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Used Car Review: 1995 Land Rover Discovery V8 5-speed

Ross Ballot May 1, 2017 Quick Spin, Used Car Reviews 23 Comments

This morning we revealed that of the more than 120 cars that Hooniverse writers have owned, a Land Rover Discovery wasn’t one. While we can’t rectify that by just randomly buying one, Ross did take a quick spin in one. -KK

There’s something inherently charming about a two-decade-old big British four-by-four with a V8 and a stick. It’s reminiscent of the days of yore, oozing capability even without trying while serving as a somber reminder that manually-operated transmissions are now long-gone from the world of full-size SUVs. But as much as we can wax poetic about the disappearance of the enthusiasts’ favorite way to change gears, we’re not here to discuss this sad happening. Rather, I’m here to tell of my wonderful, far-too-short time with a 1995 Land Rover Discovery V8…with a manual.

Did you know that the first-generation Discovery was available with a manual transmission? The blokes across the pond might find this uninteresting but I honestly didn’t even know these vehicles were produced, or that they were sold in the ‘States. Newfound interest rabid, I headed to my friend’s house to give it a go.

So what are my impressions of a vehicle I was shocked by the existence of? You’ll have to continue past the jump to find out, but know that I was utterly shocked by the ‘ol Disco in more ways than one, in both good and bad. Read on for more.

Before we go any further, I feel obligated to mention that this was as quick of a drive as quick drives go. Five minutes, max. Speeds no higher than 45 MPH. No highway time, let alone any off-road assessment. My time with the Disco was so brief that I could only muster these shoddy iPhone images. And yet, sometimes five minutes is all you need [the sex joke basically writes itself…].

One seemingly random early April day, my phone rang with a text from a friend telling me of an old Land Rover that was for sale through a friend of his. Knowing my off-road proclivity, he figured I might know someone who would be happily scoop up the Discovery in question. It so happened that somebody here on the Hooniverse staff was actually interested, so I popped over the next day to check out the truck and take it for a test rip.

On the outside, it’s a Discovery. An inflated, boxy shape sits atop wheels and tires that look almost too small for the proportions of the rear-heavy sheetmetal and if you’ve seen one stock-body Disco, you’ve seen them all. Nothing noteworthy here aside from that it was a pretty clean example of a car from the 1990s, especially given its life of duty in the harsh, road-salt heavy Northeast winters. Moving inside, the cabin is very open-air feeling, just as I’m sure Land Rover intended. But…what’s that?! A mysterious arm protrudes up from within the center console, where the automatic transmission shifter traditionally sits. Could it be? Is it??? It is! A five-speed manual, basking in all the greenhouse-happy glory of the Disco’s insides. We’ll have to save the good stuff for later though; more on the stick after we discuss the rest of the Disco’s interior.

There’s no easy way of saying this, but ergonomically the interior is half-way to being fully qualified as a mess. Some good, some bad, some….some I just completely don’t understand. The steering wheel and most of the important controls are where you need them, although almost tractor-upright, but close the door and you’re pushed towards the center console with a ferocity I’ve never experienced, not even in a track-prepped Miata. Clutch, gas, brake? Placed with the word “straightforward” in mind though again, you sit in the Disco like you’re sitting at a dinner table. Visibility? Fantastic. Then there’s the front seats: they work. Quite well, at that. Comfortable, even supportive for the intended purpose. And the rear passenger area? Spacious and accommodating, with the dual moon roofs and extra cargo-area glass panels making it feel like it would be a great cabin to be in on, say, a safari.

But then, and we have to talk about this, there’s the third-row jump seats. As quirky-intriguing as they might seem, there’s no way they can be anywhere near as safe as a conventional third row, especially given the Erector-set-looking frames they sit on. I’m no engineer, but I wouldn’t want my kids on those in the event of a crash. And the rear tire is affixed to the hatch, so it’s not like they couldn’t find the space to store them elsewhere. Maybe it was done in favor of ground clearance? If somebody has an explanation, please let me know. I’m genuinely confused by the jump seats, and genuinely don’t understand them. Whatever, they’re still cool though.

