The 1999-2004 Land Rover Discovery II: a look back at these modern classic SUVs

An advertisement introducing lease deals of the day for the new 1999 Discovery II. (Photo credit: Land Rover USA)

The second generation Land Rover Discovery, introduced partially through the 1999 model year, was badged as the “Discovery II”.  Until production lines were fully changed over from building the original Discovery I model, both generations were sold alongside each other in showrooms as ’99 models.

(A slide show with pictures of all 1999 – 2004 Discovery variations is at the end of this article)

Discovery II styling was evolutionary and although the company claimed 85% of all parts were new, it retained the squared-off profile, tall height, sunroofs, bumped up roofline, and overall feel that customers liked about the Discovery I.  Body panels were stamped out of rust-free aluminum for long life in salt- or humidity-filled environments.

Even though Land Rover had been purchased by BMW in 1994 and subsequently owned sold to Ford in 2000, development of the Discovery II was left mostly to British hands.  Pricing of base model Discoverys was kept competitive with fully-loaded Ford Explorers.

According to the 1999 Land Rover Discovery II brochure, “Since 1948, Land Rover has produced purpose-built vehicles that thrive in the most difficult conditions imaginable.  This is not an idle boast.  Land Rover vehicles have been the backbone of major expeditions to the most remote corners of the globe.  Equally important, each day they provide their owners with loyal and faithful service in conditions as trying as a muddly field or a crowded city street.  This year’s introduction of the new Discovery Series II…reflects the experience, care, and integrity that are a part of every Land Rover”.

Perfect prose to match the British marque’s mid-range Discovery model, created to serve as a bridge between the manufacturer’s utilitarian Defender and prestigious Range Rover models.  Looking to build on the cult following of the first-generation Discovery (1990-99 model years) and increase its sales appeal, Land Rover widened the new Discovery’s track (using wider axles from the 1996 Range Rover) and increased its overall length by six inches to allow for optional forward-facing third row seats.

Standard features on all U.S. models 1999-2004 included standard full time 4-wheel-drive system with high- and low-range gear selector, electronic traction control that braked individual wheels to avoid spin and restore lost grip, a Hill Descent Control button that used the automatic braking when descending steep hills in Low Range mode, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual front airbags, 4-speed automatic transmission, and V8 engine.

“Modern classic” applies to the Discovery.  While sophisticated, engineering is decidedly old school.  Solid front and rear axles (rigid beam) are used instead of more modern independent suspensions with multiple links and control arms.  While the engine block is aluminum, it’s basic design is not modern overhead camshaft design.  Body panels are made of rust-free aluminum, but attached to a steel body underneath mounted to a separate ladder-frame chassis.  While these few examples may seem like drawbacks, on the Discovery they work.  Classic truck suspensions, body-on-frame design, worm-and-roller steering, pushrod V8 engines all serve to add simplicity and durability.


  • Forward facing third row seats with integrated seat belts were optional on all trim levels.  From model year 2001-on when Discoverys were broken up into three trim levels (SD, SE, HSE, etc), a “7” in the model designation indicated a vehicle was built with the extra seats.  For example, an “SE7” would feature seating for seven, an “SE” would not.  7-passenger models all feature a rear step below the rear bumper on the driver’s side (see slide show for picture).
  • Rear Self Leveling Suspension (“SLS”) replaced standard coil springs in the rear for air bellow bags on each side.  While these smooth out ride quality and allow the driver to adjust the ride height manually, air suspension systems are complex, failure prone and costly to repair.  To remove air-ride shocks and swap in metal coil springs is not overly labor intensive, and many owners have done so.  You can tell if a Discovery is so equipped by the presence or absence of a button with a drawing of an up arrow by the rear wheels (see slide show for picture).  SLS was standard on all 2003-04 HSE models, and was equipped on most 7-passenger Discoverys from 1999-02.
  • Active Cornering Enhancement (“ACE”) used a separate hydraulic pump in place of standard metal anti-roll bars to reduce body lean around corners.  This option is best avoided for the same reason as self-leveling suspension above.  The system is quite complex, adding a tank, multiple lines, a pump, control block and 2 acceleration sensors (one over the front interior light, the other under the body to the right near of the A-pillar).  ACE was standard on 2003-04 HSE models, optional on all else.
  • Winter Package.  This includes a heated front windshield, heated front seats, and a heated washer spray system.  The heated front windshield works incredibly well and is worth its weight in gold if you live in a cold climate.


2000:(Ford buys Land Rover from BMW this year)

  • An integrated digital compass is added to the rearview mirror this year.
  • A new fuel filler door indicator was added to the instrument panel.


