The 1999 Discovery Series II has lurched into our lives, built like a brick mausoleum and just as cheerful. Sadly, this upgrade of a veteran sod thumper is also showing its years and offering the sad suggestion that Land Rover may have stayed too long at the fair. No criticism here of the off-road plod of Land Rover, British pioneer of royal-rural, sport-utility, armed-military and scientific-masochistic travels. These pedigreed four-wheel-drivers crawl up boulders better than any other vehicle built to indulge our odd penchant for departing perfectly smooth surfaces to attack wet and lumpy places few trucks have gone before. As a working vehicle, this longer, wider, lower, more powerful and higher-torque Discovery should come with a carabiner as a key fob. We took Discovery on a bedrock safari into the Arizona desert near Quartzsite, climbing gulches, squirming through the wet sands of recent gully washers and wondering if we might be able to climb the saguaros. The truck was its old, indomitable self. Part armadillo, mostly backhoe, all grizzly grip. But who really cares? Bet your mountain bike that none of the 2,000 souls who bought a Series II last month ever commute from Tehachapi to Grapevine and climb Cummings Mountain on the way. It's a rusted-out but still-valid argument: In terms of our real world, which is a fairly level place, why develop a vehicle so overtrained for what the general population will never ask it to do? Better yet, why spend $40,000 (presuming you'll want to enhance the prestige of your base $34,000 Series II by adding leather seats, wood trim and a new electronic handling system) for a vehicle of such singular purpose? Particularly when by cost, comfort, fuel efficiency and on-road performance, a Jeep Cherokee or an Isuzu Rodeo are far superior vehicles. They ride as high and deliver the same sense of security to Mom and the kids. They accelerate far better and carry as much stuff. Of course, Discovery has the undeniable edge when it comes to badge cachet and regal heritage. It has levels of luxury that the Mercedes-Benz ML430 or ultra-expensive Lexus LX 470 can't surpass. And a Land Rover is a Range Rover, and nobody really knows the difference when measuring snob appeal. * Yet the Discovery's biggest claim to infamy remains its undeniable status as the ultimate puzzle palace. This vehicle cannot spell "ergonomics." Its ownership experience involves endless irritations and absolute bemusement at Land Rover's refusal (or parent BMW's indifference) to heed critics and resolve this vehicle's idiocies. We broke our first Series II test vehicle. With less than 8,000 miles on the odometer, the brake pedal developed a hiss. Like escaping air. Or a Rottweiler snuffling under the door. It graduated into an electrical ker-click over the radio whenever the pedal went down and brake lights came on. A replacement arrived with better mechanicals but unchanged aggravations. Such a s inside door handles that are not within reach, only within stretching distance. Or power-window controls set in the center console and requiring a good, hard look to locate before operating. Although the 11-speaker sound system has enough yelp and fidelity to flutter your earlobes, the tuner switch is a dimpled gum ball that defies big fingers. There is no sanity or logic to the vehicle's heat and cooling controls; you pummel all buttons and knobs until some compromise is reached by accident, without finding frostbite or heat prostration in the process. The height of the spare wheel mounted on the tailgate has been reduced an inch, but rear vision remains an obstacle course with a line of sight meandering between two rear headrests (one more if the third seat is ready for occupancy) and up and over that 18-inch wheel and overfed tire. Annoyances are endless. Driver's power seat controls are jammed between the cushion and the side of the center console. Remote loc king-unl ocking is grumpy and works the opposite of controls in the Colonies--i.e., big button to unlock, small button to lock. Or is it the other way around? With Land Rover, nothing is instinctive and everything a constant mental exercise or manual experiment. The Series II has an improved 4.0-liter V-8, marginally puffed up to 188 horsepower from 182. That's just not enough oomph to overcome the bulk of a pudgy Discovery that has again fallen off its diet and put on 150 pounds. A zero-to-60-mph time of almost 12 seconds approaches the level of an afternoon nap. * With patience, however, after you've prodded the engine hard, the Series II will run at speeds where you'll need a shovel to get the bugs off the windshield. Still, the vehicle is sadly under-braked. And at serious speeds, fuel consumption drops to a dismal 12 miles per gallon. Put another way, leave Los Angeles with a full tank and you'll be on fumes by Blythe. A taller windshield means enhanced visibility. Seating positions remain at throne levels. On-road handling--because of a unique system of hydraulic pistons and levers that reduce lateral jiggles and body sway--is much more civilized. On the broad front, Discovery Series II could be considered a superlative. But it is slipping in addressing the minutiae and carps that have become 10-year-old echoes.
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