Land Rover attempts to turn sow’s ear Disco into an over-pricey silk purse
When the original Discovery appeared in 1989 as a more rudimentary version of the luxurious Range Rover, recalls Iain Robertson, it was heralded as the saviour of the company and, despite intolerable unreliability, it became an agricultural doyen.
Blame the market is always a useful fallback area in the automotive scene. With tongues firmly in cheeks, VW Group could scarcely believe its good fortune, when buyers flocked to its Skoda showroom doors to buy Fabias and Octavias, the company having changed its market position so comprehensively from the prior producer of East European junk. Just contemplate the position in which war-rescued Romanian Dacia finds itself, turning cheap Renaults into relatively inexpensive mainstream fodder for a more sophisticated customer base.
The simple truth is that carmakers employ all manner of ‘think tanks’ in support of their product marketing operations. Be under zero illusion, they know (most of the time) the market spaces that they intend to occupy, even though, sworn to brand secrecy, they would never dream of announcing their plans to the consumer. For West Midlands’ based Land Rover that had motored along quite contentedly manufacturing various versions of the 90 and 110-inch wheelbase versions of the forerunner to Defender, the Range Rover was a remarkable shock tactic that almost did not make it.
Not known for bandying about vainglorious titles, even I had to accept that the Rangie was a motoring icon from the outset. Its crisp styling, prodigiously capable dynamics and purposeful stance turned so many agricultural precepts on their heads that it was inevitable it would find itself on an ‘up’ escalator. The rudimentary rubber floor covering and plastic seating was ditched in favour of Wilton and fine hide, as the three-door became five-door and every British country estate adopted the Range Rover as its preferred upmarket estate. The resultant void between the farmers’ favourite and the landed gentry’s preference had widened to a point at which a model bridge became essential and Discovery was born.
It curtailed the luxury accoutrements’ haul, resorted to a marginally less complex drivetrain and attracted buyers with even more purposeful but handsome styling. Yet, a ‘new order’ within the company perceived a vision of the future, in which the land-owning fraternity, in the UK at least, would feel compelled to acquire the latest Landy, rather than a growing line-up of Japanese imports that were significantly more reliable, better built, every bit as practical but also laden with carlike goodies for the magpie set. Disco had entered an ultra-competitive scene but it was not long before it, too, became subjected to the upmarket ‘bling’ treatment, apparently because customers were demanding it but more likely because there was a whole heap of extra profit in the product. Thus, the race began to direct the entire company’s output into the upper echelons.
It is a dangerous game to play, as it needs the market to keep up. Simply whacking up the content’s quota, as the price tag heads into six-figure territory, might be construed as myopic, because there are far fewer Richie Richs around than aspiring working class consumers. Yet, reputations spread and fresh markets open up to accommodate a growing demand and increasing production runs. While I perceive Land Rover’s marketing greed as its most offensive operational aspect, the upwardly mobile nature of its products led to the arrival of the latest Discovery outline.
From the get-go, I saw it as an ill-proportioned and surprisingly ugly alternative to the Range Rover. Disco had lost purpose. It was just another big Landy. It also proved to be not quite as popular as its various forebears, despite their sometimes-grim reputes. As a result, Gerry McGovern’s styling team had their work cut-out to effect much needed repairs by way of blinging-up the full-size Disco. In fact, the smaller, more cost-effective and originally hard to justify Discovery Sport, seemed to be filling the gap more fruitfully.
Personally, I feel that the current Disco is a waste of space; a case of intended style over function that failed on both counts. However, as the latest Metropolitan Edition joins the ranks as the company’s new headlining model, perhaps it is just greater familiarity with the profile that makes it less of an eyesore.
‘Met-Ed’ builds on the more purposeful R-Dynamic HSE specification, with brighter detailing for the radiator grille and even the model’s Discovery lettering. It is a styling swerve complemented by Hakuba Silver lower bumper inserts, 22.0-inch diameter Diamond Turned alloy wheels, complete with Gloss Grey detailing, Black Land Rover brake calipers, privacy glazing and a huge sliding panoramic roof. Also equipped as standard on the big estate is a head-up instrument display and heated steering wheel, wireless phone charging, a front cooler compartment and four-zone climate control. The cabin detailing is enhanced with Titanium Mesh trim.
Elsewhere in the revised range, the R-Dynamic model now features a Gloss Black contrasting roof panel as standard. Yet, alongside all of the superficial features and critical comments, it is worth remembering that the Discovery remains the most capable and versatile of any full-sized SUV, with best-in-class 3,500kg towing capacity and the optional Advanced Tow Assist technology, which is intended to remove the stress from difficult reversing manoeuvres. The Discovery family is also available with Land Rover’s advanced Cabin Air Purification system, with PM2.5 air filtration, which monitors air quality inside and filters out harmful particulates for a healthier cabin environment. Powered by the straight-six Ingenium petrol and diesel powertrains, with 48V mild hybrid technology, provides a useful blend of enhanced performance and part-electrified efficiency.
There is no avoiding that the increased bling does gift the ugly Disco a fresh sense of vitality but Land Rover’s problems run far deeper than remedying one model line. The rest of the range is confused by too many models and astronomical asking prices. If anything, Land Rover should be consolidating and paying more heed to future electrification, although those models are going to carry even steeper list prices.