2003 Land Rover Discovery

Expert reviews

These reviews are written by independent automotive journalists providing an objective and reliable assessment to help you make a smart buying decision. 2003 Land Rover Discovery.

Reviewed By: Sam Moses and Mitch McCullough
© 2003 NewCarTestDrive.com

Land Rovers are the real thing. They were around before sport-utilities were a glimmer in the eyes of the world's marketeers. Land Rover earned its legend in Africa and the Australian Outback, bounding over rocks and hills, fording creeks and rivers, thundering along the savanna, creeping through tall grasslands among prides of lazy lions sulking in the sunlight.

Land Rover Discovery's suspension articulation, four-wheel-drive, and extensive off-road technology must be experienced in extreme conditions to be truly appreciated. Land Rover Centres are staffed with outdoor enthusiasts committed to customer satisfaction. Most have attended Land Rover University in Maryland to learn how to exercise that commitment and to sharpen off-road driving skills.

The Discovery was born in England in 1989 and introduced to North America five years later. It immediately set about spreading the Land Rover experience, by driving overall sales from 4906 in 1994 to 23,826 by 1997. Discovery was redesigned for 1999, and a new chassis and suspension made the Discovery Series II a smoother highway vehicle without compromising its off-road capability. Discovery Series II boosted overall Land Rover sales another 30 percent. Land Rover invested $190 million in its factory in England in 2001, taking advantage of the resources and technology of its parent company Ford, and improving quality control.

The 2003 Discovery gets a more powerful engine, a proven 4.6-liter V8 first introduced in the upscale Range Rover in 1996. There are some 350 other changes to the 2003 Discovery, most notably new headlights and front-end styling, and refinements to the suspension and brakes. But the vast majority of the improvements are details.

Model Lineup

S ($34,350); SE ($38,995); HSE ($40,995)

Walk Around

For 2003, the Land Rover Discovery looks noticeably different from the front, smoother and softer looking, now having a family resemblance to the Range Rover.

New halogen headlights look especially cool, with the high and low beams slightly overlapping in a diagonal downward direction, visible behind a clear wraparound lens. Between them is a revised black three-bar grille. The front bumper has been slightly deepened to include new fog lights, raised to reduce stone damage.

The taillights, turn signals and rear fog lamps have also been tweaked and slightly relocated, and there are new alloy wheel designs for each model.

With its trademark alpine windows and utilitarian styling, the Discovery has a definite distinction. Flat panels and straight lines give it a neat, no-nonsense look that's handsome and classy. Many of the body panels, including the rear doors and quarter panels, are aluminum, to reduce weight and avoid corrosion. Others, like the hood and roof, are galvanized steel.

The current Discovery has a wider stance and a more confident look than pre-1999 models, but its visual heritage still goes back through the original Discovery, all the way back to the first Land Rover of 1948. It is a look that suggests safaris, expeditions, and high adventure. Two new exterior colors for 2003 bring the total to nine.


Discovery's interior is as distinctive as its exterior. It too was completely redesigned for 1999 to reduce British eccentricity. But British luxury abounds. The seats are comfortable in either Duragrain or leather. The driver's seat affords excellent visibility and there's lots of headroom. Land Rover calls its elevated seating the Command Driving Position, and it does afford a commanding view of off-road driving situations.

Automatic climate control provides separate temperature adjustment for driver and passenger, and is easy to reach and to operate. Instruments include a compass, and a handy pointer on the fuel gauge reminds you which side the fuel filler door is on. An outside temperature readout is useful when traveling.

British eccentricity remains, however. Some of the switchgear is awkward to operate and requires the driver to look for the appropriate button. The audio system separates the AM and FM buttons instead of placing them alongside one another. Window switches are located on the center console rather than on the doors. The door lock button on the center dash is hard to find when you want to lock or unlock the doors quickly, like when someone is knocking on the window for you to unlock the door. And the small inside door handles are hard to find and awkward to use.

The step up to Discovery's interior is a big one, and getting into the back seat requires a squeeze through a narrow door opening. Kids don't have any trouble, but shorter, older folks find it challenging. Once back there, however, it's comfortable. Rear-seat passengers sit higher, leading to the stepped roof, and they can view the world through expansive side windows, upper alpine windows and their own sunroof with the SE and HSE. Interior stowage abounds with bins and pockets. There's a 12-volt accessory socket in the cargo area. Cargo nets, tie-downs, grab handles and a cargo cover come standard.

