When the cold Atlantic is sucking at your tyres and some of the world's highest sand dunes offer the only way out it's good to know the wheels under your backside are attached to one of the world's most capable off-roaders - a Land Rover Discovery.

In this case, examples of the new Discovery 3 first shown in SA at last October's Auto Africa show in Johannesburg and powered by Ford-based V6 Cologne petrol and diesel engines and by V8's derived from Jaguar units.

The situation on the Namibian coast wasn't quite that dire, though it was a close call getting back to Swakopmund before the tide rose any higher and crashed over the beach crest into the tyre-sucking salt flats behind. That would have made things decidedly sticky…

We made it out and back to the luxury of the little coastal resort's Swakopmund Hotel, watched as we drove along by a single lonely springbok nibbling forlornly at the scrubby vegetation on one of the world's longest, driest - but most beautiful - beaches.

The spoors of brown hyenas and jackals showed other more baleful eyes were also watching from the dunes and bush as we churned along the beach track though only one - a young jackal - was spotted trotting purposefully in search of food along the base of a wind-whipped dune.

We were on the second day of some tough driving; the first was spent in the mountains west of Windhoek and on a purpose-built obstacle course created to show off the high-tech transmissions and electronic terrain-control that now governs the 4x4 systems in these the latest Landys and later on a rugged mountain track to a summit dominated by radio transmission towers.

The second: tackling the beach route from Swakop to Sandwich Harbour - the latter currently inaccessible because deep sand now covers the only road in and out - and the dauntingly steep but hauntingly beautiful high dunes of the derelict village's hinterland.

At first I was scathing about the super-luxury Landys; real outdoorspeople, I argued, don't need computer-controlled differential locks, a half-dozen electronic modes on a rotary switch, a full-colour touchscreen and a navigation system (unusable because the DVD's aren't yet available, though will be soon, for our end of the world) to get around in the bush.

Real off-roaders, I grumbled, rely on driving skill, the correct choice of tyres, a desert-booted right foot that knows when to go floor-flat and when to ease off, and an educated left hand that can operate a manual gearshift faster than a striking mamba.

Not only that, but the technogear - once you've passed the technical exam for Discovery 101 and learned what to use when, and how - must add hugely to the cost of going off-road in luxury. Really, given the deeply padded five main seats and the almost-as-comfortable pop up pair of extras you'll mainly keep hidden in their recesses in the boot floor, why bother with a Range Rover whose facelift models will be available in June?

Here's what they cost:

Discovery 3 V6 S - R440 000

Discovery 3 TdV6 S - R470 000

Discovery 3 TDV6 SE - R510 000

Discovery 3 V8 SE - R510 000

Discovery 3 TdV6 HSE - R570 000

Discovery 3 V8 HSE - R570 000

All prices include a three-year or 100 000km maintenance plan.

That's big moola for wheels that, for most buyers, will rarely see anything worse than tar and the occasional sand road and never, ever be taxed by a rocky river bed or a dune slope that will take you closer to the sun than even Icarus ever managed.

Designed for America

Nevertheless, Land Rover told us, around 800 have already been ordered and the local arm of the company believes this new superwagon will be its biggest seller, taking it way up the automotive sales-figure graph.

Land Rover SA admitted frankly that the latest Discovery had been designed primarily for the American market - which explains the switch from human skill to computerised control of just about every function save opening the doors and firing up the engine.

"We are aiming to transform and modernise the Land Rover image, to make it the world's leading brand with a sales target of 210 000 a year, while still keeping our existing customers.

"We feel we will be able to command a price premium while remaining the world's off-road leader. We have the potential to sell more vehicles than we ever dream possible - after all, tests have shown the Discovery can already beat all the other top 4x4 brands."

Nevertheless, the Disco's profile looks like a double-cab fitted with a smoked-glass canopy even if some of the definitive Land Rover features are still apparent. Soon, I forecast, even those chunky-cornered design cues will slide into oblivion as the American market determines, more and more, what a Land Rover should look like.

