2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport First Drive
Emphasis on Utility
Land Rover is selling loads of SUVs. Total sales of JLR products for 2014 exceeded those of 2013 by 9 percent, and 2013 was a great year. Moreover, that increase is weighed down by Jaguar, which sold just more than 81,000 cars worldwide. In total, Land Rover moved 381,108 units this past year, with more than 51,000 of those sales coming to the United States, a market — since China ain’t doing too hot — that has returned front and center to prominence and dominance in the eyes of the world’s carmakers. A luxury car dealer I know recently told me that Land Rover is the hot brand, explaining that he can’t keep Range Rovers or Range Rover Sports on the lot. Pretty good for a company founded to address the lack of Jeeps in postwar Wales.
The amazing part of the story is that Land Rover has managed to do all this without a volume model. Or should I say without a decent volume model. The sexy little Evoque — our 2012 SUV of the Year — is a niche product, and when is the last time you saw an LR2 (called the Freelander in other markets), let alone heard anyone discussing one? The old (but still good) and about to be replaced LR4/Discovery’s price starts just above $51,000 — hardly mainstream. As for the Range Rovers, if you have to ask … However, there’s a new Land Rover on the horizon and it's a replacement for the moribund LR2/Freelander. Land Rover is calling it the Discovery Sport, the price starts at a reasonable $37,995, and they invited yours truly to the unreal country of Iceland to have a drive.
Why Iceland? Aside from pure exoticism, what better place to show off what Land Rover is pitching as a true go-anywhere, small, premium crossover? The tiny volcanic country isn’t even finished forming yet, and not only does the landscape change completely every 10 kilometers, the weather changes every 10 minutes. We flew into Reykjavik late in January, the dead of winter, when temperatures just off the ring road that envelops the island hovered right around freezing. Meaning snow and ice—glaciers of it. One caveat -- and this has been bugging me since I encountered the 18 or so Discovery Sports parked on the heated driveway of the Ion Hotel where our journey began — Land Rover equipped all of them with studded tires. True, we did some fairly hairy off-roading, but it’s impossible for me to say how much of the Disco Sport’s capability came down to engineering chops, and how much was a result of the little metal spikes. Guess we’ll have to wait until one comes Stateside so we can perform a proper evaluation on real tires. C’est la vie.
Jerry McGovern is the head of Land Rover design, and he ranks up with the most talented metal-molders out there. Give the man a chassis and he hands you back a classic. Evoque, Ranger Rover, Range Rover Sport — all are attractive SUVs. No easy feat. The Discovery Sport carries on that recent tradition, especially when the roof is painted a contrasting color. Tight, athletic, purposeful, it’s difficult to find fault with this medium-size ute’s design. Even the cover that hides the hood-mounted airbag (for pedestrian safety — not coming to the U.S.) looks pretty much OK. The interior design is functional. Composed of mostly leather and soft plastic with controls that feel medium-quality, it’s not a game-changer. Neither is Jaguar Land Rover’s new, colorful infotainment head unit, which looks worlds better than the all-gray affair we’re used to. Still, the map functionality is second tier and the whole system isn’t as good as what you’d get in, say, an Audi.
Under the hood sits the familiar, Ford-developed, 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4. You know this engine from the Evoque and various Jaguar sedans (as well as some Fords). Power is adequate — 240 horsepower and 251 lb-ft of torque — on paper. It’s difficult to say how well the turbo mill suits the Discovery Sport because not only are speed limits low in Iceland, but my normal default jackass setting for car launches was also dialed back a few clicks because of the near-treacherous icy conditions. Land Rover is claiming 7.8 seconds to 60 mph, and I have no basis to argue in either direction. I will mention that a fellow journalist snuck a Discovery Sport onto a truck scale and it rang up a total of 1,970 kilograms — 4,343 pounds, or 386 pounds heavier than the 3,957 pounds Land Rover’s claiming. Please note that’s without a full tank of gas, how we normally weigh vehicles.
With four adult males onboard the interior space is impressive, especially as the rear seats slide slide back to provide the back passengers with plenty of legroom. In a pinch, the seats can be slid forward and an optional third row seat can be deployed. Land Rover describes the seating as 5+2, which I’ll amend to five adults and two small, uncomfortable children. Like certain other aspects of the drive, it’s tough to say much about the ride quality because of the studded tires (and Iceland’s weather-ravaged pavement, plus icy, snowy dirt). That said, I felt nothing that would lead me to believe the Discovery Sport will be a large departure from Land Rover’s typical excellent-for-an-SUV ride quality. The same is true for handling. No one on the mini Icelandic saga felt like pushing the Discovery Sport hard through corners, because those corners were mostly covered in ice and bordered by water.
We did plunge the Discovery Sport into 2 feet of fast-flowing water that came midway up the doors. As you would expect from the brand, the capable rig had no issue whatsoever fording the nearly frozen river. That is why you’re spending the extra money on a Land Rover product -- the promise of go-anywhere capability. And go anywhere we did. Up snow-covered volcanic hills and down icy, cragged trails, the Discovery Sport never so much as hinted at getting stuck. Again, the studded tires no doubt helped, but so did Land Rover’s patented Terrain Response system that we had locked into Mud, Gravel and Snow the entire time (save for some ice ballet/donuts I performed in a frozen church parking lot with every single system switched off). Land Rover was obsessed with us using the Hill Descent Control feature, but with the amount of grip on hand, I much preferred paddle shifting the nine-speed ZF transmission down a couple of gears when encountering a steep grade. Of note: This is the first nine-speed-equipped vehicle I’ve driven where the transmission felt properly tuned.
Eventually, the Discovery Sport will get JLR’s new family of small engines, called Ingenium. You’ll be able to choose between gasoline and diesel. It might behoove you to wait for the new motors because they’ll no doubt be more powerful, more efficient, and lighter. Until that time, the Discovery Sport looks to be the vehicle Land Rover needed to have on sale last year. Small, premium SUVs represent a major profit center for manufacturers and this space is filling up quickly. The competition is thick — Audi Q5, BMW X3, Lincoln MKC, Mercedes-Benz GLK (soon to be renamed GLC), Porsche Macan, Lexus NX/RX, and even the old Cadillac SRX are selling like sweet tea on a hot Georgia day. The Discovery Sport separates itself from that pack by offering true off-road chops. Even if you never venture past where the sidewalk ends, knowing you could is oftentimes enough. Put another way, would you dream of taking the others on a trip across the wild, untamed, and indescribably beautiful fjords of Iceland? Land Rover, for one, hopes not.
|2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||front-engine, AWD 5/7-pass, 4-door, SUV|
|ENGINE||2.0-L/240-hp/251-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,950-4,350 lb (est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||180.7 x 74.6 x 67.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.8 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||21/28 (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||160 / 120 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.82 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||April, 2015|