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More power is Land Rover’s chief new Discovery in 2003

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Gifts often say as much about the recipient as about the giver. Land Rover’s decision to give North American SUV buyers exclusive use of a 4.6-liter V8 in the 2003 Discovery therefore seems to say that we Yanks are crazy about power—power mad, in so many words. How else to characterize the Discovery’s “improved” powerplant in the form of a 1970s-vintage aluminum V8 originally developed for Buick and capable of eking out a mere 12 miles-per-gallon in the city, 16 mpg on the highway?

To be fair, the ’03 Discovery incorporates more than 700 other changes compared to the ’02 Discovery Series II that it replaces. Taken together, these updates give the Discovery a genuine uniqueness and competence that set it apart from more run-of-the-mill SUVs. Land Rovers have always been plucky, quirky and virtually unstoppable in severest conditions. For ’03, quirky goes deluxe.

Take, for example, Land Rover’s decision to marry a solid axle suspension design (for front and rear) that dates back to the Stone Age to some of the most advanced, high-tech control systems yet deployed on SUVs. For downhill stability, computerized Hill Descent Control, a standard feature, can prevent careless wheel slip from snowballing into a precipitous disaster. A flip of the HDC dash toggle initiates automatic selective braking of individual wheels when crawling down muddy declines in low gear ranges. Conversely, for greater reassurance and comfort while cornering at highway speeds, optional Active Cornering Enhancement ($2,450) deploys hydraulic controllers to counteract body lean through manipulation of the front and rear anti-sway bars. This option package also includes a self-leveling rear suspension, which uses an air compressor to adjust proper ride height automatically in response to both load and road conditions.

Land Rover’s justly famous all-time four-wheel-drive system combines a four-speed automatic transmission with a high- and low-range transfer case. Four-wheel electronic traction control monitors wheel slip continuously and diverts traction power to non-slipping wheels instantaneously and seamlessly. This system is the heart of Land Rover’s capability and reputation. Moreover, it rides in a chassis sporting 31-degree approach and 25-degree departure angles, so that Discovery drivers can laugh at obstacles that would reduce lesser SUVers to tears.

Discovery’s very capabilities, however, give rise to most of its eccentricities. A high, road-clearing perch of 10 inches (8.2 at the differential), for example, turns the Discovery into a mobile version of Tarzan’s tree house when it’s time to get in and out. My 11-year-old was too short even to reach the grab handle, so she cleverly resorted to a sort of hop-skip-and-chin-up technique to get aboard. And because she loved it, far be it from me to criticize in

this regard.

A bit less enjoyable, from the adult perspective, is the dismal fuel economy of the Discovery, which results from the marriage of a big, old-fashioned V8 to a four-wheel-drive system that’s always powering every wheel. Yes, the off-road traction is peerless; and, yes, the 217 horsepower and 300 ft.-lbs. of torque feel muscular and robust. There’s just something annoying about dressing up this much brute mechanical ability in leather upholstery and glossy paint and expecting folks to dunk a fancy status symbol into a gooey mud hole miles from anywhere. The fact is, Discovery’s posh trimmings and its typical owners’ collective vanity conspire directly against putting this kind of vehicle at maximum risk. When Land Rover predicts that 30 percent of ’03 Discovery models will see some off-road duty, they’re mostly talking about valet parking in a side yard during cocktail parties.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the Discovery has its fans at upper income levels. The interior is crisp, comfortable and as redolent of leathery sport as a tack room at the riding school. Seat heights are high and commanding, and front and second-row occupants enjoy ample leg, hip and shoulder room. Optional third-row seats fold up like the old Discovery’s sideways jump seats; but for ’03, they’re redesigned to deploy cleverly as a forward-facing bench for two shorties. Generous overhead lighting through two standard sunroofs and Land Rover’s trademark roof-corner windows create an airy sensation of spaciousness. Actual room for stowing things is fairly typical by contemporary SUV standards. With the second-row seats in use, there is 41 cubic feet of cargo space; with the middle bench folded, there is 63 cubic feet.

By one way of thinking, a curb weight of nearly 5,000 pounds simply demands the 217 horses of Discovery’s new, larger V8. Acceleration is responsive enough—certainly not particularly spirited, however. Discovery’s road feel is a curious combination of solid and vertiginous: Basic instinct prepares one to feel high-centered and tippy; but Land Rover’s judicious placements of heaviest components in lowest positions, plus the addition of Active Cornering Enhancement, go far to produce stable, natural handling on paved surfaces.

Rather extensive cosmetic surgery up front gives the ’03 Discovery more of a family resemblance to its larger sibling, Range Rover. Otherwise, the traditionally boxy, somewhat ungainly and very British outline of the Discovery remains untouched despite third-generation tinkering and, of course, new ownership of the brand by Ford Motor Co. There’s no question, of course, that Ford will continue to exploit Land Rover’s posh associations with English country life. Ironically, the British themselves still for the most part think of Land Rover as the indefatigable farm and safari truck that goes anywhere and washes clean—inside and out—with a hose. You won’t try that with cream-colored cut-pile carpeting. What’s more, with petrol at more than $5-a-gallon in the UK, Brit traditionalists imagine that only dimwits and oil sheiks would even consider brute-force V8 power. The fuelish and their money, after all, are soon parted.

So it says quite a lot, really, that the 4.6-liter V8 Discovery is destined solely for the U.S. in 2003. Clearly, we deserve it. Sadly, too few of us seem to understand why.

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