The Rear Seat Package uses two foldaway seats in the cargo area. These front-facing jump seats feature cleverly designed head restraints that drop down from the ceiling, along with three-point seat belts.

Driving Impressions

We'll long remember one 60-mile run in the middle of the night, on a dark, lonely, winding two-lane freeway against a huge headwind, with the cruise control set at 72. That one relatively brief stint tested most of the mechanical improvements to the 2003 Land Rover Discovery. And what we didn't learn that night, we had learned during the day driving all over the city.

First, we were pleased with the performance of the 4.6-liter V8 engine. Out on the freeway, it was amazingly unfazed by that wicked headwind. In spite of its bricklike shape, the Discovery sliced through the night silently and effortlessly, calling upon the impressive 300 foot-pounds of torque at 2600 rpm to get over some of the long climbs without the transmission needing to downshift. A new intake resonator, new sound insulation, revised body mounting points and materials, changes to the transfer case and gears, an overhaul of all the seal fittings, and a new method of balancing the wheels and tires all contribute to less NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), meaning a quieter cabin.

When we got home, we sighed with satisfaction in our driveway, and then gulped in surprise at the gas gauge. The 4.6-liter engine is EPA rated at 12 miles per gallon city and 16 highway (compared to the 13/17 of the 4.0-liter, 188-horsepower engine it replaced), and we suspect on this run it was closer to 12, on premium fuel. The engine may be new to the Discovery, and may have modern components, but the basic architecture can be traced to its 1960's GM roots. Bottom line: Discovery gulps gas.

The suspension has been tweaked with different bushings and retuned shocks and springs, in pursuit of straight-line handling with less wandering and pitching. We were still kept pretty busy making almost constant steering corrections, driving over those curves in the wind, but none of the input had to be sudden or urgent. This may not sound like that's saying much, but it's easy to imagine things being a lot worse in such a situation. Our Discovery HSE was equipped with the magical Active Cornering Enhancement, which uses lightning-quick hydraulic actuators to reduce body lean during cornering, but all our curves were fairly sweeping, so that probably wasn't a factor in the good handling that night.

Without ACE, the Discovery feels firmly planted in corners and can be driven through a turn hard once it takes a set. However, its forte is not quick transient response, such as what you'd experience in a double lane change maneuver or barreling down a country road. This is a tall vehicle that sways and yaws.

The other '03 improvement that passed with flying colors was the halogen headlights. Land Rover says they provide a beam with a far better spread, range and evenness. The low beam seemed fairly ordinary, but the high beam was exceptional and provided a fantastic feeling of confidence at 72 mph on this dark and lonely night on a road often crossed by deer.

Around town, paradoxically, the engine seemed noisy when accelerating away from stops, as if it were working hard. This engine came from last year's Range Rover.

As for the brakes, the revisions have been made in order to firm up the feel of the pedal. There are new pads, a new master cylinder, changes to the pistons in the calipers, and changes to the ABS control program. That's good news because the brakes were lousy in previous Discovery models. The brake pedal in the 2003 Discovery feels fine. Also, the Discovery performed very well in some admittedly unscientific brake testing. The Land Rover Discovery and the all-new Volvo XC90 delivered shorter stopping distances than the Acura MDX, GMC Envoy V8, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Ford Expedition. Discovery comes standard with Electronic Brake Distribution, which improves stability when braking and reduces stopping distances by transferring braking force from the rear to the front as the vehicle stops, ensuring optimum balance and stability.

Discovery really shines in ex

For 2003, Land Rover has addressed two of the Discovery's weakest points: brakes and power. A larger engine boosts horsepower by 15 percent and torque by 20 percent. Revised brakes improve pedal feel and stopping distances. There have been some 350 other improvements, as well. In spite of a small increase in price, the 2003 Land Rover Discovery offers more value than it did in 2002.

What remains is its amazing off-road capability, its luxurious and very British interior, and its distinctive styling. Many people like the Discovery for its panache. We like the Land Rover Discovery because it is authentic. While most sport-utility vehicles are nothing more than tall station wagons with a high seating position, the Land Rover Discovery is the real thing.

While we don't currently have any land rover discovery vehicles in stock, we do have 49,892 other cars to choose from. at carmax.com

While we don't currently have any land rover discovery vehicles in stock, we do have 49,892 other cars to choose from.