What is it?
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a quarter of a century since Land Rover launched the Discovery as a halfway model between the bare-bones Defender and deluxe Range Rover.
With the recent launch of the smaller, sportier Discovery Sport, the company again seeks to bridge a gap. The moribund Freelander will soon be gone and the style-focused Range Rover Evoque isn’t practical enough to take up the slack.
There’s no denying the Discovery Sport’s practicality, with its seven seats, huge boot and off-road credentials; its wading depth is actually 100mm more than a Defender’s.
But how is does this manual version rate against rivals like the BMW X3 and does it stack up as a package costing the thick end of £40,000?
What’s it like?
It’s been well publicised that this car isn’t quite the finished article. Jaguar Land Rover’s new Ingenium 2.0-litre diesel engine – meant to be quieter and more efficient than the old 2.2-litre diesel – wasn’t available for launch in the Discovery Sport, which will have to wait until mid-2015 for the upgrade.
There’s no hiding the fact that the current engine has fallen behind in terms of emissions. For a start, it’s only Euro 5 compliant and the 162g/km of CO2 from the tailpipes is way off the class best.
Similarly, despite the JLR engineers’ efforts to improve refinement, there’s still a noticeable amount of vibration through the controls at idle and coarseness at higher revs. However, use it where its torque is most abundant – between 2000 and 3000rpm – and things are much more tolerable.
It also feels flat below this rev range, but again, work the engine in that performance window and the Discovery Sport will make relaxed, leisurely progress.
However, it’s a far cry from the automatic version, which feels far more urgent. A quick glance at the spec sheet confirms this. With just six gears, as opposed to the nine the auto ’box can choose from, the manual’s 0-60mph time of 9.8sec is a full 1.4sec slower.
That doesn’t help to build a case for the manual, and neither does the gearchange or clutch action. The lever has a long throw and a viscous feel, with the occasional graunch through the gate. Meanwhile, the clutch has an imprecision that makes the Discovery Sport more difficult to drive smoothly than it should be.
Around town, the steering is lethargic, too. Rather than having weight, it would be more accurate to say it has resistance and, when pulling out of side turnings, at times a reluctance to self-centre.
The low-speed ride isn’t perfect, either. The suspension copes well with low-frequency undulations like speed bumps, but high-frequency ripples and sharp ridges thump through the cabin more than expected.
However, these challenges fade once the Discovery Sport is released onto an open road. As the speed builds, the ride settles down,while the engine finds its sweet spot and its note morphs into a background thrum. The steering feels sharper, too, allowing you to float the Disco Sport from apex to apex with ease.
There’s also very little body roll and a surprising amount of grip for what’s basically a tall SUV that weighs just shy of two tonnes. It even has a degree of throttle adjustability, should you choose to exploit it.
It’s a similar tale of good and not quite so good inside. There’s lots of space for occupants and a big load bay, as well as cabin storage for cups and odds and ends.
As the driver, you are aware that you not only have good leg and headroom but also an unusual amount of elbow and shoulder room, too. The driving position is fine and the front seats supportive and well shaped. They’re quite hard, though; they could benefit from slightly softer cushions and possibly a bit more side support.
Anyone sitting in the second row of seats won’t lack space, either. There’s easily enough for two tall adults to sit behind two more, and another could be squeezed in the middle if needed.
Behind this, there’s foldaway seating for a further two passengers, but this space is best suited to kids. With the third-row seats folded away, there’s 981 litres of cargo space if you slide the middle bench forward on its runners. However, bear in mind that figure is Land Rover’s own assessment and they measure up to the roofline. Most other manufacturers measure up to the tonneau cover, in which case the capacity is around 500 litres.
The middle-row seatbacks also tilt for better access to the rearmost seats and fold down in a 40/20/40 formation for added flexibility. Drop them all and they create a carrying capacity of up to 1620 litres.
However, the switchgear and plastics seem a little underwhelming for a car that starts at nearly £40k. The cabin does have that Land Rover signature trait of functionality about it, but you can’t escape feeling that the design is quite plain and the materials don’t feel as tactile in places as those in an Audi Q5, BMW X3 or Volvo XC60.
The Discovery Sport is the first JLR product to get the company’s new multimedia system, and it’s a big improvement over the previous set-up. Again, though, it doesn’t have the functionality of Audi’s MMI system or BMW’s iDrive.
Part of this is because both of those use a rotary controller placed conveniently on the centre console. However, the Discovery Sport’s touchscreen affair requires you to lean forward and is more distracting to use on the move.
Should I buy one?
There’s much about the Discovery Sport to recommend. Perhaps most important, it feels like a proper Land Rover; its core DNA links it to the family bloodline, and for many, that alone will be enough.
It has some issues, but hopefully when the new engines come on stream, some of these, such as the poor refinement and emissions, will be addressed. It is hugely practical, though, and it’s one of the better cars in the class to drive, surpassed only by the BMW X3.
However, the manual gearbox doesn’t match the chassis’s decent dynamics and blunts too much of the engine’s performance. The auto ’box costs £1800 more, but it better suits the Discovery Sport’s character and brings better performance.
Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.2 SD4 HSE manual
Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £37,595; Engine 4 cyls, 2179cc, turbodiesel; Power 187bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 310lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1854kg; Top speed 117mph; 0-60mph 9.8sec; Economy 46.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 162g/km, 28%
What is it?