Motoring: Tough talk, but where's the muscle?: Land Rover's latest Discovery, the Mpi, looks as if it means business, but fails to deliver when the off-road going gets tough, says Roger Bell

LAND ROVER's latest Discovery is a bit of a poseur, a wimp in knight's armour. In identifying a market need for a 4x4 that rarely strays from the urban jungle - for an on-road off-roader - LR, the world's only dedicated manufacturer of 4x4s, has come up with the Mpi. Prices for this timely riposte to the new Ford Maverick/Nissan Terrano twins start at pounds 17,000 for the base three-door, extending to well over pounds 20,000 for a loaded five-door.

The underpinnings for serious mud-plugging remain in place on the Mpi: the permanent four-wheel drive, the huge suspension articulation, the high ground clearance. All that is lacking is the serious muscle. Power comes from a 2.0-litre petrol engine with characteristics better suited to Rover's luxury 800 saloon than a heavyweight rock-climber such as the Discovery, Britain's best-selling 4x4.

It is a bit like attaching a screaming outboard to the back of a tanker-tug; it copes when lightly laden in calm waters, but struggles when the going gets rough. Discovery buyers seeking the ultimate in heavy-duty performance, especially when towing off the beaten track, should look to the alternative (and more expensive) petrol V8 or 2.5-litre turbo-diesel.

Although the TD yields less horsepower than the Mpi, it heaves like a tug-of-war team, with huge root-pulling force. Low-rev torque is what counts, not frenzied horsepower, when hauling two tons through a quagmire.

Even around town, the Mpi feels underpowered. Its twin-cam 16-valve engine has the latest components and is reasonably flexible, but its best punch is thrown at high, hysterical revolutions - to the accompaniment of a harsh and tingly boom that undermines mechanical refinement. All-out acceleration is no better than that of a base Rover Metro.

Only when high-striding in overdrive top does the Mpi reel in motorway miles with big-car ease. Even so, most hatchbacks and estates costing pounds 17,000 are much quicker, not to say quieter and more economical: fuel consumption of between 17 and 22mpg is the best you can expect from the hard-working engine, despite its light-duty role.

Conventional cars without off-road attributes also ride and handle better than the big and rather cumbersome Discovery. Power assistance takes much of the effort out of steering and parking, but the wheel needs vigorous twirling on sharp bends. The stiff and notchy gear-change is quite demanding, too. The big tyres give plenty of grip, but long-travel suspension induces rather wallowy, imprecise cornering, and a jerky, agitated ride that would be unacceptable in an ordinary car.

There are compensations. You sit tall in a voluptuous seat that gives a terrific view of the road ahead and over-the-hedge diversions. Tank-like solidity and weight also induce a sense of well-being and security that is far from false, though bluff-fronted 4x4s such as the Discovery are not at all pedestrian friendly.

This is a roomy vehicle - back-seat passengers can stretch their legs - but there is a lot of wasted space above your deerstalker. Only occupants of the optional inward-facing foldaways in the boot benefit from the generous headroom. Style is one of the Discovery's strongest attributes in a market sector where looks and standing count for a lot. Outside, it is gracefully butch. Inside, the inspired Conran-designed trim and decor further distance the Discovery from ordinary cars.

COMPARISONS

Ford Maverick 2.4 GLX five-door, pounds 19,200. Near identical twin to the Nissan Terrano, with part-time four-wheel drive and seven seats. Friendly, car-like controls, easy to drive. Road handling good for an off-roader, poor by car standards. Performance and economy indifferent.

Isuzu Trooper five-door 3.2, pounds 19,149. Handsome, new-look Trooper is strong contender in off-road sector. Smooth and punchy V6 petrol engine gives lively performance, indifferent economy. Also available with turbo-diesel.

Jeep Cherokee limited 4.0, pounds 18,995. Powerful US import has a lot going for it, including a smooth and muscular big-six engine, strong performance and automatic transmission. Snags: modest accommodation and thirst for fuel.

Vauxhall Frontera five-door 2.4, pounds 16,025. Civilised five-seat, all-drive estate that drives and handles well on the road. Also available as 2.0 three-door (priced from a keen pounds 12,920) and turbo-diesel that trades performance for economy.

SPECIFICATIONS

Land Rover Discovery Mpi, from pounds 16.695. Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, 16-valve twin-cam; 134bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, high and low ratios, four-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 18 seconds, top speed 98mph, economy 18-22mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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