2003 Land Rover Discovery Reviews and Ratings

Utility 4D HSE 4WD

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2003 Land Rover Discovery
Sam Moses and Mitch McCullough

Land Rovers are the real thing. They were around before sport-utilities were a glimmer in the eyes of the world's marketeers. Land Rover earned its legend in Africa and the Australian Outback, bounding over rocks and hills, fording creeks and rivers, thundering along the savanna, creeping through tall grasslands among prides of lazy lions sulking in the sunlight.

Land Rover Discovery's suspension articulation, four-wheel-drive, and extensive off-road technology must be experienced in extreme conditions to be truly appreciated. Land Rover Centres are staffed with outdoor enthusiasts committed to customer satisfaction. Most have attended Land Rover University in Maryland to learn how to exercise that commitment and to sharpen off-road driving skills.

The Discovery was born in England in 1989 and introduced to North America five years later. It immediately set about spreading the Land Rover experience, by driving overall sales from 4906 in 1994 to 23,826 by 1997. Discovery was redesigned for 1999, and a new chassis and suspension made the Discovery Series II a smoother highway vehicle without compromising its off-road capability. Discovery Series II boosted overall Land Rover sales another 30 percent. Land Rover invested $190 million in its factory in England in 2001, taking advantage of the resources and technology of its parent company Ford, and improving quality control.

The 2003 Discovery gets a more powerful engine, a proven 4.6-liter V8 first introduced in the upscale Range Rover in 1996. There are some 350 other changes to the 2003 Discovery, most notably new headlights and front-end styling, and refinements to the suspension and brakes. But the vast majority of the improvements are details.

Model Lineup
For 2003, Land Rover has revamped the equipment packaging and Discovery model lineup. There are now three Discovery models: S ($34,350), SE ($38,350), and HSE ($40,350).

All three models use the new 217-horsepower aluminum 4.6-liter V8, with a sophisticated four-speed electronic transmission with Normal, Sport and Manual modes. Every Discovery uses a permanent (full-time) four-wheel-drive with a two-speed transfer case. It comes standard with traction control, ABS with electronic brake force distribution, and Hill Descent Control. Also standard are a power driver's seat; dual zone climate control; rear window washer, wiper and defroster; and rear fog lights.

Standard equipment with Discovery S includes seats covered with Duragrain, a tough, attractive vinyl-like material that comes in black or beige; an Alpine 100-watt AM/FM/cassette audio system with six speakers; and 16-inch alloy wheels.

SE and HSE come with black or beige leather seats and burled wood trim. Both offer six-disc CD changers, the SE using a 220-watt Phillips/Lear 12-speaker system, and the HSE using a 320-watt Harman Kardon system with 11 speakers. Both come with 18-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, dual power sunroofs, headlight washers, a cargo tonneau cover, and a Class III tow hitch.

HSE adds a GPS navigation system, power front passenger seat, rear park distance control (a convenient beeper that gauges relative distance to contact), and a self-leveling suspension with rear air springs, good for heavy loads.

Options for all models include a heated windshield and front seats, rear air conditioning, a third-row seat package consisting of two Duragrain jump seats and a hydraulic step for entry from the rear, and Java Black paint.

An optional Performance Package ($1700) for the SE and HSE includes Land Rover's Active Cornering Enhancement system. For 2003, a headliner-mounted DVD system is available.

For 2003, the Land Rover Discovery looks noticeably different from the front, smoother and softer looking, now having a family resemblance to the Range Rover.

New halogen headlights look especially cool, with the high and low beams slightly overlapping in a diagonal downward direction, visible behind a clear wraparound lens. Between them is a revised black three-bar grille. The front bumper has been slightly deepened to include new fog lights, raised to reduce stone damage.

The taillights, turn signals and rear fog lamps have also been tweaked and slightly relocated, and there are new alloy wheel designs for each model.

With its trademark alpine windows and utilitarian styling, the Discovery has a definite distinction. Flat panels and straight lines give it a neat, no-nonsense look that's handsome and classy. Many of the body panels, including the rear doors and quarter panels, are aluminum, to reduce weight and avoid corrosion. Others, like the hood and roof, are galvanized steel.

