The Discovery never really went away, but the name certainly did. At least in North America. Elsewhere in the world, the vehicles we know as the LR3 and LR4 were sold as Discovery 3 and Discovery 4. And yes, that bloodline has proven undeniably masterful in some of the most grueling global expeditions ever conceived. Events like the Camel Trophy and G4 Challenge. The '15 Land Rover Discovery Sport here is not the successor to that lineage. In reality, it's the third generation of the compact Freelander range (the second-gen version was the LR2) that Land Rover has now pushed under the umbrella of an expanded multi-model Discovery lineup.
Whatever the name or heritage, the Discovery Sport represents the current jumping-on point for the Land Rover brand. Based in part on the Range Rover Evoque, the two share front structure and mechanicals up to the A-pillar, but the Discovery then possesses a more practical anatomy with a surprisingly spacious cabin and seating for up to seven. Like the Evoque, it's also far more capable in the real world than might be expected, as we discovered (no pun intended) trekking over Iceland. In winter.
Iceland is a place of uncommon beauty and a land of immense contrast. Snow falls here daily in the winter months, depositing fresh layers of immaculate white powder on nearly coal-black volcanic soil. Cold winds steal a body's warmth, yet heat escapes from the ground.
The Discovery Sport is something of a dichotomy as well. On the one hand, it's immediately recognizable as part of a new generation of Land Rovers, with smooth surfaces, chiseled "face" and stubby overhangs. Yet it looks nothing like any other Land Rover, let alone the iconic Discovery from where it gets its name. Or the quirky LR2 with which it shares its lineage. If anything, it looks somewhat ordinary, considering its ancestors' funky silhouettes and penchant for asymmetry.
Like the nearly treeless landscape, the Discovery Sport exudes a kind of minimalism bordering on sterility. There is nothing controversial about its appearance (OK, maybe the fact that the lighting resembles some recent Ford products), but it evokes serenity. Outside and in, it is clean and modern. There is a beauty to its simplicity. Many designers today overwork a car's sheetmetal with superfluous surfacing; the Land Rover team has exercised restraint.
They've also resisted the urge to trim the interior like a stuffy old English club, forgoing altogether any hint of wood veneer in favor of more technical metallic accents. Leather still features extensively, albeit more toned down than in a Range Rover. Plastic surfaces look to be tech-inspired rather than trying to simulate tanned hides.
From its inception, the Freelander/LR2 has relied on unibody construction and a transverse-mounted engine—a layout more familiar to family sedans than world-straddling expedition vehicles. This alone has made it an easy target for defenders (another unintended pun) of Land Rover's legacy. The Discovery Sport does nothing to change this state of affairs. And the truth is, Land Rover is OK with it.
This vehicle fills the role once occupied by, of all things, the station wagon. It's a family adventure vehicle, for whatever definition of "adventure" a modern family might envision. It's a kid hauler, daily commuter, family vacation getaway vehicle. If it never leaves the pavement, so what? At least the Disco Sport isn't pretending to be something it's not.
Land Rover enthusiasts may want to know whether this thing is worthy of its badge in off-road situations. With nearly 13 inches of suspension travel and 23.6 inches of wading depth, the Disco Sport tops all of its competition (BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLK, Volvo XC60) on these key metrics. The Sport wins hands-down on approach and departure angles and also trumps the Germans on ride height and breakover angle, although the Swede bests them all with its additional clearance and breakover.
Like all recent Land Rovers, the Discovery Sport uses the most current version on the company's Terrain Response system to modulate throttle, braking, stability control, and steering response through a simple push-button selector on the center console. This electronic traction system isn't so much a substitute for a proper low-range transfer case as it is a way to help the driver maintain control of inputs when surfaces are compromised. No low range is offered, but that helps reduce weight and driveline loss in a vehicle that would rarely be called upon to use such a feature.
All models have four standard terrain response profiles—Standard; Grass, Gravel, and Snow; Mud and Ruts; Sand—with an additional high-performance Dynamic mode as part of the Adaptive Dynamics option. Ours was set to Grass, Gravel, and Snow for most of this Icelandic expedition. The setting is a bit aggressive in terms of throttle inputs, but otherwise it worked well getting us through ice and snow.
