We chose a Land Rover Discovery 3 for our road trip around Australia. So why did we choose it and has it made the cut? Read on to find out.
How does a Land Rover Discovery 3 handle the outback of Australia?
We put ours to the real test on our road trip around the country. See how this often undervalued vehicle performs in its own right when it comes to four wheel driving in Australia. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.
We bought our 2006 Land Rover Discovery 3 SE 4.0 in May 2017 primarily to build up for our planned travel throughout Australia starting May 2018. Much consternation and research preceded the purchase and we were acutely aware of the risk given Land Rovers reputation for a troublesome ownership experience. So why did we take the risk on an unusual vehicle choice and has it paid off?
Although we are keen offroad explorers and love to 4WD whenever possible, we had to concede that most our time would be spent on the tarmac. As such we wanted a vehicle that would perform and handle well both on the tarmac and in the rough stuff, not an easy task for any manufacturer as these differing environments often require completely different engineering approaches. It was also essential that whichever vehicle we chose had a cavernous interior and excellent load carrying ability, after all we would be living out of it for a year!
The larger offerings from Nissan and Toyota such as the GQ/GU Patrol and 80/100 series Landcruiser were antiquated live axle wagons that are monsters offroad but lack any finesse on the tarmac. A newer 200 series Landcruiser would have been a very strong contender, however the Toyota’s exceptional resale value put it way outside of our budget.
The sweet spot for our budget and desired performance lay in the mid size (still pretty large) 4WD category. Toyota’s 120 series Prado was a good option, offering comfortable offroad performance, on road handling and decent fuel economy. The Mitsubishi Pajero (NS) ticks a lot of boxes with it’s independent suspension all round and excellent road holding, but falls short in it’s articulation and offroad capability.
It is here that the Discovery 3 really shone “above and beyond” the competition, for the reasons that follow:
Engine and Transmission
The Discovery 3 range is available with three engine and two transmission options, though not all combinations are available together. The sole Diesel engine is a 2.7 liter single turbocharged Diesel 24 valve DOHC V6 (referred to as the Lion V6) from Ford/PSA group delivering 140kW/440Nm and mated to a 6 speed ZF manual transmission (base model S only) or ZF 6HP26 6 speed automatic. Petrol engines are a 4.0 liter 160kW/360Nm SOHC 12 Valve V6 from Ford (Cologne V6, for those interested) or the sledgehammer 4.4 litre 220kW/427Nm DOHC 32 Valve AJ V8 from Jaguar, both naturally aspirated and available solely with the ZF 6HP26 automatic transmission.
Having driven all three engine variants, our pick would be the petrol V8 with it’s intoxicating soundtrack and peppy performance. This Jaguar V8 is proven and reliable, revving sweetly and working well with the 6 speed automatic from ZF it really gives the Discovery 3 a premium feel of effortless luxury and performance. Available as an (expensive) option in SE or HSE trim, early models have a known issue with jerkiness when taking off from a stop, related to the tuning of the electronic throttle and fixable with a software patch. Expect all examples on the road to have had this done by now, but something to be aware of regardless. You will unfortunately pay for the 8 cylinder privilege at the bowser, expect 15-20 L/100km (premium unleaded recommended) under normal driving, rising to 20-25 L/100km under sensible off road driving. A serious downside to this is that range from the 86l tank can easily drop below 500km, necessitating additional fuel for long stretches, particularly offroad. That noise though…
The Diesel is the sensible choice, offering the best fuel economy and most range and available as standard or an option in all trim options. Performance is adequate, and actually very respectable compared to much of the Diesel competition of the same vintage, but do not expect a rocket ship with factory 0-100 km/hr figures in the 12 second mark. This is still better than a brand new 2.8 Prado mind you, and plenty of people seem to be buying those. Expect fuel use of 10-13 L/100km under mixed driving, dropping down to 8 L/100km for a very careful highway drive. Range from the 82L tank (yes 4L smaller than the Petrol) should be 600-800km. The downside to the Diesel models, especially now the oldest are approaching 14 years old, are the service costs. The Lion V6 has timing belts (service interval 7 years or 160,000kms, whichever comes first), Exhaust Gas Recirculation systems that can block, a low mounted and difficult to access turbocharger, expensive fuel system components and some examples have been known to have durability issues with the crankshaft. This is a lot more to potentially cost you than the petrol engines, but of course many owners swear by their Diesels and you would be very unfortunate to need to address all these issues. Do your research and buy wisely based on condition.
