If your wish list is pointing you towards a compact SUV with a prestige European badge, you may as well narrow your shortlist down to just one choice – the Land Rover Discovery Sport.
Just one? Well, yes – if you also want the added practicality of seven seats in the one tidy, luxury package.
First launched in 2014, early adopters (like yours truly) went for Land Rover’s fresh styling and compact proportions, but ended up with a diesel engine that was… let me say, rather old hat.
When Land Rover debuted the Discovery Sport Vision in 2014 on the deck of retired US aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid, rave reviews and early orders soon followed.
To be fair, there was nothing wrong with the way old engines performed. Pumping out a healthy 140kW and 420Nm in its high-output form (lower-spec versions developed 110kW and 400Nm) there was plenty of pull available once you got moving.
The big drawbacks were noise and lag – in that order. It sounded decidedly truck-like at almost anywhere in the rev range, but especially so at idle. But wind it up to our maximum speed limit of 110km/h on the freeway and it would sit there all day at minimal revs, with just a hint of cabin noise.
Now, just a year into its product lifecycle, Land Rover has dropped a new, smaller engine into its Discovery Sport range.
Replacing the old 2.2-litre unit is the company’s new, in-house, high-tech ‘Ingenium’ 2.0 diesel. It’s demonstrably better than the old unit in every way, and then some.
Throttle response is almost lag free and it’s way more refined. Inside, it’s a much nicer place to be too, thanks to much improved sound insulation.
I’d argue this is the engine that should have been in the Discovery Sport from day one. It’s the right fit for the brand and one which has transformed this vehicle from a rather utilitarian driving experience into thoroughly premium one, befitting its $62,275 sticker price (as tested).
Right from the outset, the benefits from the smaller and lighter diesel are refreshingly obvious. Punch the accelerator pedal and response is practically immediate, with boost coming on in a far more linear fashion than previously. It allows for smoother and more comfortable driving all round.
That characteristic (and ever annoying) clatter from the old 2.2-litre motor is gone too, at least from inside the cockpit. And I don’t just mean from a standing start. Give it some beans, even in seventh, and there’s still plenty of pull from this downsized motor without that maddening chatter of the 2014 engine.
It’s a proper premium driving experience now, which has me lamenting why I didn’t have the patience, or indeed Land Rover, to wait for the latest-generation diesel rather pushing ahead with an early-adopter strategy. Well, fools rush in, as they say.
The new Discovery Sport is even better at cruising speed, when engine noise and vibrations are almost completely isolated from the cabin – bar a faint hum.
And while I’d argue that a nine-speed transmission is perhaps a tad superfluous, it’s very refined and usually selects the right gear ratio for the moment without any fuss.
You also get paddleshifters as standard fitment, which not only proved useful when overtaking opportunities arose during our drive down to the southern highlands, but also responded immediately to the pull.
The new engine also works better in concert with the Discovery Sport’s agile handling on the bitumen, allowing for more fun behind the wheel, due mainly to that improved throttle response and wonderfully precise steering.
Not enough has been made of the Disco Sport’s excellent body control, particularly for an SUV that’s also soundly capable off the beaten track. It really doesn’t feel like a spacious seven-seat family hauler, as you wind carve up a series of S-bends, in the same way you would in a warmed-up hatch.
And Like all Land Rover product, the high-set driving position provides wonderful forward vision, but the bulky A-pillar means you need to check carefully before pulling out of a T-junction, for example.
There’s still no adaptive damper system for the Sport, despite the fact you can get it on its Range Rover Evoque cousin, so while comfort and bump absorption is generally pretty good, particularly at mid-to-high speeds, low-speed ride over poorly maintained surfaces isn’t as cushioned as we’d like.
We think higher spec versions like the HSE Luxury should offer Land Rover’s MagneRide dampers as an option, at least. It would add real value to the luxury moniker, as well as provide a thoroughly comfortable motoring experience in all conditions.
That said, we racked up more than a few kilometres on some pebbly dirt roads around Sutton Forest and were pleasantly surprised by the vehicle’s adept damping. None of the sharp stones were felt inside the cockpit – rather, the Disco Sport glides over the rough surface, completely isolating its occupants.
We suspect these soft road expeditions are about as hard-core as owners of Discovery Sports will ever encounter, but it’s nice to know that there’s a suite of off-road armoury on hand with Land Rover’s proven All-terrain Response System – effectively a set and forget off-road electronic menu that includes settings like Normal, Sand, Rocks, and Snow, which calibrate the vehicle’s four-wheel drive system to suit the terrain.
It’s still one of the best looking SUV’s in its class, too, with styling cues from the larger, more prestigious Range Rover Sport front, back and sides. It’s also very different from its more car-like Audi and BMW rivals, which have so far proved popular with buyers.
For such compact proportions, the Discovery Sport is amazingly well planned when it comes to seat architecture. Head and legroom are more than generous, at least in the first two rows, whereas the extra two seats behind are for small kids, pure and simple.
And while there’s a stack of standard features in our SE tester, like eight-way electrically adjustable leather seats, powered tailgate, push button start, satellite navigation, rear parking sensors and rear-view camera, dual-zone climate control and mood lighting, we’re still not sold on the overall look in here.
Plenty of safety kit on board too, apart from its four-wheel drive and terrain response systems. Features such as hill-descent control, trailer stability assist, lane departure warning, autonomous emergency braking and a pedestrian protection system.
But even in HSE Luxury guise, it still doesn’t measure up to the current (and older) Audi Q5, which still looks and feels decidedly more premium than the younger Land Rover.
Land Rover’s new Ingenium diesel, though, has literally transformed the Discovery Sport from good to great, delivering the kind of refinement that you might expect from your $56,355 compact SUV.
It’s not perfect, but I for one, wished I’d waited.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.