- Max Speed
What is it?
Land Rover's replacement for the Freelander - and rival to the BMW X3, Audi Q5 et al - replete with shiny new nameplate and two more seats than before. Yes, within the Land Rover Discovery Sport's 459cm length are squeezed no fewer than seven seats: the conventional five, plus a pair of evening-and-weekend efforts neatly stowed in the very back.
The hardware is a mixture of familiar and fresh. The Discovery Sport borrows its front-end structure from the Evoque (which itself draws upon the old Freelander), but the rear end is all new, incorporating a multi-link suspension set-up that, as well as promising better on- and off-road manners than the Freelander, also frees up the necessary space to incorporate those two extra seats.
How is it?
Impressively civilised on road, with barely a lick of wind or road noise even at motorway speed. In terms of refinement, this is a quantum leap forward from the Freelander, and a whole lot better to drive, too.
The steering is, for an SUV, surprisingly sharp around the straight-ahead, imbuing the Discovery Sport with an unexpectedly, well, sporty demeanour without the iron ride of some of its German rivals. Like the Evoque, the damping is taut without veering into crashy, the Sport staying composed in fast corners, feeling more car than seven-seat SUV. It's a satisfying thing to drive fast, if that's your soft-roader bent.
Probably more relevantly, the Discovery Sport is a comfortable cruiser, a car capable of polishing off big miles without taxing its driver. The interior is smartly appointed, with more than a hint of big-brother Range Rover Sport, the seats comfy and the driving position spot-on.
Can it do the off-road stuff?
It truly can. Yes, yes, we know most soft-roaders will never be pressed into off-road service more pressing than the odd gravel car-park or grassy verge, but the Discovery Sport, should you demand it, can manage a whole lot more than that.
We tested it on some truly hideous Scottish terrain - boulder tracks, one-in-one mud slopes, knee-deep bog - and the Disco Sport clambered through the lot without complaint. The four-wheel-drive system slickly apportions torque to find any grip available, while both front and rear overhangs are surprisingly stubby, allowing the Sport to safely bob in and out of ditches you're convinced will ground nose or tail. Land Rover's always done this stuff better than the competition, and the Discovery Sport remains true to form.
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What about those rear seats?
We're not going to pretend you'd want to put a couple of prop forwards back there for a Lands End to John O'Groats epic, but honestly, they're better than you'd think. Fine for even full-size grown-ups for a quick run across town, not really appropriate if you regularly transport more than five. But they fold neatly into the boot floor with no apparent loss of space, though at the expense of a full-size spare tyre.
Fold those rearmost seats down, and the middle row slides backwards, offering vast legroom for second-seat passengers. That row can fold flat, too, offering cavernous bootspace. The Discovery Sport is one of those cars that - like the new Renault Twingo at rather the other end of the automotive spectrum - seems to carve more space inside than its road footprint would suggest.
A few. First, that engine. The Disco Sport launches with just one engine option: Land Rover's venerable 2.2 diesel, churning out 187bhp through either a six-speed manual or a nine-speed ZF auto box. We tested the latter transmission, which was impeccable. (Though nine ratios is, in truth, several more than you'll ever need, especially with the box's dedication to slip into the highest gear possible left to its own devices. Decide to take manual control on, say, the way into a roundabout, and you find yourself having to hit the left-hand paddle five or six times to drop into a low enough gear.)
The ol' turbodiesel isn't quite so irreproachable. It's far from offensive, and despite emitting a fair chunter at start-up in the cold, offers a broad spread of torque and acceptably lively performance. But there's no question it feels last-gen against the latest German offerings, and vital stats of 44.8mpg and 166g/km of CO2 are hardly class leading.
Salvation is at hand. Some time in 2015, the Discovery Sport will receive JLR's latest swathe of modular ‘Ingenium' engines, which will bring with it a 2.0-litre turbodiesel hopefully capable of sticking it to - or at least matching - the German competition.
A question mark hangs over the tech, too. We tested a late prototype fitted with Land Rover's clunking old nav and infotainment system, so we can't pass judgment on the new software that'll grace the Discovery Sport. Here's hoping it's a whole lot better, as the old set-up is veritably pensionable. We'll find out when we test a final production version next week.
Maybe the biggest potential sticking point is price. Though the Discovery Sport starts at a smidge over £32,000 - with a slightly cheaper front-driven version to follow - our loaded-to-the-brim test car tipped the scales at (ready for this?) just over £48,000. Forty-eight. That's a lot of money for a small soft-roader. Of course Audi, BMW and Mercedes will give you equal opportunity to spec your SUV to a dizzying price point, but the point still stands: a budget offering the Discovery Sport is not.
So should I buy one?
To describe a car as ‘pleasant' often sounds like damning with faint praise. But pleasant is exactly what the Discovery Sport is, in the nicest possible way, feeling more... organic, less austere than the business-suit offerings of BMW and Audi. It's pleasant to drive slow, it's pleasant to drive fast, and - to these eyes at least - looks smart inside and out. The two extra seats are a handy bonus, as are the Discovery Sport's off-road smarts.
In truth, we'd be tempted to hang on until the new engine range arrives next year. If you can't wait that long, we wouldn't dissuade you from embracing the Discovery Sport, but we would say this: option wisely, dear buyer.