"People like gadgets," the spokesman added, "but our gadgets really work for the vehicle - they put an expert driver into every cabin."

Latest ZF gearboxes

Those "gadgets" include a self-releasing, electronic parking brake, parking (also read rock, tree and other off-road obstacles-detecting) proximity sensors, Bluetooth-compatible communications equipment, swivelling headlights, a premium, 14-speaker (in the HSE models) sound system, a rugged self-charging and waterproof key fob and three-dimensional maps (from May) on the navigation/touchscreen.

All models, for now, will have the latest six-speed, adaptive ZF auto box with a manual/sequential function, hill-descent control and air suspension (though conventional coil springs are fitted to entry-level models) that rises and falls according to speed, terrain and the choice of traction control selected from the rotary switch on the transmission tunnel. A manual six-speed ZF option will come later - which gives some relief for the real outdoorsperson.

Maybe it will be cheaper, too?

But the existence of the new Disco revolves around the trademarked Terrain Response System first shown on the Range Stormer concept vehicle.

Here's what you do…

Stop. Decide what kind of terrain lies ahead. Look down to your left and grip firmly the rotary switch with is choice of several modes: select "grass/gravel/snow", "mud and ruts", "sand", "rock crawl" - or, of course, "normal" for tar and climbing the kerbs at Sandton City or the Blue Route Mall.

Press the accelerator (the handbrake will release automatically) and press the go pedal as hard as you like. The Disco won't accelerate harder than the mode allows, no matter how hard you encourage it physically or verbally, and whatever is underneath your wheels will pass by in an air-cushioned surge of power.

The chassis won't twist; the doors will open no matter in what attitude you have elected to park or how many wheels are still in contact with Mother Earth.

"Terrain Response is a good example of Land Rover's commitment to offering 'smart' technology that aids the driver," we were assured in a media release quoting Landy's MD Matthew Taylor.

"It is easy to use. It simplifies rather than complicates driving."

Was he having a polite dig at BMW's iDrive? Probably, and he'd be right.

Three engines are available for now:

  • A V6, quad-valve diesel displacing 2720cc with a compression ratio of 17.3:1 and capable of producing 140kW at 4000rpm and 445Nm of torque from only 1900rpm. Top speed is 180km/h, 0-100 takes 12.8 seconds and the fuel-injection system sucks from an 82-litre tank.

    This, Landy says, is likely to be the top-seller.

  • A V6, quad-valve petrol with a compression ratio of 9.75:1 and displacing 4009cc. It's rated at 160kW at 4500rpm and 360Nm at 3000rpm with a top speed of 180km/h and a 10.9sec dash to 100km/h. Both it and the V8 are fed from an 86-litre fuel tank.

  • A quad-valve, 4394cc V8 with a 10.5:1 compression ratio that'll put on tap 220kW at 5500rpm and 427Nm from 4000rpm, haul to 195km/h and outpace most sedans with a 0-100km/h time of 8.6 seconds.

    I'm also told that, in "rock crawl" mode, it will out-Porsche a Porsche, but I guess that's not something you'll want to make a habit of.

    More important to off-roads will be the news that it can wade through at least 700mm of water and that all models have an approach angle of 37.2 degrees, ramp breakover angle of 27.9 degrees and a maximum departure angle of 29.6 degrees.

    Add the underslung spare wheel and that drops to 28.1, add a tow hitch and it drops further to 18.5 degrees. I fail to comprehend why the automaker elected to carry the spare under the tail where the rim, even the tyre casing, is exposed to damage from sharp rocks.

    But real outdoorspersons will sling it up on a roof rack, away from such hazards, hey?.

    The maximum tow load (braked) is given as 3500kg for each model (750kg unbraked).

    A sunroof is available for front and rear passengers, all of whom - on more expensive models - will also be able to play with their own air-conditioning controls and use headphones connected to their own sound-system outlets.

    Means you can listen to the radio, the CD or - if you have the optional equipment - watch a movie to help pass the time should your driver be daft enough to actually get stuck.