What is it?
People will tell you that the new Land Rover Discovery Sport is a replacement for the Freelander, but there’s far more to it than that.
It is certainly another Halewood-built off-roader, and a £30k-£40k rival for the BMW X3 and Volvo XC60, but Land Rover has made it longer, fitted five-plus-two seating to its more spacious cabin, borrowed the styling heavily from the Evoque and redefined it as a member of the emerging Discovery family which stresses its versatility and practicality.
Even Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design boss and the chief architect of the new model’s sleek new shape agrees. “Others have great design,” he told us. “But Land Rovers need class-leading functionality.”
There’s an interesting back-story about the Sport’s arrival. Land Rover’s range of 4x4s has come to be dominated by the Evoque, whose annual sales of 120,000 a year are more than double the originally planned volume.
The Freelander, closely related to the Evoque under the skin, was in danger of being glossed over, not least because its name has little cachet in the US or China. The company also need a more modern-looking model that could fight and beat the X3 and XC60 while continuing to use existing manufacturing processes and share many common components. Enter the Disco Sport.
What’s it like?
Though closely related, the Sport is far from identical to an Evoque under the skin. It has the same front suspension and transverse-engined mechanical layout and the steel chassis is nearly identical back to the B-pillar, but there’s a completely new rear structure that extends the Sport’s length (by 91mm) and wheelbase (by 80mm) and introduces a sophisticated new multi-link rear suspension which, along with the extra length, helps preserve interior space.
This means the Sport’s second row of seats can move back and forth, either to make a huge boot or provide class-leading second-row kneeroom close to that of a Range Rover.
For the first six to eight months of production, the only engine option will be the 188bhp SD4 diesel familiar from the Evoque and Freelander, and also shared with PSA and Ford. This was in our test car, driving through ZF’s silky nine-speed automatic gearbox. Traction has been enhanced by continued improvements to the Terrain Response system that configures throttle, gear selection, torque distribution and ABS/traction control in four different modes according to driving conditions.
In less than a year’s time the Sport will adopt JLR’s advanced four-cylinder engine range made in its new Wolverhampton works, a move that should improve fuel consumption and cut CO2 emissions. At that stage a two-wheel-drive version will become available, and the entry price will drop from today’s £32,395 for a base manual model to just under £30,000 for the two-wheel-drive version.
Two things strike you immediately when you slide behind the wheel of the Discovery Sport. One is that there are no reminders of the Freelander; the other is that without aping anything they’ve done already, the design team have made this an obvious Land Rover. Not a Range Rover, a Land Rover.
It’s nicely appointed rather than outright plush. There are three green elliptical badges visible and the theme is logic, not luxury. True, there’s a big centre screen that introduces a new infotainment system, but even that offers new levels of remote-control versatility without making an exhibition of itself.
The same observations are true of the ultra-comfortable front seats, the surrounding trim and the generously proportioned second row located high enough to give occupants an excellent forward view. The sixth and seventh seats are plainly for kids up to about the age of 12, and they fold into the boot floor when not needed. They appear to take up remarkably little space, though if you have them (and they’re standard on UK models) you have to compromise on a full-size spare wheel.
The ageing 2.2 diesel can be pretty vocal near idle, but it still has a wide envelope of torque expertly deployed with little hesitation by the nine-speed ‘box to give very high-geared (thus quiet) cruising, plus effortless acceleration. Throw in low road noise levels and you have a quiet-cruising machine which makes normal-tone conversation possible even between the first and third-row passengers.
Wind noise isn’t a problem below 100mph and even flat out at 122mph we found the car acceptably quiet. The only real intrusion comes when the diesel is exteneded through the gears. Oh, and there’s a low-rev rumble when pulling top gear on light throttle.
Even Evoque stalwarts admit the Disco Sport has better steering. There’s a new alertness and sensitivity near the straight-ahead, enhanced by the thick-rimmed wheel and further work to harness the subtleties of all-electric power steering. Land Rover engineers say the Sport’s steering purity is enhanced by the superior geometry of the new suspension. It’s a bigger car, but the new model feels easier than an Evoque to drive in all but the tightest going.
This isn’t the softest-riding off-roader around; its firm damping does a fair bit to justify the ‘Sport’ part of the model’s name. But it’s also acceptably supple, as we discovered on a section of Belgian pave, and later sprinting along a rutted beach in Denmark. Though the average Disco Sport will do most of its work on-road in towns, Land Rover’s test team say the Sport has even more traction and off-road capability than either a Freelander or an Evoque.
As usual, it feels far more capable off-road than owners will need it to be. We never stranded it in various bouts of sand driving, fording vertically banked streams or rock crawling. Even on motorway tyres the car has terrific traction.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Discovery Sport can charge along sinuous roads at a pace that belies its high-riding layout. Cornering grip is terrific. There’s a bias towards understeer near the limit but the Disco Sport mostly goes where it is pointed with little body roll, the quick steering helping its feeling of agility.
Should I buy one?
Makes sense to us. The Disco Sport’s fine combination of beauty, versatility and good driving characteristics looks like bringing a new sophistication to this class, and its polished interior, new infotainment system and impressive off-road ability create a pleasing all-round package.
With the old SD4 engine, the launch versions aren’t absolutely top-drawer for low-speed engine refinement and they don’t quite reach BMW X3 standards of low fuel consumption and CO2 output, so business buyers might be well advised to wait.
But it still strikes us that Land Rover’s biggest problem will be what to concentrate on making, when Evoque demand is still so enormously high. But Land Rover has been coping with this problem for three or four years, and it likes it that way.
Land Rover Discovery Sport SE
Price £34,195; 0-62mph 8.4sec; Top speed 117mph; Economy 44.8mpg; CO2 166g/km; Kerb weight 1863kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2179cc, diesel; Power 187bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 310lb ft at 1750rpm; Gearbox 9-spd automatic
What is it?