Smaller Discovery model makes Freelander a memory with brilliant packaging and uprated cabin quality.
It would have been Freelander 3 based on model-naming evolution, it could almost be viewed as an Evoque XL, but Britain’s fresh assault on German mid-sized luxury SUVs takes the name Land Rover Discovery Sport.
While the new Land Rover adopts the Discovery badge synonymous with go-anywhere ability for 25 years, it’s the Sport name – as it does with the Range Rover Sport – that indicates some greater emphasis on on-road ability.
Indeed the Land Rover Discovery Sport, which is based on the architecture of the Rangie Evoque, trades some obstacle-clearing body shaping, with reduced approach, departure and ramp-over angles compared with its predecessor.
Ground clearance increases by 2mm to 212mm, though, and wading depth increases by 100mm to 600mm.
And to prove the new compact Disco doesn’t fear challenging environments, Land Rover staged the vehicle’s international launch in the antithesis of bustling metropolises where luxury SUVs typically thrive: Iceland.
Europe’s most sparsely populated country has just 325,000 people, mostly confined to the coastline to leave a vast, mostly uninhabited interior of volcanoes, lakes and glaciers.
It’s impassable in many places during winter, but Land Rover mapped out a 400km loop that took us through accessible remote parts, starting and finishing in the capital Reykjavik, which is famous for its Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear-disarmament summit in 1986.
We avoided our own cold war by staying in the Discovery Sport as much as possible, with the seat heaters on (in mid-spec HSE models) and even the steering wheel warmer (when in top-spec HSE Luxury).
Over a day of traversing thick snow trails, volcanic gravel tracks and crossing deep glacial rivers, the Land Rover Discovery Sport suggested it will be the choice of circa-$60,000 luxury SUVs for the most adventurous of Australians.
It lays claim to having the greatest axle articulation in its segment, and the standard Terrain Response system continues to be ingeniously simple in the way it allows the driver to simply choose a surface condition – Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud and Ruts, and Sand – and carry on as the vehicle’s various electronics are tailored for each.
Iceland’s frozen interior isn’t the most relevant testing scenario, of course, and even our bitumen running time was clouded by the fact all the Disco Sports were fitted with studded winter tyres.
So no accurate reports here on road noise or corner-carving ability, though we have a clearer idea that the suspension (with 19-inch wheels on our test cars) can be firm at a lower pace before bringing controlled suppleness at higher speeds.
The Discovery Sport will also be at the pointy end of its group for steering, with the electric helm offering a decent heft and directness.
Out of the petrol and diesel engines that carry over from the Freelander (and reside in the Evoque), compression ignition is certainly the way to go for off-roading. The base TD4 engine (110kW/400Nm) wasn’t on the launch, but the 140kW/420Nm SD4 uses its superior torque to be that bit more effortless than the 177kW/340Nm Si4 turbo petrol.
The optional ($2500) nine-speed automatic gearbox fitted to both test cars we tried is smooth but, as in the Evoque, could be quicker to downshift.
The 2.0-litre Si4 is the quickest and quietest Discovery Sport and the 2.2-litre D4/SD4 the most fuel efficient and best for towing (with excellent 2200kg braked towing capacity). The diesels, which will account for more than 90 per cent of sales if they follow Evoque numbers, remain off the pace otherwise for performance and economy – especially compared with the BMW X3 xDrive 20d and Volvo XC60 D4.
A new 2.0-litre diesel, dubbed eD4, from Jaguar-Land Rover’s new Ingenium modular engine family promises to not just catch up but also lead the way. It debuts in the new Jaguar XE before being supplanted into the Disco Sport later in 2015, though it could be early 2016 before it’s seen locally.
Right now, though, it’s inside where the Discovery Sport is already likely to have greater success than the Freelander 2 in capturing customers who might otherwise be contemplating an Audi Q5, BMW X3, Lexus NX or Volvo XC60.
It’s shorter than its rivals despite gaining 99mm over the Freelander, yet the Discovery Sport manages to fit in a third row of seats (for a $1990 outlay).
That’s made possible over the five-seater Evoque on which it’s based by swapping out the baby Rangie’s rear strut suspension for a new multi-link rear set-up that has its suspension towers spaced further apart.
Land Rover is honest in describing the seating layout as a five-plus-two (no doubt protecting the full-size seven-seater Discovery), though while those extra seats are for young teens rather than adults it’s still a key advantage in the segment.
They pull up out of the boot floor via straps, and if you don’t need them there’s boot space that varies between 479 and 689 litres depending on where the slideable second row seats (matching the Q5) are positioned.
There is a bit of an ungainly-looking gap between the folded last-row seats and second-row seatbacks if the latter are pushed all the way forward.
There are some disadvantages to choosing the 5+2 seating as well: losing the full-size spare wheel (a space-saver is instead mounted underneath the rear of the vehicle) and losing the options to choose the Active Driveline or Adaptive Dynamics.
The Active Driveline (again as with Evoque) differs to the standard continuously variable four-wheel-drive system by disengaging the rear axle above 35km/h to help save fuel, and coming with a torque vectoring system that can brake inside rear wheels to help reduce understeer.
Land Rover says the continuously variable dampers of the Adaptive Dynamics improves all driving aspects, though such an equipped model wasn’t among our test cars.
Second-row space – above the head or ahead of the knees – is plentiful, and under-thigh support is excellent. The front seats also helped to limit fatigue over a full day of full-on driving.
The cabin doesn’t look as fancy as the Evoque’s, and even looks quite plain. It’s arguably the least stylish interior in its segment.
Yet despite the Discovery Sport continuing the function-over-form theme of the Freelander, the quality and tactility is most definitely a notable step up over the model it replaces.
The reduced chunkiness of the front part of the cabin is also reflected in the slimmer, sportier-looking steering wheel.
Overall ergonomics are not quite as good as the Evoque, notably the window switches that continue to be sited high up on the front doors (as with Freelander).
Discovery Sport debuts JLR’s new 8.0-inch touchscreen, though. It brings a faster finger response time compared with the group’s previous system, graphics are sharper, and it follows the trend for enabling integrated app usage.
It’s also been a trend for Jaguar Land Rover Australia to out-do the German luxury brands when it comes to offering lengthy options lists on its models.
We can only hope the Disco Sport – here in May – heralds a change of approach, because from the base model TD4 SE this is a liberally equipped vehicle considering a $55,800 starting price in auto form undercuts even the current value benchmark, the $59,500 Lexus NX300h.
You can read our comprehensive Land Rover Discovery Sport Pricing and Specifications guide, though the quick lowdown here is that navigation, 18-inch alloy wheels, electric tailgate, rear parking sensors and rear-view camera, leather seats with electrically adjustable fronts, lane departure warning and autonomous emergency braking (matching the XC60) are inclusive from the off.
More time in more realistic scenarios is needed to thoroughly explore Land Rover’s new compact Discovery, but the signs already bode well.