COAL: 2011 Land Rover LR4 – Upright and Outta Sight

After six years and 120,000 miles, we had never quite gotten used to the Infiniti’s size and ponderous nature around town. It was a great highway cruiser and tow vehicle, but around town, my wife kept running over curbs, bushes, and parking stops about daily. It was a family joke and the kids starting keeping “score” as well. The big tires on 18 inch wheels took this abuse well, without any curb rash or damage.

But, we still needed to tow. And with three kids, we frequently made use of the third row. Taking their cousins or friends anywhere meant there were often 6 or 7 people aboard. We needed 4WD as we had some snow where we lived, and drove to nearby ski resorts for the kids.

My wife wanted “smaller” and “more car-like” though, which had me scratching my head. We drove a Mercedes GL, but it was still bigger than she wanted, and way too expensive to boot. One day, we were flying past a CarMax and I saw a used Land Rover LR3 near the street. It was a Sunday and they were closed, but that struck me as a possible candidate. We pulled over, parked, and walked into the lot to take a look. The kids were with us too.

Our 13 year old daughter and my wife did not like the “industrial” looking dash and controls, while us three guys thought it looked cool. But, my wife liked the relatively compact size of it. Tall, of course, but pretty short and narrow relatively speaking.

Then, as now, the Land Rover dealers are pretty few and far between. We live about equidistant between two of them, one is 90 minutes east and another 90 minutes west. A couple of weeks later, we were in one of those cities anyway for a Lego convention, as I recall! We went by the Land Rover dealer there and looked at a new LR4.

My research in the meantime had revealed that the LR4 had a much improved dash and door panels, to match it closer to the Range Rover brethren. The LR4 was also now powered (in North America, Russia and Australia) by the stout 5.0 liter Jaguar V8, the same engine used in Jags as well as the larger Range Rover.

The LR3 had used a Ford 4. 0 liter V6, though the earlier 4.4 liter version of the Jaguar AJ-V8 was a rarely seen option. And “rarely seen” was for the best, as the 4.4 version had the same Nikasil cylinder liner problem as BMW engines of the era. That’s a long story for another day, and a great Google topic if you’re interested. The 5.0 liter switched to cast iron liners, along with direct fuel injection and some other upgrades.

While my wife liked the looks,  liked the size, and how it drove, she of course touched on the giant elephant in the room: “Aren’t Land Rovers terribly unreliable? Like, they don’t run? At all?”

The 1989 – 1998 Discovery

Well, I have to admit she had a point there. It’s fair to say they suffer from a poor reputation, whether it is backed up by facts or not. In the best GM style, Land Rover called the old Discovery the “Discovery II” after a few years, like calling a Citation a “Citation II” made anyone forget how bad the Citation was.

The 1998- 2002 Discovery II

The Discovery II was somewhat better, but is still a poster child for British design and assembly indifference. These have been described as held together by “cat spit and cobwebs”, but I still want one very badly. The Discovery II is a very handsome vehicle to me. It won’t be mistaken for anything else, for sure. And to say their owners are a rabid and enthusiastic lot is an understatement. The Discovery and Discovery II still have huge aftermarket support, with everything you can think of to maintain them, or make them into true rock crawlers.

The 2003 – 2009 Discovery 3, or LR3 in North America

The LR3 was another GM-esque name switcheroo. It was called the Discovery 3 for the entire planet, except for North America. The Discovery name was banished until it’s very recent resurrection for the LR4 replacement. I guess they figured it’s been long enough, that we have by now forgotten any North American Discovery-related bad karma.

As is typical of British vehicles, there have been a lot of changes in Jaguar/Range Rover/Land Rover corporate ownership over the years, some good and some not. I won’t recount the entire history here, and some of you know it better than I anyway. But the short version is that from 2000 to 2008, it was fully owned by Ford, and then sold on to the large Indian conglomerate Tata (think the GE or Hyundai of India). One positive outcome of Ford’s era was that the LR3 / LR4 was largely designed under Ford’s guidance. And, the 5.0 Jaguar V8 came to be built at a Ford engine plant in the UK (and still is, apparently).

From my reading, I reasoned that Land Rover reliability was surely much improved. Ford can design a vehicle and assemble an engine as well as anyone. The transmission was the same 6 speed ZF automatic that propels many different makes and models, including most BMW’s of the last 20 years. I also noted on the test drive that virtually all the electrical connections and wires under the hood said “Ford” or “FoMoCo”, which was reassuring. The LR4 itself was still built at Rover’s original Solihull, UK plant.

Not an LR4, but the same upright seating and glass, glass, glass

So, we had some objective research indicating an LR4 was not a completely illogical gamble. And the test drive went well. It seemed to be a good fit for us. Compact, relatively speaking. Three rows (optional at extra cost). Easy to see out of and park, sitting up high and being surrounded by so much glass. Four wheel drive. The tow capacity was well under the QX56 but still over 7000 pounds. It could tow the trailer that we were probably shedding soon anyway, and would tow the boat for sure.

The salesman wasn’t in a dinner jacket, but this was his expression….

The negotiations ended before they started with the salesman sniffing, “We don’t discount these. At all.” Well, maybe they didn’t, but surely someone would. Thus the internet re-enters the picture. Searching far and wide, I found a dealer about 6 hours away that had a new, never titled 2011 LR4 that had 3,000 miles. It supposedly had been driven by the sales manager for 3 months, and the warranty had not started because it had not been titled. There was a generous five figure discount involved, which made it well under the MSRP and less than the QX56 had been six years earlier.