The current Discovery has a wider stance and a more confident look than pre-1999 models, but its visual heritage still goes back through the original Discovery, all the way back to the first Land Rover of 1948. It is a look that suggests safaris, expeditions, and high adventure. Two new exterior colors for 2003 bring the total to nine.

Discovery's interior is as distinctive as its exterior. It too was completely redesigned for 1999 to reduce British eccentricity. But British luxury abounds. The seats are comfortable in either Duragrain or leather. The driver's seat affords excellent visibility and there's lots of headroom. Land Rover calls its elevated seating the Command Driving Position, and it does afford a commanding view of off-road driving situations.

Automatic climate control provides separate temperature adjustment for driver and passenger, and is easy to reach and to operate. Instruments include a compass, and a handy pointer on the fuel gauge reminds you which side the fuel filler door is on. An outside temperature readout is useful when traveling.

British eccentricity remains, however. Some of the switchgear is awkward to operate and requires the driver to look for the appropriate button. The audio system separates the AM and FM buttons instead of placing them alongside one another. Window switches are located on the center console rather than on the doors. The door lock button on the center dash is hard to find when you want to lock or unlock the doors quickly, like when someone is knocking on the window for you to unlock the door. And the small inside door handles are hard to find and awkward to use.

The step up to Discovery's interior is a big one, and getting into the back seat requires a squeeze through a narrow door opening. Kids don't have any trouble, but shorter, older folks find it challenging. Once back there, however, it's comfortable. Rear-seat passengers sit higher, leading to the stepped roof, and they can view the world through expansive side windows, upper alpine windows and their own sunroof with the SE and HSE. Interior stowage abounds with bins and pockets. There's a 12-volt accessory socket in the cargo area. Cargo nets, tie-downs, grab handles and a cargo cover come standard.

The Rear Seat Package uses two foldaway seats in the cargo area. These front-facing jump seats feature cleverly designed head restraints that drop down from the ceiling, along with three-point seat belts.

Driving Impressions
We'll long remember one 60-mile run in the middle of the night, on a dark, lonely, winding two-lane freeway against a huge headwind, with the cruise control set at 72. That one relatively brief stint tested most of the mechanical improvements to the 2003 Land Rover Discovery. And what we didn't learn that night, we had learned during the day driving all over the city.

First, we were pleased with the performance of the 4.6-liter V8 engine. Out on the freeway, it was amazingly unfazed by that wicked headwind. In spite of its bricklike shape, the Discovery sliced through the night silently and effortlessly, calling upon the impressive 300 foot-pounds of torque at 2600 rpm to get over some of the long climbs without the transmission needing to downshift. A new intake resonator, new sound insulation, revised body mounting points and materials, changes to the transfer case and gears, an overhaul of all the seal fittings, and a new method of balancing the wheels and tires all contribute to less NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), meaning a quieter cabin.

When we got home, we sighed with satisfaction in our driveway, and then gulped in surprise at the gas gauge. The 4.6-liter engine is EPA rated at 12 miles per gallon city and 16 highway (compared to the 13/17 of the 4.0-liter, 188-horsepower engine it replaced), and we suspect on this run it was closer to 12, on premium fuel. The engine may be new to the Discovery, and may have modern components, but the basic architecture can be traced to its 1960's GM roots. Bottom line: Discovery gulps gas.

The suspension has been tweaked with different bushings and retuned shocks and springs, in pursuit of straight-line handling with less wandering and pitching. We were still kept pretty busy making almost constant steering corrections, driving over those curves in the wind, but none of the input had to be sudden or urgent. This may not sound like that's saying much, but it's easy to imagine things being a lot worse in such a situation. Our Discovery HSE was equipped with the magical Active Cornering Enhancement, which uses lightning-quick hydraulic actuators to reduce body lean during cornering, but all our curves were fairly sweeping, so that probably wasn't a factor in the good handling that night.

Without ACE, the Discovery feels firmly planted in corners and can be driven through a turn hard once it takes a set. However, its forte is not quick transient response, such as what you'd experience in a double lane change maneuver or barreling down a country road. This is a tall vehicle that sways and yaws.

