Big and British


Before he became director of the auto-test department at the highly esteemed Consumer Reports, David Champion spent a number of years as a development engineer at Land Rover. It was he, in fact, who argued successfully that the Land Rover Discovery should be based not on the ancient Land Rover platform that dated to 1948, but on the much more sophisticated Range Rover chassis.

So when I mentioned to David that I was testing a seven-passenger HSE7 Discovery, the first thing he asked was, "Did it drip water on your leg when it rained?" Indeed it had. He was delighted to also learn that the interior door handle is still mounted in a practically unreachable position at the far edge of the door.

There will always be an England, though not, perhaps, always an English car industry. The roster of British-owned car businesses is down to TVR and Morgan. After also acquiring Jaguar and Aston Martin, Ford took the plunge and bought Land Rover in 2000 for $2.8 billion. Ford said at the time that it was "a terrific global brand with a wonderful heritage."

The deal was convoluted. BMW’s $1.2-billion purchase of the Rover Group in 1994 proved less than prescient, as the dying remnants of what had once been a mighty conglomerate turned into a millstone for the German manufacturer. BMW is believed to have poured as much as $5 billion into Rover in an attempt to make it profitable. BMW sold the remnants of Rover, except the Mini, to a British venture capital company called Alchemy Partners (which is trying to rebuild it around the MG nameplate). Meanwhile, Land Rover (including the very successful Range Rover) went to Ford.

The Rover automobile has disappeared, much to the displeasure of Rover workers who would have built any new models. The British automotive labor force has always been a restive one. According to a Guardian account from 2000, "The main BMW sign outside Gate Q of the Longbridge factory had been daubed in graffiti with the words, ‘Stabbed in the back.’"

All this leads to the huge Land Rover in the parking lot, dripping water on my leg. The Discovery, built in Solihull, England, was launched in 1990 and redesigned in 1998. Thanks to David Champion, it resides on the Range Rover’s tough six-cross-member ladder chassis and feels very robust. Under the hood is a 4.6-liter V-8 rated at 218 horsepower and offering a 20-percent power increase over the 188-horsepower 4-liter engine that once graced its engine bay.

An active cornering enhancement system uses hydraulic suspension levers to avoid that bane of all SUVs, rollover. And because it’s so darned big (15 feet long), there’s also a useful rear obstacle detection system (it beeps). The all-wheel-drive system is constantly engaged, with viscous couplings to distribute power to the four wheels.

Like many British cars, this Land Rover is well-conceived as a whole but a mess in the details. Despite being a luxury car costing more than $30,000, there’s a lot of flimsy plastic. The most glaring example is the CD changer, which is not only mounted unreachably under the passenger seat (where it is prey to incursion from snow and ice), but is accessed via a plastic door that looks like it will dislodge on the first kick.

More importantly, instead of a third row of seats in this very large vehicle, there are two awkward folding jumpseats that intrude into the cargo area even when stowed. I’ve always admired the old aluminum-bodied Land Rover, which once ferried me across the roadless Iranian outback, but this one seems more like a vanity vehicle for well-heeled suburbanites who will never go off road. A Discovery redesign will debut in the 2005 model year.

Speaking of SUVs, there’s a dandy Web site at that makes some very cogent arguments against these popular beasts. Great graphics, too.