The salesman I connected with on the phone asked me to email pictures of my trade, and he would send me a value for the trade. He sent me back a figure that beat what the Mercedes dealer had offered, and was a little more than what I was hoping to get.

So, I set out for the drive by myself in the QX56 at the crack of dawn. Upon arrival, I inspected the LR4 that they had thoughtfully detailed and pulled into the showroom. It was truly spotless. I found one, one inch long scratch on the rear bumper, but that was it. They test-drove the QX56 all the figures were put onto paper exactly as they were discussed on the phone. It was a smooth, easy transaction. I set out for home and arrived that night.

Our kids were, well, a little upset. Our 13 year old daughter didn’t hate it, but she was more attached to the QX56 than she (and we) had expected. She had spent half her life riding around in it, after all. But the third row in the LR4 won her over. It has two bucket-like seats that fold flat into the floor. There’s lots of cubbies and storage spaces back there, and a very forceful rear heat and AC unit. And, a fixed glass sunroof over the third row and second row as well.  So that was her new “lair” away from her brothers and all was well.

We were very pleased with the LR4. Well, still pleased I should say, as it is still here. We towed the trailer to the beach and to Disneyworld one more time. The LR4 had more power and accelerated better than the QX56. But, we were at the tow weight limit and you could tell. It was substantially less stable and enjoyable to tow the trailer, and we kept the speed down more so than in the past. But, as we predicted, the kids had outgrown the bunks and to some extent outgrown camping with their parents, too. We sold the trailer and that was that.

It does well pulling the boat to the lake eight or ten times a summer, and I have a big old junky looking trailer I use behind it to clean out and remodel rental houses. It’s been as far south as Miami, and as far north as Boston. And now, our youngest is 15 with his learner’s permit, and cutting his teeth on it. Our oldest is probably going to take it back to college this Fall.

The vehicle itself is very heavy, heavier than the much larger QX56. We have replaced the front and rear pads like clockwork every 30,000 miles. Tires are at the wear bars every 25,000 miles or so.

But yes, it still runs! We have had two meaningful problems, but I mostly attribute them to a poor dealership service department at one of the dealers closer to our house (not the selling dealer). The radio/nav touchscreen would go black for no reason early on. The dealer “reset” it the first time, “reset” it the second time, and “couldn’t duplicate” the third time. The fourth time, I reminded them that four unsuccessful repair attempts triggered the lemon law buyback requirement in our state. So, they replaced the entire touchscreen assembly. The problem never occurred again. I think they should have replaced it the first time, or certainly the second time.

A nice loaner soothes frayed nerves.

Next, the LR4 was recalled to replace a fuel level sender unit that might give “erratic” readings. We had never had a problem with the gauge at all, but dutifully returned for the recall. Well, you guessed it, they botched the recall work (damaged the wiring, they said) and my wife ran out of gas with a car full of kids and groceries. With the gauge showing she had half a tank. I would love to have been present for the phone call she placed to them, because the dealer sent a rollback with a new Range Rover Supercharged as a loaner! And a couple of days later, the rollback returned with our LR4. The problem never recurred.

About a year ago, the dash would say “Bonnet Open” when you were driving, and then the alarm went off in the driveway twice. Google told me that the hood alarm switch was a common problem and the cause of these symptoms. $30 on eBay brought a replacement switch to my door, and it was an easy 5 minute job with no tools needed.

Now at 98,000 miles, the engine and drivetrain have been 100% trouble free. I did cut the 15,000 mile oil change intervals in half because I didn’t like it. I know some would say “right on” and some would say I was throwing money away, but for mostly in-town and towing use, I think 7,500 miles is enough. The internet says you cannot change the oil and have to visit the dealer to have it suctioned out, but there’s a drain plug on the pan like anything else. You just have to unbolt a skid plate to get to it. You can’t use a typical oil suction machine (like I have for the boat) because there is no dipstick tube to stick it down.

I also change the differentials and transfer case myself every 40,000 miles, as I read it is an “open diff” system with a vent that allows moisture in. I don’t know what that is, or if that’s true or not, but the little quantity of fluid needed is cheap insurance. And with the air suspension raised, there’s plenty of room to work under there without ramps anyway.

I inquired about a transmission fluid change around 50,000 miles, as it is a “lifetime” fill and I don’t buy into that either. I was told by the dealer who broke the fuel gauge to “wait until it leaks, then we’ll do it. They all leak”. Well, I’m still waiting. It’s bone dry on the outside. The one piece plastic filter/pan and fluid are reasonably cheap, as they are used by so many makes and models. But a frame crossmember and part of the exhaust need to be moved or removed to get the pan off, so it’s not something I want to do on my own. I think I may do a “drain and refill” on my own here soon, when I do the spark plugs.

With two kids driving now, and the third headed to his own license as well, we didn’t have the need for three rows any longer. In fact, my wife was frequently driving by herself, or it was just she and I (and maybe another couple) heading out.

She liked the SUV seating position and cargo space, and we had a place in the mountains by this time, so we still needed 4WD. We also had elderly relatives were were carrying around, and the LR4 was high enough to be challenging to get them into. My son had a used SUV we could tow the boat with, so towing would be nice but not an essential factor. So, two rows, 4WD, lower and more car-like than before. We drove some of the usual suspects, but we would wind up with our most unexpected selection so far.

What’s been your most unexpectedly reliable car, new or used?