Oh right, that weird lever thingy in the middle of the center console. Joking banter aside, you simply don’t see manual transmissions in SUVs in 2017 unless we’re talking about a Jeep Wrangler or something used. That said, it completely changes the character of the Disco. Rather than being astute and simplistically utilitarian, it’s engaging and, dare I say it, exciting. There’s just something about rowing the gears in a four-by-four, especially so in a vehicle in which its application makes it more closely related to not only its homeland brethren, but its farm and work-oriented predecessors that it can thank for its existence. It’s not the best or most rewarding manual ever built, not even close, but it’s a stick dammit, and that’s plain old fun in itself.

So how was it to actually drive the thing? Shift throws were appropriately long, though surprisingly not as bad as those of the Nissan XTerra I drove last fall. Clutch up-take was high, with the grab point at what felt like the end of the pedal travel, but it very well might be the stock unit here. A cracked exhaust manifold let the 3.9L V8 cackle out from underneath, spitting angrily on deceleration and yelling its song as the revs swing the mostly-working tach up towards redline, a deceptive roar screaming its story louder than it has the gusto to muster. There’s not much go here, but the bellow of the small-Eight makes it feel like you’re moving quicker than you actually are. With sizable heft and…er…size, the Disco is no sports SUV, not feeling even remotely related to today’s Landys like the SVR or even RR Sport, but that’s as far from this thing’s intentions as they come in the automotive world. Steering feel? Irrelevant. It turns when you tell it to do so, and that’s the extent of it. But on the road it just felt…British. Calm, purposeful. Smooth, but with serious capability. Polished, but rough enough for it to let you know it’s not just another bloody Jeep.

I didn’t have a chance to take it off-road, though I wish I had, but the Disco simply felt like it would do well. Be it on a trail in the woods, rock crawling out in Moab or on the Rubicon, or just idling along on a beach, I sincerely got the sense from my short stint in that the Discovery would eat up just about everything you could throw at it. A decent set of tires, a good set of armor, and you’d have a hard time stopping this thing. The sum of all its parts, from the rugged body and interior to the meaty controls (stick included) to the great visibility to the Land Rover heritage just gave me the sensation that this truck was being done a disservice in living its life on-road rather than off. Hopefully, and with any luck, the next owner will treat it to some fun. It sure could handle it.

This the traditional case of a manual transmission transforming an otherwise only passively noteworthy vehicle into one that not only intrigues, but that has an appeal entirely of its own. For some vehicles a manual isn’t even worth mentioning, and yet here it steals the show. It makes an otherwise mundane four-by-four one of significance and one that I truly enjoyed rather than simply experienced. It speaks volumes to the importance of driving engagement, and only further increases that of the manual transmission.

Subdued capability, the point at which British stateliness meets serious off-road prowess: that’s the way of the first-gen Land Rover Discover. The Disco that’s on sale today might be extremely distant from its ancestor we’re talking about here, but this one I love. If I hadn’t *just* bought my 4Runner, this Disco without question would have been mine. Maybe it should have been. If somehow I end up with a bunch of excess money, or am simply seeking another off-road project someday, the stick-shift Disco has swayed me so that I would legitimately consider buying one. The V8, manual transmission Discovery is a testament to the rugged simplicity and purposefulness of Land Rover of yore. Raise a crumpet and your glass of tea to ye olde stick-shift Disco, for the allure long surpasses the legacy of this forgotten gem.

  • Victor

    Walk Softly and drive a stick shift Rover ! How Much?

    • Ross Ballot

      The “negotiable” price of $1500 turned out to be not so negotiable after all

  • “While we can’t rectify that by just randomly buying one…”

    It took almost no time to find these two at $500 apiece. Certainly if you all chip in you can manage one of them, right?

    https://seattle.craigslist.org/see/pts/6107691661.html

    https://seattle.craigslist.org/skc/cto/6080613617.html

    • P161911

      So the first one was stolen and returned once the crackhead realized that it wasn’t a 1st gen Explorer?

      • My guess is the thief got tired of constantly doing electrical work, finally gave up when the ignition switch stopped working, then returned it along with a sympathy card containing $20.

    • Yes, those are two excellent reasons why neither of us bought one yet. 🙂

      • Oh, come on. You can probably talk the seller(s) down a bit. Just think, the advantage of buying one (or two!) on the opposite side of the country is that you can gain the distinction of ownership without ever bothering with retrieval, secure in the knowledge that there’s a bit less of a chance the seller(s) will go to the trouble of forcibly delivering it/them to you.

