Opinion : Whither the Land Rover Discovery?

Land Rover Discovery (1989)

With a number of motoring publications suggesting the Discovery nameplate is increasingly lacking ‘brand equity’ compared to Defender and Range Rover, reading Mike Humble’s piece on how it is to drive the original should be a reminder of how appealing it can be.

Perhaps this original vehicle should serve as a subtle reminder to JLR’s Executives and Design Engineers of why the Discovery was such a successful product, with a sustained following up until the final Discovery 4 rolled off the assembly line in 2016?

Back in 1989, the Discovery was a real breath of fresh air in the 4×4 market, with a design that looked fresh, purposeful and engaging.

Shared genius

Okay, so there was a symphony of parts from the BL parts bin, but that did not detract from Discovery having a more lifestyle-orientated design than either the more conservative Land Rover 90/110 or the Range Rover.

Bright exterior paint colours and contrasting graphics for the exterior and neat storage areas inside made this a car that could appeal to a wider customer base than the 90/110, including to those who had never previously considered buying an off-road vehicle.

Even when wearing standard issue steel wheels, the Discovery’s chic appeal was undiluted. The array of accessories conceived alongside Project Jay’s own development programme further elevated the Discovery’s versatile nature. For both manufacturer and dealer that was good news as it resulted in very few Discoveries leaving the forecourt without a few optional extras having been specified by the customer.

What an impact it made

Even now, I am still reminded of the excitement I felt when I first saw the Discovery back in 1989 and how it made me a fan of the Land Rover brand.

Discovery 5 has undoubtedly diluted that as it struggles to maintain its own distinctive identity against a questionable need for a increasingly harmonised ‘family look’ across all three brand pillars, including taking obvious design references from the L494-generation Range Rover Sport.

Cover the badges up and to those with no interest in vehicle design, they’d struggle to identify this as a Discovery. Collectively, this suggests the Discovery nameplate is not considered within JLR to be strong enough to maintain its own appeal.

Lost identity means a lack of sales

It is ultimately the company’s handling of what was arguably its most successful nameplate by overlooking the well liked attributes of previous generation models that has lead to its poor sales since 2017 and many loyal Discovery fans looking elsewhere when they need to buy a replacement new vehicle.

In today’s increasingly computer-governed generation of cars, a more analogue and functional 1989 Discovery would actually prove to be a breath of fresh air for me.


  1. Remember though that the Discovery range split into two separate lines in the last decade; the big Discos and the Disco Sport [which along with the Evoque should really be seen as the successor to the Freelander2].

    The “more analog and functional” side of things is taken by the current Defender; which is really rather better as a workhorse than the previous Defenders! Just because you are using a vehicle for working purposes doesn’t mean you should be deprived of 21st-century things like electrically-heated windscreens/mirrors, a decent sound system, satnav, airbags or intelligence in the transmission/suspension/braking systems. Normal people don’t want poverty-spec cars any more, and JLR are wise not to ‘punch down’ into that market segment any more.

    [I have one of the last FL2s to be sold, and a Defender. Wouldn’t want to go back to any of the older Discos I drove in the 2010s]

  2. I think Mowog has it hit the nail on the head. The defender is what the discovery was, and the discovery is the freelancer in another guise.

  3. I have always liked the Discovery. It was a breath of fresh air in 1989 and continued to develop as a practical but comfortable unpretentious vehicle that was capable of doing anything you asked it to do. I didn’t get to own one until 5 years ago when I bought a 7 yr old Disco 4. It has proved to be everything that I hoped it would be, if at times a little trying on the reliability front! Unfortunately, I struggle to see the Disco 5 as a suutable replacement. It is too luxurious, less practical and lacks the individuality of previous Discoverys.

  4. Sales of the current Discovery are not helped by ill-proportioned styling, especially at the rear end. And the ludicrous offset number plate at the rear.

  5. Just a few random thoughts.

    I worked for a consultancy involved with the original Disco launch. We did a very early touch screen “build your own car” package for motor shows. We also did online training (on floppy disks !) including sales materials.

    LR stated that 4WD vehicles were either utility, or luxury. Their intention was to create a new class with the Disco – 4WD Leisure.

    Could it be that Discovery did well in a niche marketplace, but not so well as so many competitors have joined the no longer niche marketplace ?

  6. Can’t understand why Land Rover has trashed the Discovery and Freelander niches, especially given that Tata could help manufacture in cost-sensitive sectors. JLR management believing their own hype and ignoring what customers actually want?

  7. As has been said many times, the latest Defender is a more direct equivalent to the earlier Discoverys, imagine it with a safari roof and minus some of the daft retro details like the rear lights. JLR’s strategy of trying to differentiate 3 different model lines that overlap, not least in the confusing use of the Land Rover name, is a bit mad. The Discovery name is the most obvious one to abandon I guess as it has never had the “premium” aspirational image of Range Rover or of the later Defender models, quite simply Discovery’s (including the Sport) don’t have the profit margins of the other two, and have more of a middle class every-man image. I guess Discovery fans will have to make do with a Landcruiser which in its latest form is a lot closer to the Discovery concept than any Discovery

  8. After more than 30 years of buying Land Rover products, including Discovery 2, 3 and 4 and many Range Rovers, this year I made the decision to abandon the brand completely. Fed up with dismal reliability, confused and contrived image and appalling dealers.
    It’s not only Discovery dieting a slow death, the whole brand umbrella is too.

