a stout 8,200 pounds. Despite its newfound lightness, this Discovery is also substantially longer -- some 5.5 inches -- and it sits on a 1.5-inch longer wheelbase, all in a bid to maximize interior space.

Jaguar Land Rover's ubiquitous 3.0-liter supercharged gas-fed V6 is the new Disco's volume engine, and it offers a healthy 340 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. That's enough oomph both for slogging up precipitous, mud-caked inclines and for pulling out to pass double-trailer semi trucks at freeway speeds without fear of additional gray hairs. It's a refined piece that's rarely caught out of step, thanks in part to the keen programming of its eight-speed ZF automatic. Fuel economy is pegged at 16 city, 21 highway and 18 mpg combined, and in standard drive mode, periodic checks of the in-cluster telltale suggest these numbers are attainable.

I also sampled Land Rover' 3.0-liter diesel, an optional powerplant with 254 hp and 442 pound-feet of torque. I've enjoyed this engine in other applications, and it's generally a very well-mannered unit, to the point that many drivers won't even notice what fuel lurks in the tank. However, the diesel's passing power is underwhelming at highway speeds, largely because peak torque is only available between 1,750 and 2,250 rpm, a very narrow band.

Given the engine's $2,000 extra cost and diesel fuel's per-gallon premium, I'm not sure it's worth it, even with its significantly better fuel economy (21 city, 26 highway, 23 mpg combined). If you routinely travel long distances, its superior range between fill ups will probably make it a worthwhile option, but if your priority is towing, the gas engine oddly enjoys a higher rating.

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The supercharged 3.0-liter V6 yields 340 hp and 332 pound-feet of torque.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Both new powertrains are welcome improvements, but it's the all-new cabin that really pulls the new Discovery into the modern age. Materials look and feel premium, and they're notably richer than in today's Discovery Sport, this model's less expensive brother. Despite its radically different exterior, the Discovery's core virtues of good visibility with commanding upright seating are retained, including the low window for ideal off-road sightlines along with three rows of theater-style tiered seats that will keep Junior in the way back from getting nauseous. In fact, two full-size adults can sit in the way back in surprising comfort, with respectable head-, knee- and toe- room.

Just don't expect to carry any cargo when you're rolling seven up -- the rearmost seatback is all but snugged against the back window. Power fold the second- and third-row seats using the switchgear or phone app, however, and there's 82.7 cubic feet of space back there, along with a nifty available powered inner tailgate that's ideal for sitting on.

Land Rover products have traditionally lagged rivals in the infotainment sweepstakes, but this new Discovery takes a gigantic leap forward by adopting the company's latest InControl Touch Pro (ITP) architecture, lavished on a 10.2-inch touchscreen that features programmable home screen widgets, crisp graphics and pinch-to-zoom functionality. ITP is miles ahead of what's in the outgoing LR4, but there are still more advanced, more intuitive systems out there. Worryingly, the system froze once and required a reboot during a test drive, reminding me that older InControl iterations have suffered reliability issues.

On the plus side, InControl also includes a phone app that allows you to push a navigation route from your phone directly to the navigation system, along with other remote activities like engine start, climate control and locking. There's even Apple Watch integration and as an adjacency, an available waterproof Fitbit-like wristband dubbed the Activity Key. This RFID-enabled rubberized loop allows you to lock your key fob inside the vehicle when going mountain biking, surfing or perhaps when when you just want to rock your super-skinny jeans.

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The new cabin is spacious and filled with richer materials.

Land Rover

And it's not just the driver who gets all this tech -- all aboard can stay connected with the available 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and there's a faintly ridiculous nine USB ports and six 12-volt outlets to keep everyone's juices flowing. This, in addition to the available rear-seat infotainment system that's capable of mirroring tablets or simultaneously watching different movies on both headrest-mounted screens. During the launch event, Land Rover reps repeatedly and proudly pointed out that the center console can swallow four iPads, as if doing so passes some sort of modern SUV litmus test, a vital silicon Rubicon Trail conquered. Me? I'm more enamored of the powered center cooler box, which can chill four bottles of water.

