If you really want to understand the character of the Land Rover Discovery Series II, you should crawl around underneath it. The mere fact that you CAN should tell you something. A generous 10 inches separates frame and ground. And that frame looks as rugged as the support beams for the new stadium, a building on Cincinnati's riverfront.

Like its big brother, the Range Rover, the Discovery is no off-road pretender. Before the Series II was publicly introduced last year, it had just completed a tour around the globe that involved dubious surfaces in places where the name Caterpillar is unknown. Considering that Rover products earned their spurs in places that never did, probably never will have service stations, it's not surprising that on-road comfort takes a back seat to off-road invincibility.

At moderate speeds, over fair-to-middling roads, the Discovery has the ride quality of a modern pickup truck unladen, which is nowhere near so damning a simile as it once was - but it's not like being carried in a sedan chair, either. That massive body-on-frame construction feels as if it's pounding minor discontinuities of surface into submission. That's what it's supposed to do, but it's not supposed to give blow-by-blow reports.

Not surprisingly, as speeds rise and roads worsen, the machine feels more and more competent. There's a threshold above which the sensations telegraphed to the cabin begin to be disproportionately low compared with what the suspension is going through. So be advised, if what you really want is a tall surrogate car for those adventures to the local grocery, this might not be the right choice. If you want to make your own roads, this is a highly civilized way of doing it.

The Series II designation refers to the nearly-total overhaul this model got for the 1999 season. Though it looks much as it always did - boxy and ungainly, but definitely one of a kind - 85 percent of its makeup is new. Most notably, the distance from rear axle to rear bumper was stretched by six inches to boost cargo (or third-class passenger) space to 40 cubic feet, or 63 c.f. with the second seats folded.

With two swingaway jump seats behind the second row, the Range Rover can technically be referred to as a seven-place transporter. People of normal adult size and agility would much prefer it to be regarded as a four-place machine. The second row is a bit tight, fore and aft, even for two median adults, but can be had with the unusual amenity of a separate moonroof and clerestory windows, and is raised, theater-style, a bit above the front perches for better forward visibility. I enjoyed playing with the second moonroof, but, forgetful soul that I am, wish that it could be closed after dismounting via the remote keyless entry fob. I'll bet more than one Discovery has gotten an inadvertent drenching.

The Discovery is tall - a bit over 6 feet, 4 inches - and the seats are placed high enough so that you feel as if you've earned the commanding view of the road the feat of climbing in rewards you with. The steering wheel tilts manually through a restricted arc, which is little help; in this class, a decently tilting and telescoping arrangement - it need not be electrical - would be expected. The wheel is oval in cross section instead of the more common circular; this soon comes to feel like the Right Way.

The 100-inch wheelbase is quite tidy, as SUVs go, and its overall length of 185 inches slots in between the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer. But thanks to its solid construction, it outweighs them both - 4,630 pounds - and this thanks to aluminum engine, hood, quarter panels and rear hatch. (Roof and doors are steel, for greater impact resistance.)

It's rated for a payload (folks and gear) of around 1,500 pounds, and can tow up to 7,700 pounds of brake-equipped trailer in high range. For such chores, or for even just ambling down to the polo match (the kind of rough service most of t machines get), a four-liter V-8 is just barely adequate. The Rover engine is an all-aluminum, overhead-valve type made more for load-budging torque (250 foot-pounds @ 2,600 rpm) than high-speed dashes (it's rated at 188 hp at 4,750 rpm). With each horse toting well over 20 pounds, 0-60 times approach 12 seconds and overall responsiveness is rather languid. But the flat torque curve (210 foot-pounds available between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm) is well-suited to heavy-duty slogging and about-town motoring.

Unfortunately, it wants premium fuel, and wants it bad. EPA estimates are 13 mpg city, 17 highway. I logged 14.7 with a bit of off-roading and low-range work, but mostly on paved roads. The tank holds 24.6 gallons.

The Discovery has full-time four-wheel drive and a low-range transfer case. Electronic traction control is standard; this is on the lookout for wheel slippage, and when it detects it, sends braking pulses to the wheel or wheels that have lost traction. In tests on greasy roads and in a nearby sand pit, it seemed rapid-acting and effective.

The transmission is a four-speed electronically-controlled automatic. It shifted smoothly and quickly. Top gear is a long-legged 0.73:1 overdrive which yielded about 28 mph per 1,000 engine revs in steady-state cruising.

The transfer case's low range is accessed with a flick of the shifter while stopped. It multiplies torque by factor of 2.7. You won't use this much, but when you do, you'll be in some trouble and will be glad to have it.

The test machine had the optional Active Cornering Enhancement - system. Adjustable two-piece sway bars are mounted front and rear. Accelerometers in the headliner and floor detect cornering forces before the body has even begun to lean and send a message to hydraulic actuators to tighten the sway bars. As a result, there is virtually no roll about the longitudinal axis when lateral forces are below 0.4 G. The system backs off progressively above that threshold to let the driver know she's approaching the vehicle's limits. The system is remarkably effective. You'd expect this tall hunk to feel tippy, but it wasn't - in fact it was surprisingly assured in fairly aggressive cornering maneuvers. Large front and rear disc brakes allowed high-rate stops with no trace of fade and good pedal feel. The standard antilock was quietly efficient.

A killer stereo is standard: 320 watts, 12 speakers, AM-FM-Weather Band tuner and cassette deck, with steering-wheel-mounted primary controls. The unit had very good sensitivity and extraordinary clarity and power. The Discovery was assembled (quite well) at the Solihull plant in Great Britain. Ford Motor Co. has just bought the Rover brands from BMW, and if what they have done with Jaguar is any guide, this bodes well for the marque. BMW was well along, it says, with the redesign of the next generation SUVs, which is also encouraging, considering what they did with their X5.

Base price on the Discov ery is $34,150. Watch how quickly that can be inflated by $10K: A cold climate package (heated windshield and front seats) is $500; a CD player, $625; Group 3 (leather seating, dual moonroofs, rear air conditioning) $4,000; performance package (the ACE system, 18-inch alloy wheels and 255/55 tires) $2,900; vast expanses of extra premium leather, $2,450, and freight, $625. Total: $45,250.

"The Gannett News Service"