  9. I suppose even grizzled old farmers want some luxury when transporting some sheep to a livestock market on a hot day. The old school Defender might have been tough, but it fell way behind the Japanese in terms of comfort, standard equipment and driving pleasure. Farmer Palmer won’t settle for some rock bottom four wheel drive vehicle now and demands something that makes a drive to the market less of a chore. Also I do know of farmers who used to swear by the Mitsubishi L200 for its ability to pull a trailer full of steers for hundreds of miles.

  10. JLR have announced that the LandRover brand will be down-played in marketing, with the focus being on Range Rover, Discovery and Defender brands. I hope they keep the LR badge on the cars at least. For me the strongest branding was when LAND ROVER was plastered across the front of the Disco’s bonnet, just as RANGE ROVER is on the more expensive models.

  11. To me the Disco 5 seems all out of proportion when viewed from the rear. It looks too narrow in relation to it’s height.

  12. The Disco 5 doesn’t seem to have much of a niche, as the gap between the New Defender and RR Sport is tiny.

    The Defender 110 has effectively replaced the Disco 4, as the “leisure and family” off roader, as it’s certainly not a cheap and utilitarian off roader any more. Indeed the Defender has been a big sales success.

  13. All new discos are just a copy of other vehicles really. Who do you see driving a Disco 4 or 5…? Rich Soccer & Dance Moms. And its never seen a dirt road…and is it even capable of that anyway?
    I love my D2, Im quite confident the D2 will be valued as much as the classic Defenders soon…especially after all the wokies force the bans on selling Gasoline engines within the next 5-10 years.

  14. Let’s go back to 1989, the year Rover started its renaissance, and praise the original Discovery. This was a car that combined the excellent off road skills of the Land Rover with a more ” car” like driving experience and equipment levels and lower running costs than a Range Rover. In a market for smaller SUVs( admittedly far smaller than now) where the Japanese were providing a pleasanter alternative to a Land Rover Defender, the Discovery was just right and sold in huge numbers.

  15. It’s worth noting how other brands in the same/similar market-segment have fallen by the wayside.

    Daihatsu quit the UK market a decade-and-a-bit ago.

    Mitsubishi did so around 5 years ago.

    Isuzu now only sell pickups, having stopped selling their Discovery-equivalent Bighorn/Trooper a long time ago.

    Suzuki only sell seriously-limited numbers of their midget-car Jimny, because of the need to constrain their corporate-average CO2 emissions [they can sell them as a van-version with blocked-out rear windows because that’s counted differently to SUV/car emissions].

    The likes of China’s Great Wall Steed and the Indian TATA Gurkha/ASIA Rocsta are now thankfully just memories.

    For the “work vehicle” side of things Toyota and Ford seem to have the market tied up with their Hilux and Ranger.

    My local builder had a Discovery on a 2-year-lease and used it to tow a flatbed for transporting mini-diggers/cement-mixers; he’s just replaced it with a Defender-130 again on a 2-year lease. Our tree-works guy has a Defender [with the registration SAW1T].

    Just because you’re using your vehicle for work doesn’t mean you need to slum it.

    • Daihatsu only ever had a tiny market presence in this country and their vehicles, while as reliable as everything else from Japan, had no real selling point apart from being fairly cheap. Mitsubishi going is a real shame as the L200 and Shogun were as tough as nails and had a considerable following among farmers and builders, but the ASX and the Mirage weren’t doing much and the Lancer seemed to fizzle out. I think Suzuki will be around for a long time in the UK as the Vitara is a big seller and the Swift has a following among people who want a cheaper alternative to the Mini, while the Ignis is a popular small crossover.

  16. I rather suspect that Suzuki will exit the UK and European market in the next few years, if only because they don’t have sensible hybrid or pure electric offerings and they equally don’t have high value upmarket offerings to earn a premium to offset against the emissions charges.

    Likewise Subaru, they are vulnerable in the UK/EU market space because they have no pure EV or hybrid offerings so are likely to be hit by penalties for selling cars that emit more than 99gm of CO2 per km. Which will seriously impact their profitability and their desire to continue a presence in these countries.

    • Suzuki seem to sell on price, value and sportiness, and they don’t really have a halo model, always being in the lower price range and few people would consider trading in a Range Rover Evoque for a Grand Vitara. I think they’re safe for now as sales are quite good, but they need to consider an EV model.
      Whither Subaru, like Alfa Romeo, they’re becoming a real rarity and being a four wheel drive pioneer, it’s a shame to see them becoming almost invisible in recent years. Possibly an expensive, thirsty range of cars and little promotion has really hit Scooby.

  17. I agree with Mowag. As soon as I sat in my L663 Defender 110, it took me back to the 2 Series 1 Discoveries I owned. It is the natural successor to them: it is comfortable, unbelievably capable off road, takes anything you want in the boot, and tows like a dream. I really think this should be a Discovery, and the current Discovery should be called something else.

  18. Whither Mitsubishi, who pulled out of the British market 2 years and who were the masters at making full size SUVs and pick up trucks with off road capability. The Shogun was for years a favourite of farmers, horse owners and people who needed a rugged SUV for long distances. I have heard of these doing 250,000 miles as the V6 diesel was almost unbreakable and being far less prone to faults than a Range Rover, which is more of a fashion statement than a true SUV these days. Yet maybe the Shogun, L200 and Animal lacked this sort of appeal, being old school off roaders, and this was their downfall, even if sales were consistent.

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