- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

Once upon a time, there were only two.

If you wanted a sport-utility vehicle with four doors and off-road capabilities, you could choose between an American Jeep or a British Land Rover. Of course, that was a quarter of a century ago in real time, when the SUV designation was unknown, and light years in automotive terms, when most people simply wanted a big old American hardtop or sedan and thought trucks were for, well, trucking.

Now there are about 50 different sport utes from which to choose, and a lot of buyers don't care much whether they are off-road capable or not. They like roomy trucks, or pseudo trucks, with high seating positions and plenty of weather-protected cargo space. They also like the all-wheel drive for motoring in inclement conditions.

There are, however, a dedicated cadre of folks who do travel into the boondocks and care deeply about whether their vehicles can negotiate boulders and mud in trackless terrain. Although many though certainly not all of the SUV latecomers exhibit decent off-road qualities, two of the nameplates that still inspire reverence are Jeep and Land Rover.

Of the various models offered by these two distinguished manufacturers, only one bridges the gap between the modern suburban shopping center and the romance of bounding across an African veldt with a herd of zebras. That's the Land Rover Discovery, now in its third generation. It's true that both Jeep, with the Wrangler, and Land Rover, with the Defender, offer gutsy all-terrain machines that can handle just about anything nature throws at them. But they are bare-bones, two-door appliances, where the Discovery can do almost anything they can and still carry mom and the kids to the soccer match.

Nothing on the road looks quite like a Discovery. Add a water can or two, and it would be just as much at home on Rodeo Drive in California or a back road in the Congo. It's short but high, giving it a somewhat ungainly look. But that's an illusion. Most of the Discovery's hardware is down under, so the center of gravity is low, enabling it to crawl over steep terrain without tipping. It also has a lot of heft. The curb weight is close to 2½ tons, which brings us to a serious but not new criticism. The fuel economy, at 12 miles to the gallon in the city and 16 highway, is dismal. The truth, however, is that most Discovery buyers don't care.

The price is close to what it was before. The tested SE model, with such amenities as automatic climate control, dual power sunroofs, power seats, headlight washers, a premium stereo with a six-disc CD changer and 18-inch alloy wheels, had a suggested base price of $38,995.

Seven-passenger seating, rear air conditioning and a cold-weather package brought the bottom-line sticker to $41,245. To distinguish the 2003 model, tested here, you must look at the front. The Discovery stylists didn't change the body, but they did give the Discovery the same distinctive projector-type headlights that are found on the grand new Range Rover. That's to emphasize the family identity.

The big news for 2003 is another borrowing from the Range Rover: its engine. The new Discovery gets the bigger 4.6-liter V-8 engine from the 2002 Range Rover. It delivers a solid 217 horsepower and a whopping 300 foot-pounds of torque, which is a measure of low-speed lugging capability. That, of course, is what you need while slogging around in the forest. The engine is an all-aluminum affair with overhead valves and pushrods, the latest execution of a very old design. Land Rover bought the original from Buick back in the early 1960s. Obviously, it has been much improved since.

Behind the move to the bigger V-8 was a need to mollify dedicated Land Rover owners, some of whom complained that the previous-generation Discovery, with 187 horsepower, had a tendency to run out of breath in certain circumstances.

The transmission is a four-speed automatic that transfers the power to all four wheels all the time. There's still a stubby lever on the console to manually shift the all-wheel drive into low range for off-roading. Unfortunately, there's no way to lock the center differential for really tough going, but the Land Rover folks say that's on the way back.

The Discovery also offers Land Rover's hill descent control. Working off the antilock brakes, the HDC system automatically applies the brakes to assist engine braking during steep descents. As before, the suspension system uses solid axles front and rear with coil springs at all four wheels. And the power-assisted steering is of the worm-and-roller type, which delivers less steering-wheel kickback off road than the more common rack-and-pinion setup.

Despite that, the Discovery handles decently on the highway.

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