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Nashville Scene Unexpected Discovery

Land Rover speeds through sport/utility fray

By Marc Stengel

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Three summers ago, I had the lovely experience of hiking through the mountains of South Wales known as the Brecon Beacons. Crickhowell was my base camp, and in the best tradition of small British villages, it is enjoyably unremarkable. Whenever I travel to Great Britain, though, I always discover some evidence that I have shunted off temporarily into a parallel universe. In Crickhowell, that evidence was as obvious as the imposing stone bridge that spans the River Usk below the town. As riffling waters flow out of the west, they stream under 12 Roman arches supporting the narrow, 17th-century bridge; but when the river emerges from the eastern side, there are 13 arches for the counting. It's a masonry mystery of delicious proportions, and a telling reminder that when traveling in Britain, what is seen is rarely what it seems.

Now I see a '98-model Land Rover Discovery sport/utility vehicle parked in the drive outside my home, and I marvel at its own inscrutable inconsistencies. Even accounting for its luxuriously self-indulgent big brother, Range Rover, the Land Rover Discovery is the most distinctive SUV sold in North America today. Moreover, it is arguably the only current model that meets the definition of "sport/utility vehicle" in both spirit and letter without resorting to Clintonion sleights of semantics. Yet it nevertheless remains a curious collection of paradoxes.

To begin, this most British of all SUVs is no longer really British at all, legally speaking. Since 1994, the parent Rover Group has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Germany's BMW Group. Far from an awkward circumstance, however, the BMW alliance virtually guarantees the security of Land Rover's two most persuasive enticements: its technical brilliance, particularly off-road; and its pretentions to refinement.

As for the latter concern, Land Rover epitomizes the British way of doing things--even more so perhaps than fellow Brit Jaguar (now owned by Ford)--and the Discovery's expression of refinement is no exception. In taking what amounts to a clockmaker's marvel of off-road ingenuity and transforming it into an upscale SUV, Land Rover has simply glued on various convenient devices the way England's landed gentry have retro-fitted indoor plumbing, electrical circuits, and telephone lines onto stately medieval manor homes. The effect is charming and perplexing in roughly equal measures.

Speakers for the Discovery's sound system, for example, are just sort of pasted into the door panels or stuck onto the A-pillars that bracket the front windshield. An optional $625 six-disk CD-changer is squirreled away in what seems the last remaining space--the floor cubby under the high-mounted front passenger seat. I will leave to the imagination whether muddy boots and snow slush will ultimately wreak their havoc upon this high-tech afterthought.

When I behold the giant console between the front seats, I envision a sort of endearing mad scientist like James Bond's Q exclaiming, "That's it! We'll put everything there." And so Land Rover has done: power seat adjusters where you least expect them, right next to your fanny; power window controls and seat heaters in a frustrating chessboard arrangement that virtually mandates at least two guesses to accomplish your every wish. While I'm at it, I'll admit my concern with the insubstantial interior door pulls, which appear to be tacked on at just two critical points. (The front of the driver's-side pull began working its way out of the door during my own voyage of Discovery.) And the sight of chipped plastic exposing the fastening screws for a brittle plastic bin inside the rear loading door inspired little optimism that this cubby would live long and prosper.

Most annoying of all, though, was the Discovery's determination never to relinquish its key from the ignition. Theoretically, the key switch is interlocked with the transmission, as required by U.S. law; to remove the key, you must shift to Park, push the key inward while twisting backward, and voilá! It took seven days, but finally I discovered that this (hopefully) non-representive test-model required a short, sharp shot when slamming the shifter into Park, presumably to align a balky interlock linkage. I have to believe this betrays a slapdash attempt to bring the very British Land Rover up to America's arguably overprotective safety standards.

To leave it at that, however, would be to leave out the best part of the story; and that part is the Discovery's irrepressible personality on- and off-road. From a nation that once worshipped warships named Dauntless and Indefatigable, Discovery has stormed our shores equipped with a permanent four-wheel-drive system, fully independent coil-spring suspension, and torquey (although thirsty) 182-horsepower V8--the unique combination of which renders insurmountables mountable. On the road, Discovery perches its driver and passengers far above the fray. Under twin standard sunroofs, occupants are invited to sit, literally as well as figuratively, on a pedestal--the better to enjoy the ride and, as T.S. Eliot might say, "to swell a progress."

But off-road lies the sheer brilliance of the matter. An extremely low center of gravity (despite excellent 8.1 inches of ground clearance) yields class-leading capabilities: a maximum side-angle gradient of 45 degrees; approach angle of 38 degrees; departure angle of 28 degrees. Indeed, at Land Rover Nashville's intimidating test track, the Discovery snugged around a storm-drenched 35-degree side slope with nary a slip--even while the view out the side window recalled a small airplane banking through a steep turn.

Other technical plums abound. Even the lowly parking brake, for example, locks the drive line rather than the disk brakes. The result is positive, gear-meshed immobility for staying safely parked even on extreme grades. In short, the Discovery is a wonderful tool for performing sporty and useful tasks off-road, and for traveling to and from the rough in civilized, if eccentric, style.

Problem is, a consideration of what's really rough out there is lacking from the general hype marketing SUVs as a class, so that too many consumers think they want a sport/ute when they'll actually settle for an over-plushed truck. Discovery isn't over-plushed by any means--perhaps just the opposite, in fact. But it is the hyper-capable and status-gilded sport/ute many people think they want, only to discover later perhaps that they've bought a marvelous tool for a job they had no intention of undertaking. What they thought they'd seen in this Land Rover, in other words, isn't exactly what it seems.

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