A brief flash of azure sky as expansive as the Sahara assures me that I'm still upright, albeit marginally, and the 2017 Land Rover Discovery in my hands is still methodically scaling an absurdly steep shoulder of stone in the mountains of Utah. I'm reminded of Paul Bowles' novel of existential despair, The Sheltering Sky, both because of the overarching blue and the ravine that looms to my left, deep enough to swallow a rolling SUV without a hiccup. For a moment, I don't know whether to just stop where I am and enjoy a quiet cry or go with the flow and have a blast.
Just ahead stands an intrepid, gesturing Land Rover "spotter" and his calm expertise draws my attention back to the task at hand. Every particle of my focus returns to the ascent. I go with the flow, remind myself that life is all about the journey, and, with the help of the Discovery's All-Terrain Progress Control technology, crawl to the top of the challenging incline.
Exhilarated by my rock-climbing feat and existential despair avoided, I nevertheless knew credit must go to ATPC, the semiautonomous electronic wizardry that turns the taking on of extreme terrain into a drive in the park. It's like discovering (pun intended) an entirely new level of driving skill without needing a minute of practice or study, or being re-born already knowing the techniques of the backcountry stunt driving that's best left to hyper-glandular teens or former commandos.
Jubilation and sweaty palms aside, I could see why Land Rover brought us here. From Zion National Park's multilayered sediments, sodden riverbeds, and precipitous inclines to the colorful Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Park, the terrain seemed specially crafted to reveal a Land Rover's very reason for being. I could envision no better locale than the diverse topography of the Beehive State to illustrate the civility and versatility of a vehicle spawned from rugged, individualistic DNA.
Once deplaned in St. George, my driving partner and I hit the road in a silver Discovery powered by a supercharged V-6 with 340 hp, one of two engine offerings. On day two, we would sample the 254hp 3.0L turbodiesel V-6. Each is paired to an eight-speed gearbox.
First up, our cruise through Zion National Park. The road through the 229-square-mile wonderland was created with sightseeing in mind, and the civilized 25-mph limit left plenty of time to take in the mystical vibe of the looming cliffs and stone pillars of the Navajo Sandstone rock formations. It also provided the opportunity to contemplate the Discovery's roots and contemporary attributes.
Since its 1989 debut at the Frankfurt Show as a "lifestyle accessory," the versatile "Disco" has globetrotted 8,000-mile transcontinental expeditions, trekked through the Andes, and padded through the Serengeti. However capable it might be off the pavement, however, the Discovery has to compete against the likes of BMW, Audi, and even Jaguar, along with a pack of Eastern contenders, to attract a more urbane clientele. So far, so good: As of 2016, Land Rover has sold more than 1.2 million Discos, and though purists may not be enamored of its heritage, the Land Rover moniker still conjures up a wild and wooly image that is missing from the rest of the herd.
Having successfully transcended the "accessory" pejorative, this fifth-generation Discovery is more about abundant technological ease, starting with the nine USB outlets that can help elevate your entire passenger load to a state of high-tech, high-speed bliss. Seven full-grown, over-the-moon techies can surf and slouch in one of the three rows of heated leather seats, or, should the guest list or cargo load change, the Intelligent Seat Folding system can reconfigure rows two and three through a choice of old-fashioned switches, touch-screen display, or remote use of a Smartphone application. In that vein, folks from the 'burbs, whether burdened with armloads of Whole Paycheck organics, a hyperactive purse poodle, bags of aromatic sports equipment, or garden mulch will appreciate the Gesture Control Tailgate feature. Wave your foot under the bumper, and the single-piece composite hatch opens for business.
Contemplation is exhausting. After a stopover at Zion Mountain Ranch in Mount Carmel, Utah, for an organic farm-to-table nosh on such fare as spicy buffalo chili, happily sated Team Disco detoured from the predictable two-laner onto a muddy track to sample a bit of All-Terrain Technology.
My off-road experience, born of necessity, was traversing snowed-in dirt roads in a two-wheel-drive Dodge truck. The day's projected jaunt through the soggy, muddy, rutted Utah outback triggered a bit of nostalgia, but also more than a little trepidation just from not knowing what I was doing. My fears proved unfounded. Land Rover's Terrain Response 2 system automatically monitors the driving environment to cope with any variety of surface conditions, including general driving and surfaces ranging from grass, gravel, and snow to mud and ruts, sand, and seemingly insurmountable rocky ridges. And Hill Descent Control renders the possibility of charging into craters and ditches or off cliffs into a smooth, computer-controlled ride down a bumpy escalator. Set the Adjustable Air Suspension to the highest position and 11.1 inches of ground clearance will get you through up to three feet of water, even if it's just city dwellers encountering a spewing broken water main.
With all the technological specifications packed into this new Discovery, even Hal 9000 would want to browse through the owner's manual before takeoff. Land Rover has obviously put a great deal of thought, consideration, and research into the rebranding of the new generation, and those at corporate are banking that Land Rover aficionados will want to make their own discovery.
After the day of driving, on and off the pavement, the Discovery proved to be more than a fashion statement. Nor could it be reduced to being called a mere babysitter for the neophyte off-roader. It's a true all-arounder with the composed road handling; smooth, fresh look; and upscale interior environment it needs in the SUV street wars, while its impeccable off-road skills add a dimension missing from the opposition.
ec soared back to civilization and met with Jaguar/Land Rover North America President and CEO Joachim W. Eberhardt. The discussion centered on the past, present, and future of the two brands.
Since its introduction in 1989, the multi-purpose Land Rover Discovery has evolved from utilitarian vehicle to embrace a more town and country appeal. What is the target market for the Discovery?