The black sheep of the drivetrain family is a staid and simple SOHC 4.0 V6 from Ford Europe and manufactured in Cologne, Germany. It is not sexy and it is not particularly exciting, however it was very good value when new ($7000 cheaper than equivalent Diesel, $11,000 cheaper than equivalent V8 for SE specification) and as a result there are a lot of these on the road. This petrol V6 was the standard engine for S and SE trim levels and is very similar in performance throughout the rev range to the Toyota 1GR-FE engine found in the Prado/Hilux. There is no HSE petrol V6. We purchased our SE 4.0 V6 based on it’s fine condition and good service history attached to a sale price that proved impossible to pass up. Performance is adequate and the engine works smoothly and seamlessly with the ZF automatic, delivering sufficient thrust to our heavily loaded Disco and good overtaking power when called upon. The main downside to this engine is that fuel economy is poor, in fact not proving much better then the 4.4 V8 but missing out on the performance and aural impact of the latter. In stock form (factory wheels, highway tyres, no roof rack ect) expect 13-16 L/100km mixed driving and around 20 L/100km off road. In our loaded disco complete with larger all terrain tyres, roof rack and roof tent along with much more, we return 15-18 L/100km mixed use, rising up to low 20’s when offroad.
Ride and Handling
When equipped with Land Rovers Electronic Air Suspension (EAS) and Terrain Response (TR) system it’s independent suspension delivers excellent ride and handling both on and off road. In addition, it negates the “need” to fit aftermarket suspension as it provides a ride height from 180mm up to 270mm based on user and vehicle input. The system offers excellent wheel articulation for an independent suspension arrangement, as it utilises a crossover valve to push displaced air from one suspension strut into the opposite strut, meaning that as one wheel is compressed by the vehicles weight the opposite side wheel is pushed down towards the ground, aiding traction. EAS and TR are standard on all SE and HSE trim Discovery 3’s sold in Australia, while they were an option on the base model S until Land Rover made them standard across the range for the 2009 model year. In our opinion the EAS/TR transform the Discovery from a run of the mill 4WD wagon to a genuinely go anywhere vehicle that is still surprising us to this day with its breadth and depth of capability.
We have found the ride afforded by this system to be excellent, even over the very heavily corrugated tracks and trails common to Australia. Handling for such a large vehicle (ours is over 3000 kgs loaded with fuel, our gear and two humans) is above average and we have found offroad performance and comfort to exceed expectation.
Although it inarguable adds to the complexity of the vehicle, the system is actually very reliable and rather simple once you get your head around it and easy to diagnose and repair for those so inclined. Most online horror stories seem to stem from inept customer service and poor problem diagnoses on behalf of various workshops. During our ownership we have had two issues with this system, and do bear in mind our car was nearly 12 years old and had covered 180,000 kms at time of purchase.
Issues experienced were as follows:
- The first issue was an amber suspension warning light and notification of “normal height only” indicating that the vehicle had found a problem and would not administer height changes. This was accompanied by the occasional (once every 2 months or so) blowing of the 60 amp fusible link for the air compressor, indicating that the compressor was struggling to pump sufficient air and drawing too much current.
- The compressor (ours is a Hitachi made in Japan, newer models have an AMK brand compressor supposed to be more durable) was pulled from the car and rebuilt by us for less than $150 using a kit procured online. The problem in our case was that the dessicant cannister that dries the air prior to entry into the system had become saturated and blocked forcing the compressor to work hard to overcome the blockage. This could have been fixed simply for $20 with new dessicant, however while the compressor was out it made sense to give it a full overhaul.
- A main dealer or service agent would have replaced this with a brand new OEM compressor and likely upgraded to the newer AMK unit, costing roughly $1500-2000. This is not the fault of the dealership and assures they have no future issues with the vehicle, however it does illustrate where the reputation for voracious running costs on Land Rover vehicles can come from.