Most Discovery Sport owners will never deliberately descend a riverbank and plunge the headlights into the icy water with expectations of making it to the other side unscathed, as we did. But the fact that it is designed to do so should provide them with the confidence that they will indeed get through the worst weather to arrive safely at lacrosse practice. Or the mall. Or insert stereotype here.
One attribute that may set the Sport apart from any previous Discovery is its spry performance. Saddled with a mere 4,200 pounds of mass, it feels light on its feet the way most other Land Rovers never could. Attention has been paid not only to overall weight, but also where that weight is placed, like the use of aluminum on higher points such as the roof, tailgate, and hood.
Handling, the best we can tell given the conditions, is sharp and precise like the Evoque's, but the extra few inches of wheelbase lend it a more refined attitude on rough roads without the need for a complicated air suspension. There are MacPherson struts in front, while the rear uses a revised version of the Evoque's multi-link setup with lighter components and an extra 3.9 inches of track width. MagneRide dampers replace standard gas-charged units when the Adaptive Dynamics option is checked, but all versions have a fixed ride height.
Steering is quick and responsive and requires little effort with standard electric power steering assist. Unlike many EPS systems, this one feels like a good match for the vehicle and its intended drivers, though judging its response in real-world conditions is virtually impossible when driving on ice-covered pavement and gravel while wearing studded snow tires.
For now, the lone powertrain option is the same 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine found in the Evoque, paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive. Rated at 240 hp and 250 lb-ft, the combination is potent if not groundbreaking. It's enough to hit 60 mph in 7.8 seconds and run out to a terminal velocity of 124 mph. Better still, it allows for up to 26 mpg on the highway. A four-cylinder diesel will eventually enter the lineup, pushing consumption well into the 30s.
The turbo four-cylinder is peppier on the road than the zero-to-60 numbers might suggest. The small turbocharger seems to always be on boost and it can be difficult at times to modulate the throttle accurately. The ZF gearbox moves swiftly and smoothly through its gears, quick and precise when called upon to downshift.
The all-wheel drive system uses a tried-and-true Haldex center differential to dish out torque across front or rear axles based on traction. The system defaults to primarily front-wheel drive, but can deliver all its torque to either end.
Built on a 107.9-inch wheelbase (coincidentally, the same as the long-wheelbase version of the original Range Rover and more than three inches greater than the Evoque) the priority is on passenger comfort, at least for the first two rows. All America-bound versions will also feature a standard third row with "+2" occasional seating for those times when there's another kid in the picture.
The view from the front row is expansive, but prior Land Rover owners may lament the loss of the characteristically high seating position found in older models. The Discovery Sport bows to convention (and modern safety requirements) with front seats mounted considerably lower in the bodywork. Second-row passengers sit two inches higher, retaining the brand's long-standing "theater seating" arrangement.
Four full-size humans want for nothing in terms of space, although a middle passenger in the back will introduce some shoulder conflict. Both powered front seats tilt for ideal positioning and the rear seats recline. If that weren't enough, the optional full-length glass roof really opens up the interior. It lacks the Alpine windows and stepped roof line of an old Discovery, but the view from inside still offers a wonderful perspective.
The third row is as tight as its "+2" designation suggests. Access to this bonus space (or penalty box, depending on stature and personal elasticity) requires sliding one of the second-row seats fully forward (6.3 inches) on its tracks. The two extra seats themselves are manually deployed, rising out of the floor with a light pull from the cargo area. Once up, the seatbacks and extended headrests block the otherwise decent view through the rear window. Seating comfort is limited to those with a minimal drop between the knees and ankles, and cargo capacity is all but eliminated in this position.
What Land Rover has built in the new Discovery Sport is a highly capable family vehicle more tuned to its market position than ever before. The marque has refined its entry-level offering by abandoning its quirky roots. Few will be offended by this move. With all it offers at a base price of $37,995, the newest Land Rover will finally gain the respect it deserves, regardless of whether it should be called a Discovery or not.
- Understated good looks
- Performance and economy
- Real off-road ability
- No rough-and-ready character