  • While 1999-00 Discovery IIs had no trim level designations, the three trim levels that had existed on the previous Discovery I returned for ’01…base level SD, LE and top-line SE. Adding the optional 3rd-row seating changed badging to SD7, LE7, or SE7.
  • Vinyl seating was standard on SDs, cloth and brown leather on LEs, and full leather interior trim was standard for the SE.
  • A new 10-speaker, 220-watt premium audio system became available this year.


  • The ’01 “LE” model was gone, leaving just the base SD and midline SE editions which were basically unchanged from ‘01.
  • A limited-production Kalahari off-road edition went on sale later in the year.

2003: Model year of most noteable changes.

  • The 4.0-liter V8 engine was given a longer piston stroke, increasing measured displacement to 4.6 liters and horsepower from 188 to 217.  Torque also increased from 250 to 300 foot-pounds.
  • Headlights were restyled to match the look of the new-for-’03 Range Rover, featuring two round “projector beam” lights.  Since the headlight assemblies themselves did not change size and shape, it’s relatively easy to retrofit ’03-’04 into a 1999-’02 model.


  • Grilles and front bumpers were restyled, and rear turn signal lights were relocated from the bumper to the high-mounted taillight assemblies, displacing the reverse lights down to the bumper location (see pictures in slide show).
  • Model designations changed as well. The base model “SD” became the “S”, and “SE” models remained unchanged.  Due to increasing popularity among wealthy buyers, a new “HSE” model was introduced with more features standard (DVD, navigation) and a higher price than any Discovery previously.  As before, a “7” after all any model designation indicated the vehicle was equipped with the third-row seat option. A rear-obstacle-detection system was new and exclusive to the HSE.
  • Base models (now known as “S” instead of “SD”) no longer received any badging on front fenders the way “SD”s previously did.  As in previous years, front bumpers were completely unpainted on base models.


  • Roof rack rails located above the two front doors were beefed up from thin strips to thick round metal tubes (see slide show for contrasting pictures) – visibly the easiest way to tell an ’04 from an ’03.
  • 200 limited-edition G4 Edition models were produced, named after the Land Rover sponsored off-road challenge.  G4s are painted orange with blue stripes along the side, and feature self-leveling air suspension, a front bumper protector bar, a rear access ladder, and taillight brush guards.
  • The “V8” logo previously located on the passenger side of the tailgate since 1999 disappeared. All other nomenclature letters went from being flat two-dimensional to 3-D bas relief.
  • ’04s were the only model year of Series IIs equipped with a Central Differential Lock activation lever (see above section on differential locks).


  • Oil pump failures on 2003 Discovery Series II 4.6-liter V8 engines.

According to a factory bulletin, “vehicles with VIN numbers between 3A771801 to 3A808362 (last 8 digits) may have oil pumps that fail due to a manufacturing error.  Locating dowel pins may be slightly misaligned permitting assembly of the oil pump to the engine block, but placing stress on the pump housing which can ultimately lead to leakage or failure.  Whenever an oil pump failure is encountered on vehicles within the above VIN range the only effective repair currently available is replacement of the complete engine assembly including the front cover/oil pump manufactured to the latest tolerances.”

The upside is every ’03 motor affected by this flaw suffered the oil pump problem within the first 10,000 miles.  So every engine was replaced already. According to one Land Rover service manager, “There was nothing wrong with the motors at all, it was only the timing cover.  When Rover ran out of motors, they told us to just put timing covers on the motors if the motor was turned off as soon as the pump failed.  Land Rover never called for the old motors back, so alot of the motors that we removed were repaired with a new timing cover and directly put into technicians’ own cars.  So if you find a 1999-02 Discovery with a 4.6 in it, chances are it’s an ‘03 motor that blew up with a new timing cover installed.”

  • Front Driveshaft Failure:

The driveshaft running from the center all-wheel-drive transfer case to the front axle is prone to failure, and flying apart at high rpms.  Because of their original design, the u-joints (they allow the shaft to flex in a different direction while rotating) have no provision for adding lubrication.  Eventually the joints wear from lack of lubrication, and break apart at speed.  When this happens, the still-spinning shaft which is no longer secured flays around loose and usually drills a hole in the side of the automatic transmission housing.  If lift kits are installed, driveshafts and axles are operating at more extreme angles – something that puts a larger amount of stress on U-joints and related components.

The preventative fix for this is to purchase a rebuilt or aftermarket shaft with better designed u-joints with nipples designed to accept periodic lubrication from a grease gun.  A front axle shaft that’s getting ready to break will exhibit a chirping sound while rotating, akin to “angry sparrows”.  Owners hearing this might be wise to pull over immediately and tow the vehicle to a repair shop as soon as possible.