- The second issue was that the front end of the vehicle would drop overnight, indicating a poor air seal somewhere within the front suspension system. Some digging revealed that the air suspension struts have a good reputation for being durable and reliable even under harsh use and unlikely to leak, so my attention started with the pipework and solenoid valve block that allows air to enter and leave the struts.
- The air pipes all tested well using soapy water to look for bubbles, particularly at the connection points.
- The front solenoid block was removed from the vehicle and disassembled to be found full of white dessicant powder, related to the compressor issue above. This was preventing a good seal between the various O-Rings and airway galleries, so everything was cleaned and reassembled with a new O-Ring kit procured for $8 online.
- After rebuild of the front solenoid block (which took 1 hour start to finish) the issue has been solved and not returned.
We realise this can all sound intimidating, however the works completed were simple and easy for anyone with enthusiasm and handy inclination. The upside is a smooth ride, competent road holding no matter the conditions and instant suspension lift when and where required, a price worth paying in our opinion.
With a larger footprint and cleverly designed interior, the Discovery 3 offers superior practicality to the 120 series Toyota Prado and Mitsubishi Pajero, in fact comparing closely with the full size Landcruiser (100/200 series) and Patrol (GQ/GU). Most Disco 3’s are 7 seater examples, with all rear and centre seats folding cleverly to provide a completely flat storage area. 5 seater models still have the centre row fold flat, with an additional storage area where seats 6 and 7 would otherwise be. Each seat is comfortable for a full size adult and we have had 7 adults comfortably in ours for longer trips, however do note in this configuration boot space is almost non existent and holiday luggage would need to be placed on the roof or in a trailer.
The front seats are comfortable and offer a range of support, including manual lumbar adjustment for the driver. HSE models have electrically adjusted seating with increased adjustment range including lumbar for both driver and passenger. S and SE models have manual adjustment and cloth seats as standard, with leather and optional extra.
The asymmetrical split tailgate on the Discovery 3 has proven a revelation on our trip and I doubt we would ever buy a 4WD Wagon with a conventional barn door or liftback again. The lower section is very soundly designed and will support a capacious load if required, which we have used on regular occasion to sit at or place heavy shopping and camping gear. The upper half can be opened individually to quickly access and place goods in the boot. This split arrangement also minimises the rear overhang with doors open, allowing the driver to park in a confined space and still access the rear cargo area.
Due to a very rugged construction (the Disco 3 has two chassis’, a separate steel chassis to which is bolted a load bearing monocoque, Land Rover call this “Integrated Body on Frame”) The Discovery lends itself to being loaded up for a long off road drive. We have a significant load on the roof rack, along with equipment ranging from a 40L Engel fridge to full recovery gear spread throughout the interior and the car has not missed a beat. There have been no burst spot welds, deformed panels or stress cracks anywhere on the car even after thousands of Kilometers of corrugated gravel tracks and bush bashing antics.
Accessories and Aftermarket Support
A major consideration for those looking to modify a 4WD to suit their travelling needs will be the cost and availability of accessories to suit their chosen vehicle. At least in Australia, the Land Rover loses a few points here compared to it’s more popular Japanese competition, however that is not to say it’s poor. The Discovery 3 was released globally for the 2005 model year and this generation body was produced right up until 2016 when it made way for the current model, giving aftermarket manufacturers plenty of time to hone a range of accessories.
ARB and Opposite Lock both offer a range of frontal protection and long range fuel tanks, very similar to those they make for Japanese vehicles. One disappointment for us was that all available long range fuel tank options necessitate relocation of the spare tyre, adding substantial weight behind the rear axle and additional cost for a spare wheel carrier. A full fuel tank replacement option with a larger unit, such as the frontier range of replacement tanks from ARB, would have been a preferable solution here. As a stop gap solution to range anxiety we have two 20l Steel Jerry cans mounted to the trusty Front Runner Roof rack using their dual fuel can carrier kit, however more on that later in the gear guide!
Land Rover offer a “Raised Air Intake” (RAI for short) as a factory option on the Discovery range, however please note this is not fully waterproof and cannot be trusted for preventing water ingress unless suitably modified. The main culprit here is a fabric air pipe from the snorkel body to the airbox, which will need to be replaced with a water tight item. Full snorkel solutions are also offered by Safari (Part Number SS385HF) and Airtec and are much better value than the Land Rover offering.
