Big in the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 2005, 12:00am

YOU NEVER FORGET your first and they set your preferences for life. Mine was known as 'Fergie'. He had no airs and graces and was equally happy working with the cattle or helping out in the fields. He carried me over the sand dunes and I could barely hear the throaty rumble of his voice over the roar of the waves. Like many of us, he had a great weakness for the black stuff but in his case it wasn't Guinness but diesel. He was a Massey Ferguson tractor and the first thing I drove.

Ever since Fergie, I've had a soft spot for utility vehicles. Having four-wheel-drive, off-road capability in Hong Kong is like keeping an extra shirt in the office: you may never use it, but it's comforting to know that it's there.

Land Rover understand this perfectly. The latest Discovery has become suited to an urban environment while holding onto its utility genes. The original Disco was a bit of a bone shaker and you could feel happy about hefting a couple of sheep into the boot. The Disco 3 is a sleek, luxury people carrier and the only way a sheep is going to get access is as part of the deep-pile carpet. The exterior of the car is less aggressive and, in minimalist fashion, has been stripped bare. The pedestrian-squashing bull bars and roof ladder have been removed. Quite right, too. These belong firmly in the 'unnecessary adornment' category, with exhaust pipes designed for underwater use and, my personal favourite, spades. The biggest shock is that the trademark exterior spare wheel has been removed, leaving a fabulous large rear window and a split tailgate. I was once told by a Land Rover salesman that the rear spare tyre was useful because, when I reversed into a wall, it would hit it first and spare the car. Fortunately, the Disco 3's parking sensors render that less-than-effective sales technique obsolete.

Four-wheel-drive owners all say that being higher than everyone else on the road is a bonus. I disagree. I love being close to the road, so you can suck up every feeling and be part of the tarmac. The Disco 3 is high, which presents two dilemmas. First, getting into it involves a stretch previously experienced only in yoga. Second, I panic that I can't see low walls or children. You get used to this though, and there's a feature that allows you to lower the height of the car to give access to less mobile passengers and to avoid getting stuck on the roof of car parks.

The sheer size of the car means you instantly feel sylph-like and delicate in comparison. Men immediately feel rugged, outdoorsy and masculine and start rolling up their sleeves. From desk jockey to backwoodsman in a matter of seconds.

The Disco 2 claims to be a seven-seater. It is, but using two of them involves folding down flaps and joining the dog in the boot. Rather than just fiddling with the last model, Land Rover has started from scratch and redesigned the body and the engine. The Disco 3 has three rows of seats that are arranged in what's called stadium style, putting the people in the third row in an excellent position to keep an eye on the speedometer and comment on driving style. Hopefully they'll be distracted by the huge see-through roof with integrated blinds.

The steering is tighter than previous models, but it feels heavy to me. This may be part of the rugged appeal of the car, but if I want a work-out, I'll go to a gym. You also have to get used to the height of the car and the slight lean around corners as the handling sits somewhere between that of a car and a van. There's dynamic stability control and so-called active roll mitigation (seriously), which act on the braking system to correct over- or under-steering - invaluable and make winding down Repulse Bay Road an absolute joy.

A dial set near the gear shift handles the terrain response controls. Each setting has pre-set traction and height and pictures of the Disco 3 going over rocks, sliding on ice and, most excitingly, in the desert next to a cactus. Sadly, the streets of Yau Ma Tei are devoid of cacti and I can't find any rocks to climb over, so the controls go untested. The full capabilities of the Disco 3 will remain a closed book to me, although for people with a thirst for adventure, the Hong Kong Land Rover Owners' Club can be found chucking cars around off-road tracks on a regular basis.

If you ever want to experience a VIP welcome, forget sucking up to brand name public relations people and get a four-wheel-drive. As you pull up on the forecourt of the petrol station, the staff will roll out red carpets and make ready with boxes of free tissues/water/biscuits/Hello Kitty sun shields, safe in the knowledge that you'll be spending a fortune. The Disco 3, with a 4.4 litre, V8 engine claims a fuel consumption of 14.5 litres for 100km, compared with the three litre, straight 6 BMW X5 3.0i, which guzzles a mere 12.7 to 12.9 for 100km.

The performance of the Jaguar engine is impressive. With a top speed of 195km/h, you don't get that underpowered feeling common among other seven-seaters. The six-speed auto changes smoothly through the gears. Land Rover has put an immense amount of work into improving four-wheel-drive capability, developing a new body to give improved stability off road.

In common with BMW and Aston Martin, the Disco 3 has adaptive headlights that turn to lighten up the road rather than dazzling on-coming traffic. This is vital in Hong Kong, where searing retinas on the other side of the road seems to be a personal challenge for many drivers.

Here's the thing: the Disco 3 is more urban and less cumbersome than its predecessors, but it's still based on a vehicle intended to work, not float around Central. Parking, even with sensors, is tough because of the sheer size of the car. The turning circle is 11.8 metres; slightly more than double the published figures for a Toyota Alphard. You do have fabulous road presence and the new design is less clunky and more stylish than its predecessors, but I think the potential will be wasted in Hong Kong unless you find yourself doing a lot of long drives or weekend mountain climbs. There are much easier cars to manoeuvre though traffic and into parking spaces.

That said, there's plenty of space and I can see the appeal for people looking for a family car that stands out from the other people carriers. I'm tempted by this latest incarnation of the Discovery, but I'll be true. My heart is still with the Massey Ferguson in the hills of Kerry.