  • Locking Center Differential:

A center all-wheel-drive differential always allows some slippage so front and rear driveshafts can turn at different speeds when needed during normal driving.  To “lock” a center differential means to literally lock the front and rear driveshafts together, forcing them to rotate at the same speed sending equal power to the front and rear axles.  This feature is invaluable for getting out of deep mud or snow where a non-locking center diff would allow wheelspin infinitum.

To save production costs, BMW bosses took some shortcuts on this item.  While locking center diffs were still fitted to 1999 to early ’01 Discoverys, the in-cabin lever to operate it was left off the vehicle.  BMW studies showed Land Rover was losing money when they bought the brand in the mid-1990s, and that drivers in their target expansion market (United States) never took their SUVs off road.  So to save production cost on each vehicle, the shift lever assembly was removed.  However, even though the lever to activate the locking diff was gone, it can still be switched on by climbing underneath the vehicle and using a wrench to turn a nut on top of the transfer case 90 degrees

In the middle of model-year ’01 through 2003, they went a step further and removed the locking differential altogether since the shift lever was missing anyway.

While the electronic braking systems worked very effectively, they did not offer the same level of control and smooth operation as vehicles fitted with the diff lock.  Customer demand finally led Land Rover management to reinstate the locking differential on 2004 models and for the first time on a Discovery II, install an actual lever to operate it.  So ‘04s were the only model year with this feature in full equipped standard on every vehicle, increasing their value to off-roaders and hard core fanatics alike.

  • “What do you call a Land Rover that doesn’t leak?”

This joke told among Discovery owners and mechanics would be answered with the word “Empty.”  While Discovery strengths are being well-built and retaining solid body integrity for many miles and years, its Achilles heel is the above-average tendency for fluids to leak.  Oil leaks are common from valve cover gaskets, rear main seal between engine and transmission, and from the oil pan seal itself.  Radiators and cylinder head gaskets are common sources of coolant leaks.  And yes the center differential case, axle differential housings front & rear, power steering lines & pump will eventually all leak too.  Most mechanical problems on Discoverys arise from not catching leaks in time.

At this point, even the newest Discoverys are well out of warranty.  Three-year leases to soccer moms have long since expired, and fewer and fewer people own them by accident anymore.  Most 1999-04s have worked their way into the hands of those who want them and appreciate them for their fun-to-drive truckish demeanor, old-school mechanical layout, styling, and/or off-road usefulness.  After purchasing a three-year-old ’04 SE7, I have found it one of the most rewarding cars I’ve ever owned.  But they’re not for everybody.  If you’re looking to buy one, Discoverys are like Ferraris – maintenance records count for everything!  Don’t buy one if you’re not mechanically inclined…or prepared to make the financial committment of properly maintaining the vehicle.  Buy one without documentation at your own risk.  Find a good one with records and treat it right, you’ll be able to sell it for much of what you paid for it.



About Sean

Welcome to Classic Cars Today Online! We seek to explore the subject of classic vehicles from the 1950s through today. It is our belief that a car needn't be old to be respected and admired for graceful design, historical significance, and future value. As founder and Editor-In-Chief, I welcome contributions from you about your own car-related interests and ownership experiences. As far as myself, I've worked in the automotive service field and have been a contributor to Autoweek Magazine, The Star, Mercedes Enthusiast Magazine, and more. Currently, I'm a copywriter and own several foreign and domestic classic cars. In my spare time, you'll find me serving as Technical Editor and officer of several car clubs, being a concours car show judge, and meeting some great folks around the tri-state NY / NJ / Pennsylvania area at car shows. - Sean Connor
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  • tracey

    Timely analysis , I was fascinated by the info , Does anyone know where my company could possibly acquire a blank Temporary Custody Agreement form to complete ?

    • jenelllage

      Hi Tracey, my assistant obtained a fillable Temporary Custody Agreement version using this

  • mike graham

    I bought a 2003 Discovery HSE7 a week ago, I have a lot of work to restore it, but one thing I did. While at the gas station when I was buying it it pushed the off road raising botton wondering what it was for. Well, the rear end lifted up and I thought it was cool, before reading the owners manual. Now it is stuck up and rides like hell and can’t get it down even after reading the manual saying to just push the botton again and it will return to the right level for self leveling. Well, it didn’t work and is still up in the back end. Now I can’t drive it till I get it figured out. HELP

    Call 810-293-3805
    If you have any suggestions please contact me.

    Michael C. Graham, Sr.