As today's mainstream brands offer loads of features, sumptuous interiors, advanced technology and refined driving experience, it can be difficult for a luxury vehicle to distinguish itself.
Some models offer an incremental improvement over their mainstream alternatives — you pay a little more, and you get a little more. But others take a more radically different approach, providing an experience that you'd never find in an ordinary vehicle.
An example of the latter is the Land Rover Discovery, a British-built midsize luxury SUV that was fully redesigned last year to replace the LR4. The Land Rover brand focuses solely on delivering superior off-road capability, which already puts its vehicles in a different niche from even Mercedes-Benz or Lexus, much less Honda or Chevrolet. Distinctive styling inside and out further separates the Discovery from other SUVs or crossovers, and the latest model also boasts some clever family-friendly features to keep it practical on an everyday basis. Prices start at $53,085.
In recent years, Land Rover sold this vehicle as the LR3 and LR4. But this latest generation marks a return to the market for the storied Discovery name. But while the name brings to mind the model’s aggressively-boxy predecessors, today’s Discovery is more softly styled. The decision to make such a clear departure from the model's roots likely stemmed from aerodynamic considerations as much as aesthetic ones and the result has gotten mixed reviews: Some applaud the new looks as attractive and modern, while others denounce them as generic and derivative.
Inside, however, the new Discovery is pure Land Rover — and better than ever. The tested car’s rich white leather upholstery sets the scene, and the dashboard’s elegantly simple rectangles stand apart from the elaborate swishes and curves found in many contemporary vehicles. A large new 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system keeps the cabin modern, both functionally and visually.
The Discovery’s off-road capability also holds true to the Land Rover heritage. The company boasts that this SUV can traverse water nearly 3 feet deep, while its 11.1 inches of ground clearance and sophisticated all-wheel-drive system help it tackle a variety of challenging terrain. Whether you intend to slog through mud, ford streams and scramble over boulders, or if you simply like the idea of a vehicle that can do those things, the Discovery delivers.
One impressive feature of the new Discovery -- included on the tested car -- is its diesel engine. A 3.0-liter V6, it makes 254 horsepower and an outstanding 443 pound-feet of torque. It provides respectably vigorous acceleration to the heavy Land Rover all while achieving an EPA-estimated 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving. An even quicker non-diesel V6 costs $2,000 less, but what you save at the dealership you'll spend at the pump as the V6 rates at just 18 mpg.
No matter which engine you choose, all that power makes the Discovery perfect for all sorts of adventures. And if you have reason to leave the vehicle in the course of those adventures, one smart feature Land Rover offers is the Discovery's “activity key”: a waterproof bracelet that can open the car, allowing you to lock the electronic keyfob safely inside the vehicle.
Back inside, the Discovery has space for seven adults to sit in respectable comfort. However, there’s almost no cargo room behind the third row — so think of it more as a five-passenger vehicle that can fit two more folks in an emergency, or carry seven on a road trip where everyone’s luggage is on the roof or in a trailer. The Discovery can tow up to 8,201 pounds.
The driver can drop the rear head restraints and fold or unfold the second- and third-row seats using the infotainment screen, which is both fun and convenient. Some execution foibles persist, though: It requires a mix of power and manual adjustments to slide the middle-row seat out of the way to access the third row, and using the third-row seat requires removing a cumbersome cargo cover.
(Don’t confuse the Discovery with the Discovery Sport, by the way — the latter has a similar name and similar styling, but it’s a smaller, less opulent vehicle.)
Dashboard controls, too, have some ergonomic issues. The touchscreen system buries some features in an overabundance of sub-menus, while the wideness of the screen makes some functions hard to reach.
Meanwhile, although the Discovery is an off-road standout, it’s not great for a luxury vehicle on the pavement. The suspension shrugs off big bumps nicely but doesn’t coddle the occupants over smaller ones. Meanwhile, although the light steering effort makes for easy driving at low speeds, the Land Rover feels cumbersome on a winding road.
If you’re interested in the Discovery’s distinctive character or its off-road credentials, Land Rover’s latest upgrades make it more appealing than before. This year's Discovery is more fuel-efficient, has more modern electronics and features, and still fits seven passengers quite well for a midsize SUV.
But if you’re mainly looking for a large, comfortable, on-road vehicle, you might be left wondering about the Discovery’s appeal. If nothing about the Land Rover resonates with you, you’re not wrong to consider the more “rational” competition. Luxury leaders include the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90, while the Acura MDX and Infiniti QX60 provide premium trimmings for less money. And if seating for seven isn't among your demands, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is another appealing option for providing a luxurious off-road experience.