That's a great question, and there's no simple answer to that. I don't think we target a specific audience, either demographically or psychographically. I believe we just attract people who are interested in getting the best in terms of a combination of capability, refinement, and luxury.
I was talking to my wife about this the other day and I asked, "What is it that makes Land Rover so different and so special?" In my opinion, and for people in the know, it's the authenticity and the history. We are a British brand, and that sets us apart from our German or Asian competitors, along with the fact that Land Rover is, for all intents and purposes, solely an SUV brand, an off-road brand. We don't have to be everything to everyone, and that in itself makes us more focused and as a result even more special.
So, in terms of targeting, we see drivers who are looking for uniqueness, as well as for the pinnacle of the particular segment. Demographically, our customers, especially in Range Rover, are much younger and more affluent than with any other brand. As a result, we really are the envy of luxury car manufacturers who traditionally want younger customers who will stay with them. Obviously, an affluent market customer is able to afford all the new things in development. So from that perspective, we are truly blessed to have such a wonderful, loyal base. We have a wide range of people, we call them "super loyalists," who have owned six or seven cars, and they keep coming back. I live in Westchester County in New York, and my neighbor buys a new Range Rover every two years and wouldn't think of buying another brand. He says, "I love the brand, and that is where my home is."
The Discovery went on a diet, shedding 1,050 pounds from its predecessor, the LR4. The reduction in body weight with the aluminum architecture and powertrain translates to lower emissions and better fuel economy, so does that affect CAFE standards?
Absolutely. We look at what drives this in terms of weights, first and foremost, and then the efficiency of the engine. Just to give you one number, the current generation Range Rover, with the diesel engine, is 80 percent more fuel efficient than the prior generation. Even though our more demographically affluent customers can probably afford to pay for fuel, they still want to be smart enough to own a fuel-efficient vehicle. It is important to them, and that is why with this Discovery the emphasis has been on aerodynamics and weight. It's close to 1,000 pounds lighter than the car it replaces, and as a result, this ultimately affects fuel economy.
With Land Rover so vested in an enthusiast market that uses a vehicle for a specific driving purpose, how might a move to autonomous driving work out for Land Rover?
In my opinion, in the long-term, people will want the opportunity to own a car that can be driven autonomously but at the same time will more than likely want to choose when they can drive and be in command. When we will see the first autonomous car is very much dependent on regulations, on a lot of things that are outside of our control. We are working on the systems, and technically a lot of what is in the Discovery today would be almost sufficient to drive autonomously-in terms of the cameras and the other systems, it's all there. So it really depends on the regulatory side of it, things such as insurance, liability, and whether autonomous vehicles can be mixed with non-autonomous vehicles on the same roads.
Let's talk about Jaguar and the continued expansion of the premium market. With cars like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class becoming so commonplace, does it behoove brands like Jaguar or Land Rover to focus on core values and not "sell out" so to speak, like the two big Germans have done? Further, considering the success of the Jaguar F-Pace and the anticipation of the I-Pace, does that push the future of Jaguar design in a different direction, perhaps even so far as to reevaluate the traditional sedan in the U.S. market?
The market is certainly developing in the direction of SUVs, to the point where in the last couple of months, a large percentage of the market was in SUV or light trucks. I think the definition of the SUV is also changing and evolving. In the past it was a utilitarian, off-road-focused vehicle, and we see some of that, but we can actually build a dynamic SUV that is almost as capable on the track as a sports car, whether it is a car like the Porsche Macan or the Jaguar F-Pace.
To us, this is an interesting development, because it means that we can have two brands with SUVs that complement, as well as compete, with each other. While the F-Pace is off-road capable, you wouldn't want to take it on the trails like we did with the Discovery today. However, you probably wouldn't be able to have the same track times in the Discovery as in the F-Pace. So, I think this allows us to offer a solution for every customer need. There are people who want the more capable, rugged, and versatile SUV and others want a more performance-, or dynamic-oriented, vehicle.
The future of the car as a traditional sedan is an interesting question, and I tend to believe there is a future for it. There are always customers who appreciate the advantages a car offers, and always will. A lower center of gravity means a more dynamic driving experience. Not everyone wants to climb up high into an SUV; they are looking for an easier ingress into the vehicle. Loading a sedan may be easier than loading a higher SUV. So we are trying to cater to all parts of the market, and for a long-winded answer, I can't see a time when Jaguar would be just an SUV company.
A lot of european car readers are BMW drivers. How do you plan to entice these hard-core owners into a Jaguar or Land Rover dealership, and would that be an easier sale than, for instance, getting someone to step up from a Toyota Camry?
We are not picky as to where our customers come from. At Jaguar, we offer what we call the "Art of Performance" tour. This seven-city U.S. tour takes customers through the driving dynamic experience. The idea is to put people who may not have considered a Jaguar before behind the wheel in order to experience the advantages of the car.
Historically, Jaguar has always made cars that are beautiful to look at and exhilarating to drive and, quite frankly, we lost that a little bit over some time. In addition, we had some other quality issues, unfortunately, in the past, and to some degree, that still affects our current brand.
Overcoming that perception is key, and to do that we have beautiful designs and extremely capable cars. But we also want to make sure we provide the right value. Jaguar Elitecare provides warranty coverage and a customer service package, again because we didn't want to leave any argument out there where one could say, 'I love the looks, I love the drive, but I don't want to take the risk.' We want to make sure all the bases are covered, and I think our success is a result of that particular strategy. The new F-Type is at the core, or the heart, of the new Jaguar. It's in the DNA.