Wheels and tyres are easily upgraded to suit desired performance. Standard Land Rover wheels range from 17×7″ on the base model S, through 18×8″ for SE and 19×8″ for HSE. The smaller wheels are preferable for offroad tyre selection and the 17″ examples will fit all models bar the petrol V8 (in SE or HSE), as these have larger brakes and can take a minimum 18″ wheel. We have fitted 17×8″ wheels originally from an E53 BMW X5 (selected for increased width and preferable wheel offset over the Land Rover 17″ wheels) with 265/70R17 BF Goodrich KO2 all terrain tyres, but more on this in a separate article.
Roof rack solutions are readily available through both local vendors and online. We run the Slimline II rack from Front Runner Outfitters and would recommend it, otherwise Rhino offer a variation of their backbone system rack that looks to be great. For those on a tighter budget or not requiring a full rack, most aftermarket suppliers (such as Rola, Prorack, Rhino) offer cross rail systems for the Discovery range.
Please note that some manufacturers only list the Diesel Discovery 3 for their equipment, however the chassis, body and airbox are unchanged on the petrol models and many have fitted these options without issues. Notable examples would be the ARB Bullbar (listed Diesel only, fitted our 4.0 Petrol without problems) and Safari Snorkel. I would presume the reasoning behind this is that they have only designed and fitted their equipment on the Diesel model and wish to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately exceptions may apply with later models and if you do happen to be a lucky bugger that owns one of the rare 5.0 petrol V8 Discovery 4 models, do note that your engine has a differing intake arrangement drawing air from both sides of the engine bay through separate airboxes. This means that while a snorkel will fit up the your driver side (Right Hand Drive) airbox, the passenger side will still draw from the standard location rendering the whole affair a bit pointless. While I have heard of owners replacing the intake tract with that from the 3.0 TDV6 to utilise a snorkel, please conduct your own research on this first.
Brand new the Discovery 3 was priced sharply against Toyota’s Prado, despite offering a more technologically advanced design. Thanks to Toyota’s legendary resale value (dubbed “Toyota Tax” by the cynics amongst us) and Land Rovers less than stellar reliability record, a used Discovery 3 can be easily had for 30-40% less than it’s equivalent Prado on the used market and presents a real motoring bargain for an enthusiastic owner.
This was a primary driver for our purchase decision, as the money saved paid for most of the required modifications and camping equipment, or alternatively serves as a fund to fix any issues that may arise. Diesel Discovery 3’s hold their value better than their petrol counterparts in much the same way as other 4WD vehicles. Expect to pay $12-16k for an SE petrol V6, $14-18k for a Diesel and $13-17k for a V8, subject to condition and kms of course.
We are very happy with our Discovery 3 and it has insofar proved to be a reliable, exceedingly capable and comfortable overland and touring vehicle for us. We would recommend a Discovery 3 to the keen and enthusiastic 4WD owner who is capable of maintaining the vehicle themselves and wants an excellent all round vehicle.
– Extremely capable in stock form, particularly compared to the competition. The air suspension and terrain response largely negate the usual requirement to fit a suspension lift and differential locker. If you can find a disco with the optional rear E-Locker differential this is even better, though ours is yet to get stuck even without it.
– Amazing value on the used market.
– Well equipped, with a far better standard equipment level and specification than much of the competition.
– Reasonable aftermarket support for a non Japanese 4WD. Since purchase (in stock form) we have added an ARB bullbar, Frontrunner roof rack with accessories, Traxide dual battery system and much more.
– This is a complex car and at this age they really suit an enthusiast owner who is able to perform basic to intermediate diagnostics,maintenance and repair themselves. Often minor issues can appear much larger with the car throwing faults for various systems, which without efficient troubleshooting can result in large bills for misguided diagnostics and unnecessary part replacement.
– The Disco is heavy!! 2700kg unloaded, easily breaches 3000kg with occupants and associated camping gear.
– Fuel consumption for the Petrol models, maintenance costs for the Diesels.
– The fuel tank size in insufficient and aftermarket solutions add weight aft of the rear axle and necessitate spare wheel relocation.