The other '03 improvement that passed with flying colors was the halogen headlights. Land Rover says they provide a beam with a far better spread, range and evenness. The low beam seemed fairly ordinary, but the high beam was exceptional and provided a fantastic feeling of confidence at 72 mph on this dark and lonely night on a road often crossed by deer.

Around town, paradoxically, the engine seemed noisy when accelerating away from stops, as if it were working hard. This engine came from last year's Range Rover.

As for the brakes, the revisions have been made in order to firm up the feel of the pedal. There are new pads, a new master cylinder, changes to the pistons in the calipers, and changes to the ABS control program. That's good news because the brakes were lousy in previous Discovery models. The brake pedal in the 2003 Discovery feels fine. Also, the Discovery performed very well in some admittedly unscientific brake testing. The Land Rover Discovery and the all-new Volvo XC90 delivered shorter stopping distances than the Acura MDX, GMC Envoy V8, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Ford Expedition. Discovery comes standard with Electronic Brake Distribution, which improves stability when braking and reduces stopping distances by transferring braking force from the rear to the front as the vehicle stops, ensuring optimum balance and stability.

Discovery really shines in extreme conditions, gullies, steep, slippery slopes, deep, unplowed snow, treacherous terrain. Discovery always goes places where other 4WD vehicles cannot go. It's capable of tackling obstacles most of us would not attempt. It can perform truly amazing feats in the hands of an experienced off-road driver.

Exceptional wheel travel and suspension articulation are part of the reason. When the left front wheel drops into a big hole the right rear wheel is less likely to lift off the ground. Contributing to its off-road prowess are a high ground clearance, generous angles of approach and departure, and the ability to wade through 20 inches of water. A Panhard rod keeps the live front axle running straight and true. A Watt's link performs a similar service at the rear. It's this precise control of axle geometry that lets the axles travel so far.

Hill Descent Control maintains a controllable speed down steep descents: The system works in low range at low speeds. 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 a great feature and it works really well.

Going uphill, a sophisticated traction control system detects wheel slip and automatically applies brake pressure to the spinning wheel, routing power to the wheels with the best traction. The result is confident progress up slippery slopes.

Discovery's body is mounted to a separate truck-style frame. It is a superb design for off-road driving. The frame is fully boxed, a design other manufacturers have just recently adopted. Side-impact beams are designed into all four doors, rather than just the front doors, as is the case for many SUVs.

For 2003, Land Rover has addressed two of the Discovery's weakest points: brakes and power. A larger engine boosts horsepower by 15 percent and torque by 20 percent. Revised brakes improve pedal feel and stopping distances. There have been some 350 other improvements, as well. In spite of a small increase in price, the 2003 Land Rover Discovery offers more value than it did in 2002.

What remains is its amazing off-road capability, its luxurious and very British interior, and its distinctive styling. Many people like the Discovery for its panache. We like the Land Rover Discovery because it is authentic. While most sport-utility vehicles are nothing more than tall station wagons with a high seating position, the Land Rover Discovery is the real thing.

Model as tested
HSE ($40,995)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Solihull, England
Destination charge
Gas guzzler tax
Base Price
Price as tested
Options as tested
Cold Climate Package ($500) includes heated front seats and windshield; Performance Package ($1700) includes Active Cornering Enhancement

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
S ($34,350); SE ($38,995); HSE ($40,995)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake Distribution, traction control (4ETC), Hill Descent Control, side-impact beams
Safety equipment (optional)
4.6-liter ohv 16-valve V8
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
ABS, electronic traction control, dual-zone climate control, power windows, mirrors and locks, variable-speed intermittent wipers, rear window wiper/washer, headlight washers, premium AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo, cruise control, Hill Descent Control, keyless remote

Engine & Transmission
4.6-liter ohv 16-valve V8
Drivetrain type
permanent four-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
217 @ 4750
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)

Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS, EBD
Suspension, front
live axle
Suspension, rear
live axle

Seating capacity
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear

Fuel capacity
Trunk volume
Turning circle
Towing capacity
Track, front/rear
Ground clearance
Curb weight

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