THE TRACK was steep and rough enough to make a mountain goat think twice. Rainwater raced over rocks and down axle-deep ruts. No problem. Climbing the slope with ease endorsed the Land Rover Discovery's reputation as one of the world's finest off-road performers.

Only a handful of owners will ever explore that facet of its character. Many never engage the four-wheel- drive transmission's low range. A Land Rover executive was once asked why customers pay for technology they never exploit. 'How many people who buy a Rolex watch make use of the fact that it's designed to work 100 metres underwater?' he replied.

Buying off-road ability is more often than not justified as a form of may-need-it insurance; but if truth be told, many people who need nothing more gung-ho than an estate car choose a Discovery because it has become almost as potent a status symbol as the Range Rover.

The recent arrival of an automatic- transmission option makes the Discovery even more appealing to commuters who spend most of their driving time in nose-to-tail traffic. It bumps the price up by pounds 1,150 and is available only with the 3.5-litre V8 engine. Reduced performance and increased petrol consumption are the main items on the debit side.

The figures for top speed and 0- 60mph acceleration put the Discovery in much the same class as Lada's 1.3-litre Samara. Hard driving drags the fuel figure down to the low teens: filling-station staff joke about needing a trailer for the Esso Tiger tokens. But it would be wrong to label the Discovery V8i Automatic as being more sluggish and thirsty than most of its rivals. The point is that fashionable four-wheel-drive vehicles are no match for similarly priced saloon cars in terms of miles per hour and miles per gallon. Power is offset by truck-

like aerodynamics and a lot of weight. The Discovery tips the scales at almost two tons, before the driver and up to six passengers and 70 cubic feet of luggage are taken into account.

Modest performance is offset to a certain extent by excellent visibility. The high-riding Discovery can often overtake in safety where a sensible car driver must be patient. City traffic is much less daunting from such a vantage point. The other dimensions are quite deceptive. What appears to be a formidable junior juggernaut is, in fact, about a foot shorter than a Rover 800, and only two inches wider.

These factors, plus automatic transmission, make the Discovery surprisingly easy to drive. Nimble and agile are not words that spring to mind, but this versatile seven-seater holds the road far better than expected. It feels clumsy at first, because the suspension has to cater for an exceptionally broad spectrum of conditions. A newcomer to this type of vehicle should not be put off by initial impressions.

The pounds 22,000 Discovery has a lot in common with the more prestigious Range Rover, but rates higher in respect of space and price. The boot is almost a third bigger and provides the convenience of two folding seats; a Range Rover with similar mechanical specifications costs about pounds 29,000.

Owners who are keen to avoid getting their new Discovery stuck in the mud or bashed by a boulder can spend an exciting and educational day off- roading on Land Rover's courses at Solihull. It costs pounds 110. The number to ring is 021-700 3300.

SPECIFICATIONS

Land Rover Discovery V8i Automatic, pounds 22,144. Eight- cylinder, 3.5-litre engine, 164bhp at 4,750rpm. Four-speed automatic transmission. Maximum speed 95mph, 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds. Average fuel consumption 15.3mpg.

COMPARISONS

Jeep Cherokee 4.0 Limited, pounds 18,245. A lot quicker than the Discovery, and far more car-like, it represents excellent value. But it is no rival on passenger space and off-road ability.

Isuzu Trooper 3.2LWB Citation, pounds 22,913. Many experts rate it higher than the Discovery, which used to set the standard. No lightweight, but the V6 engine gives 174bhp.

Nissan Patrol 4.2GR, pounds 20,302. Japan's biggest four-wheel-drive gets the metal-for-money award. Its size and weight are no asset in urban traffic.

Mitsubishi Shogun V6 LWB, pounds 21,887. Poor power-to-weight ratio is its main problem: 147bhp has to drive a vehicle of about two hefty adults'-weight more than the Discovery.

(Photograph omitted)

Motoring is edited by Gavin Green of Car magazine

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