        Still, don’t use your real name or address.

    • CraigSu

      That’s probably one vehicle that has never been run at LeMons. I shudder to think…

      • I believe they all have factory weights well in excess of 4200 pounds, meaning a waiver would be necessary. I couldn’t get a waiver for an IH Travelall (which is lighter than a Discovery), so I suspect it would be difficult to persuade LeMons HQ to go along with it.

      • In the spring of 2002 I rented a Discovery from Enterprise. Yea, I got lucky, it was some kind of an upgrade, I don’t remember. Anyway, i freakin’ loved it! Up to the point where I almost rolled it on a Merritt Parkway curve going about 65mph.
        That was truly scary.
        Then I got to my destination and somehow loved it again. Then I fixed the rear wiper and I somehow loved it again.
        That’s Land Rover ownership in a nutshell.

  • Mister Sterling

    Was this in Connecticut? And did the audience member at Episode 200 buy it?

    • Ross Ballot

      It was in CT, but yes it was the one mentioned in Ep 200…nobody so much as reached out to me about it

  • outback_ute

    I have vague memories of driving an old 2-door Range Rover, probably a late-70’s model, which is not so far removed under the skin. My memory says “softly sprung tractor”.

    I still wouldn’t mind owning one of those, after seeing some modified examples. One of my more impressive memories of driver skill was seeing one looking something like the attached, acting as a sweep car for a road rally that finished at Calder race track, where it ran through a slalom looking like the body was going to fly off the axles from the way it was rolling & bouncing as the guy slid around the cones. Clearly the guy knew the vehicle very well!
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/80a9814f9bc6175f71f8268904e4e8a3d441f7b329b559438f780e644f160ae8.jpg

  • Maymar

    http://www.autoland.us/classifieds/ads_mod/images/ad116_img8_large.jpg

    I assume the Series I jump seats are a leftover from the Defender (and pre-Defender days). Folding out from the side at least doesn’t raise the cargo floor inaccessibly high, but those don’t look like they’d be tolerable for more than 10 minutes (although by the time you need seven seats, you’ve got a few kids to spare). Also, not too different from what you got in extended cab pickups at the time. At the very least, they’re a little simpler than the seats in the Series II Disco, which does a weird rotate out (and the headrests pop down from the roof).

    I can’t see enjoying the horrendous fuel economy for long (especially with the requirement for premium), but from what time I’ve spent with Series II’s, they’re charming.

    • Hubba

      The mk1 Disco was a minimum-effort shortcut to create a modern SUV on the original RR bones at a lower price point than the Range Rover. The old RR didn’t have footwells in the floor, so jumpseats were the cheapest/fastest path to “7 seats.”

  • Alff

    Sounds like you road tested it under ideal conditions.

    • Ross Ballot

      Only the best

  • Michael Reis

    I have owned my Disco for over 255,000 mikes It’s the most reliable car I ever owned. Mike

    • dead_elvis, inc.

      So, you’ve only owned one car?

      😉

      • Michael Reis

        Dear Elvis. I have owned over 30 cars. The worst was a new BMW 540 it needed a new engine & trans under warranty. Mike

        • dead_elvis, inc.

          Are you familiar with the concept of jokes?

  • Orson7

    I learned to drive on one of these when new! My Mom had a red on tan 5-speed manual. It was the only vehicle that could climb the cottage driveway during snowy Quebec winters…but needed monthly service visits for blown head gaskets and warning lights (full disclosure- some my fault). As a new 16 year old driver, it took my most ridiculous Dukes of Hazard jumps in stride. Maybe it sometimes shut off the fuel tank and switched on the hazards… but then started right up and drove off like it was nothing. I once reversed it up onto the hood of a custom civic si that was tailgating in a parking lot. My sister also learned to drive on the Disco, mistaking the brake for the gas at a turn in country… and plowing over brush, trees, and rocks like it was nothing. Once fit an entire sectional couch in the cavernous high-ceiling back with the seats down. On one hand it was built like a tank, but the electrics and old Buick engine were fragile.

    • Ross Ballot

      Sounds like a Land Rover…