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In a world overrun by minivans posing as sport-utilities, the Land Rover Discovery is the real thing, the Swiss Army knife. It is the authentic 4x4. Few SUVs can venture as far off road, into the backcountry as the Discovery can go. Its suspension articulation and permanent four-wheel-drive system must be experienced in extreme conditions to truly be appreciated.
With its distinctive Land Rover styling and heritage, the Discovery is often thought to be expensive, yet it starts at just $33,350.
The Discovery was a winner out of the box. After it was introduced to North America in 1994, Land Rover's total sales climbed from 4906 to 23,826 by 1997. For 1999, the Discovery was redesigned and re-engineered (with some 13,000 new parts); the changes were dramatic enough that Land Rover dubbed it the Discovery Series II. With no price increase, it boosted overall Land Rover sales another 30 percent. The new chassis and suspension made it easier to drive on the highway without sacrificing any of the legendary off-road capability. Refinements to the interior reduced some of the quirkiness without losing that Land Rover charm. Freshened styling made it look more confident without losing its distinctive appearance.
Discovery Series II drives and handles light years better than the first-generation models. While pre-1999 models felt tentative in transient maneuvers and leaned through corners, the Series II feels firmly planted and tackles curves with confidence. It's remarkably responsive and stays surprisingly level during switchback turning or quick defensive maneuvers on the freeway.
The '99 redesign widened the track by 2.1 inches front and 2.9 inches rear, and further changed the steering geometry with longer control arms. The front axle features a Panhard rod to resist cornering forces, and the live rear axle with its control links provide exceptional wheel travel while reducing lift under hard braking. The rear suspension shares its basic design with the Range Rover.
These on-road refinements have taken nothing from Land Rover's renowned off-road capability. The Discovery Series II still features long suspension travel to climb over rocky terrain. It comes standard with permanent four-wheel drive and a four-speed ZF automatic transmission. A transfer case provides a low range for extremely steep or slippery terrain.
Exceptional wheel travel with excellent articulation means that when the left front wheel drops into a big hole, the right rear wheel is less likely to lift off the ground. A high ground clearance, generous angles of approach and departure and the capability of wading through 20 inches of water allow the Discovery to go where few vehicles have gone before. (Though you should always tread lightly.)
Hill Descent Control maintains a controllable speed during steep off-road descents: The system works in low range below 34 mph. Simply press a button and keep your feet off the pedals. Hill Descent Control automatically applies brake pressure and uses engine braking, so the Discovery confidently creeps down terrifyingly steep grades.
It's in extreme conditions that the Discovery really shines. We've driven them through deep, unplowed snow, over icy roads and on treacherous primitive paths around the world and the Discovery never hesitated. It always went places where other 4WD vehicles could not go.
The Discovery uses a strong body-on-frame design. It is a superb design for off-road driving. The frame is fully boxed, something other manufacturers are just starting to use. Side-impact beams are designed into all four doors, rather than just the front doors, as is the case for many SUVs.
Land Rover's sophisticated traction control system detects wheel slippage and automatically applies brake pressure to the spinning wheel, thereby directing torque to the wheels with the best traction.
Electronic Brake Distribution takes the anti-lock brake system well beyond standard ABS. EBD provides quicker, safer stops by transferring braking force front to rear to ensure optimum balance and stability.
The optional Active Cornering Enhancement, or ACE, reduces body lean in turns. It electronically measures lateral acceleration and then hydraulically applies torque to the chassis via two piston/lever configurations that replace the front and rear anti-roll bars. Good as the system is, at nearly $3,000 it may be difficult to justify if you don't engage in aggressive cornering. Still, stability always means safety.
The Self-Leveling Suspension (SLS), which is standard on the 7-seaters, uses rear air springs to maintain optimum ride height whether the vehicle is heavily loaded, unevenly loaded or being used for towing.
Land Rover Discovery Series II offers truly refined on-road handling. Most people buy Land Rovers for their panache, but few if any civilized vehicles can match the Discovery's off-road capability. The Discovery Series II remains the ultimate off-road utility vehicle, while technology makes it one of the most advanced sport-utility vehicles in its price range.