These days, the "utility" in "sport utility" increasingly connotes a vehicle's fitness for duty as a family connectivity hub more than it signals actual off-road or hauling abilities. But this rig isn't biting -- at least not completely. The Disco may sit lower on the pavement for ease of getting in and out (not to mention better aerodynamic efficiency), but pushing some switches on the center console and twiddling the Terrain Response Controller 2 knob ensures the Discovery is ready to tread further off the beaten path than anyone will ever take its pricy aluminum flanks.

Thanks to its adjustable air suspension, the Discovery has 11 inches of ground clearance, improved arrival and departure angles, and a massive 19.6 inches of wheel articulation at its disposal. It's also available with a two-speed transfer case for the really gnarly stuff. Not enough? This Land Rover can ford rivers to 35.4 inches deep. That's enough wading ability to finally free you from all those emotional scars suffered playing Oregon Trail as a child.

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One of these things is not like the other...

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Perhaps most importantly, the Discovery isn't a jiggly mess on pavement -- you and your brood won't look like the Weeble family, heads wobbling when going round a corner at speed or smacking an unseen pothole. The Rover rides neither too softly nor too stiffly, and there's even a sport mode that buttons down the suspension, adds steering weight and remaps the throttle and gearbox shift schedule to oblige a bit more hustling. Even so, this Land Rover doesn't feel quite as athletic on road as rivals such as the Audi Q7 and BMW X5, but the difference may be academic, as such abilities will remain largely concealed to most owners -- just like the Landie's breadth of off-road talents.

The above thought is worth underscoring. Despite its considerable built-in capabilities, the Discovery's clever Dial-A-Nap Terrain Response Controller knob, which unlocks this vehicle's true abilities, will likely remain unused by nearly all of its owners. Oh, it may be summoned on one occasion when a new owner experiences his or her first snowstorm, only to be subsequently forgotten. But by and large, it's destined to sit flush with the center console, dormant mile after mile, a mountain of engineering effort and computer firepower lurking flaccidly under the driver's right elbow.

It's a bit sad, all that unrealized potential. But at least toting around the components that make it all possible is no longer the literal and figurative drag it used to be. Despite having substantially more off-road and towing capability than rivals from Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, the Discovery doesn't necessarily weigh more, nor does it feel more ponderous in daily driving.

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The top-shelf Discovery First Edition runs $73,950 but comes with everything.

Land Rover

It also doesn't cost more. It starts at $49,900 (plus $995 for delivery) for the entry-level SE, but Land Rover expects the vast majority of shoppers to pop for the better-equipped HSE ($56,950) or the HSE Luxury ($63,950). Given that the base SE only seats five people, has halogen headlamps and doesn't come with air suspension or navigation as standard, I recommend ponying up, too. If you're flush with cash, this Rover's range tops out with the $73,950 First Edition, an all-boxes-checked proposition, including a two-speed transfer case for the utmost in off-roading ability, 21-inch wheels and special paint. Only around 500 examples are tipped to come stateside.

All of these prices compare quite favorably with German rivals, being thousands cheaper than a comparable BMW X5 or Mercedes GLE 350, and on par with Audi's Q7, although the Discovery's fuel economy isn't class-leading stuff, nor are some of its available advanced driver assist systems -- most notably the lane-keep assist, which ping-pongs between the lines more than most when the cruise control is on.

I may not be entirely sold on the new Discovery's familial looks, but at first blush, I am deeply impressed with the vehicle as a whole. If nothing else, I'm selfishly hoping Land Rover's decision to have the Disco fall into visual corporate lockstep will give company designers the freedom to really imbue the next Defender with its own ruggedly handsome aesthetic. We're finally getting a second crack at that iconic vehicle and I, for one, can't wait.

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