Johannesburg - One almost cannot start a road test about the new fifth-generation Land Rover Discovery without mentioning the electrically folding rear seats, which can turn this SUV into a luggage-gulping panelvan at the press of a button.

It’s a novelty that has been much publicised in the run up to the Discovery’s recent launch, including a video of adventurer Bear Grylls using a smartphone app to remotely fold the seats while he’s skydiving.

Available as a R22 000 option in the seven-seater version (the Discovery comes standard with five seats), this is a feature with more than just bragging-rights-around-the-braai appeal. It’s handy to have a quick one-touch function to flop down the two rear seating rows when you want to load big objects - especially for a cyclist like me.

Via the app or a panel of buttons in the boot, the rear seats can also be individually folded up or down so you can mix and match passengers and cargo in various ways. There’s even a button that lowers the vehicle on its electronic air suspension, to make loading easier.

All very clever, and it’s part of a major revamp for Land Rover’s popular adventure vehicle in a market where new-generation models often take baby steps into the future. Whilst retaining the hardcore offroading ability for which it’s become known, the new fifth-gen Discovery’s undergone a radical transformation in its styling and modernisation, and also shed bucketloads of weight to make it more agile and fuel efficient.

Perhaps the most controversial change is the design. The new Discovery’s a lot more streamlined than its chunky predecessors, which gives it a more modern vibe but also a softer look that’s lost the distinctive square-jawed toughness. The distinctive step at the bottom of the rear windscreen is also gone; instead there’s an asymmetrical kink in the rear number plate area to create a stylistic link to the past.

Having grown in height, the new Discovery has a more top-heavy look than its predecessor but this doesn’t translate into soggier handling. Quite the opposite in fact. Making the new body mostly out of aluminium instead of steel has shed a massive 480kg of weight, transforming this big SUV into a more nimble-handling vehicle even if it’s not quite in the sporty-cornering league of rivals like the BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne.

It’s the Discovery’s bump-flattening ride quality that impresses above all else though. Riding on air suspension, the big vehicle glides serenely over rough roads. The vehicle’s impressively refined and the cabin is well muted from wind noise and other unwanted decibels.

With so much less mass to lug around the performance has improved too, even though the engines stay the same as in the previous Discovery: a 3-litre turbodiesel with outputs of 190kW and 600Nm, and a 3-litre supercharged petrol wielding 250kW and 450Nm. Both are paired with an eight-speed auto gearbox and all-wheel drive.

We tested the petrol version and enjoyed its robust acceleration and easy-cruising nature with the factory quoting 7.1 seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint and a 215km/h top speed. It’s a thirsty bugger though, with our test vehicle averaging 13 litres per 100km mostly on the open road. The diesel will be a better bet in terms of fuel economy.

The Discovery’s the most connected Land Rover yet and has the most USB ports and 12-volt charging points I’ve yet seen in a vehicle, which will keep families happy on long road trips. It also offers Bluetooth and an in-car 3G WiFi hotspot for up to eight devices. The InControl Touch Pro infotainment system has a large 25cm touchscreen that reduces the number of switches on the centre console.

All this high tech is packaged in a neatly-appointed cabin with a first-class comfort. The interior’s become more luxurious and can be specced with a range of premium materials including Windsor leather upholstery and natural oak veneers.

Where some SUVs provide 5+2 seating the Discovery is a true seven-seater that allows average-sized adults to sit fairly comfortably in its rearmost seats. All three rows are available with heated seats - they’recooled as well in rows one and two - while massage seats are available for the driver and front passenger.

There’s up to 2500 litres of luggage space under the electrically-operated tailgate, and a class-leading 3500kg towing capacity.

Cabin oddments space is plentiful and includes a smart little ‘secret’ hidey-hole behind the ventilation controls on the dash - although in our test car the compartment door sometimes got stuck closed.

The Discovery 3.0 V6 Supercharged HSE Luxury on test here is priced at R1 364 552, but there’s a lengthy options list to throw more money at, including driver-assist features like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist.

One not-too-pricey toy is the R6 300 Activity Key wristband that allows you to enjoy watersports or other outdoor hobbies without carrying a key fob. The waterproof wristband locks the vehicle and disables the ordinary key, which can be left safely inside while you surf or cage-dive with great white sharks.

There’s also some clever optional towing tech including a camera that helps the driver line up the tow hitch, and a feature which auto-steers the vehicle during tricky reversing manoeuvres with a trailer or caravan.

Our offroad test confirmed that this SUV will trundle through the undergrowth with all the ability of its predecessors. In fact it’s improved in key areas: the ground clearance has risen to 283mm (up 43mm) and the wading depth to 900mm (a 200mm increase), while it can also approach steeper angles than before (it has a 34 degree approach angle, 27.5 degree breakover angle and 30 degree departure angle).

Extra money gets you a range of optional features to better tackle more hardcore offroad trails, such as a traction-improving active locking rear differential, an automatic crawl function that automatically maintains a set speed with the driver only having to steer, a multi-mode Terrain Response 2 system that at a twist of a dial selects an offroad mode to suit various terrains, and a Surround Camera that displays potentially unseen offroad hazards on the dashboard monitor.

VERDICT

The latest Discovery has edged closer to big-brother Range Rover in terms of luxury and sophistication, not to mention price. The softened styling might put off some old-school Land Rover aficionados - and the new Discovery looks almost too smart to go churning about in the mud - but it’s more offroad-capable than ever, allowing outdoorsy owners to explore trails in first-class comfort.

FACTS

Discovery 3.0 V6 SC HSE Luxury

Engine: 3-litre, V6 supercharged petrol
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 250kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 450Nm @ 3500-5000rpm
0-100km/h (claimed):7.1 seconds
Top speed (claimed):209km/h
Price: R1 364 552
Warranty: 3-year/100 000km
Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

Drive360