Iceland is a weirdly beautiful place: a barely populated island atop the North Atlantic with one actual city, Reykjavik. Splendorous volcanoes, glaciers, and lava deserts dominate the landscape. Geothermal energy is plentiful and dirt-cheap. Universal literacy and a social safety net that includes free university tuition. Throw in Bjork and a singing snowman, and you’d have the most surreal winter wonderland since “Frozen.”
Our trip, and assuredly Rover’s upcoming advertising blitz, was designed to sell the fantasy, with the Discovery Sport cast as a dashing Ernest Shackleton in a world of office drones. It’s by no means a false claim: The Land Rover happily dunked its toes into an icy, fast-rushing stream, right up to its 23.6-inch wading limit. It tracked faithfully through this forbidding land of geologic marvels, including Thingvellir national park, where the earth is rent by doomy fissures that mark the sliding tectonic boundary between Eurasia and North America. All the while, our 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport barely needed a finger lifted to its adjustable Terrain Response system — controlled via discreet dashboard buttons rather than the chunky console dial of other Rover models.
By Land Rover’s adventurous standards, Iceland was also a perfect place for us to test its all-new Discovery Sport, and we happily dug in. But honestly a slushy big-box store parking lot might have done more to spotlight what the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport means for Americans who scarf up compact luxury SUVs like so many Lay’s.
But if a Rover salesperson begins to re-create such stirring tales, perhaps adding Hollywood sound effects, many buyers will change the subject to ask: “What’s the mileage?” or “I hear you can get a third row?”
The mpg, in fact, is a solid 20/26 city and highway, via nine automatic speeds and the 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower turbo-four also found under the hood of the Evoque. And there is an optional third row, though it’s only fit for children or elvish Huldufolk — the mythical Hidden People — whose charming painted doors decorate rocks throughout the Icelandic countryside. Considering the Discovery Sport is both shorter and wider by about 1 to 2 inches than any rival, its overall class-leading passenger space is a high point.
Asking such practical questions won’t make you some kind of wimp. We’re pretty confident that most luxury-SUV buyers spend vacations in a hotel room, not a musty tent. And as it steams to America from Solihull, England, the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport seems the most accessible, mainland-friendly SUV the company has produced yet. That includes a $37,995 base price that’s smack atop its key Audi, BMW, and Mercedes rivals, with smartly equipped models around $45,000.
As Brady or Beckham could tell you, a handsomely rugged-yet-primped visage can score with men and women alike. That’s the goal of every model sprung of late from lead designer Gerry McGovern and his team, and Discovery Sport is one of the sharpest small SUVs around. From the attractive underbite of its clamshell hood to forward-raked C-pillars and a subtly falling roof, the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport should help people forget the arthritic old LR2. A resolute stance, 8.3 inches of ground clearance, class-leading approach and departure angles, and a curling rear skidplate carry a campfire scent of the outdoors. Yet the Discovery cleans up well, with sharp details including red round taillamps that recall a Terminator’s target-seeking eyes. A hood-mounted airbag, a world’s first on an SUV, safeguards pedestrians in places, unlike Iceland, where one might encounter pedestrians.
Ten inches longer than its Evoque sibling with a 3-inch longer wheelbase, the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport better accommodates people and stuff. A new multilink rear suspension, heavy on the aluminum, avoids cabin intrusion to help carve out up to 31.5 cubic feet of rear cargo space with the rear seats up, compared to 29 for the Audi Q5 and 27.6 for the BMW X3.
“Premium, not precious” is Rover’s interior description. That’s no hype for a cabin that pairs luxury and utility with upgraded interfaces that show Rover is finally getting with the modern program. An all-new infotainment system banishes the previous Jaguar/Land Rover screen to the cave of obsolescence. It positions four main icons for navigation, audio, phone, and climate in the screen’s easy-to-reach center.
Ribbed leather seats assume Rover’s upright and comfy position, and rise stadium-style in second and/or third rows. A steering wheel of unisex-friendly thickness fronts legible driver’s instruments and a strongly horizontal dash, topped by an intriguing black deck whose fine graining seems to mimic some kind of volcanic substrate. Its electric variable-ratio power steering offers modest weight and feel, along with a tight turning circle
Our opening drive couldn’t fully answer enthusiast questions: Our Rover convoy was punked out with studded Pirelli winter tires, and they rarely touched dry pavement in this inhospitable clime. But racing back to Reykjavik on slippery roads, the Rover’s confident dynamics were still transmitted. Body motions are well managed, while brake-based torque vectoring aids turn-in and helps quell understeer. The Terrain Response system, along with its familiar settings for mud, snow and other conditions, is backed by all manner of tech controls to aid the driver in off-road or slippery conditions: hill descent, gradient, roll stability, dynamic stability, electronic traction, and engine drag torque.
Just-quick-enough is the verdict on the engine, whose thrashy upper register is better muffled than in the Evoque. Rover’s 7.8-second estimate from 0 to 60 mph trails the Q5 2.0 by nearly a second — and is left for dead by an X3 xDrive35i, which turns the trick in 5.3 seconds. For this Laddie, a literal pressing issue is lagging turbo response: Mash the gas, and you can hum a few bars before the accelerative beat kicks in. But 251 lb-ft of torque at a low 1,750 rpm lets the Rover nose past traffic when necessary. Care for mileage and twist? Mark calendars for 2016 when the optional 2.2-liter diesel with roughly 150 horses and 400 lb-ft becomes available.
The nine-speed transmission — controlled via a rotary console knob — shifts with alacrity and avoids excessive gear hunting, two issues that have plagued this ZF unit in its various Chrysler guises. Yet it still offers no convincing evidence that nine speeds are better than eight, or seven — unless you’re one of the EPA public servants that automakers seek to impress with fanciful fuel-economy numbers.
This Sport is first in a planned family of Discovery models, including a replacement for the midsize LR4 — a model still known as Discovery in international markets.
We all know why it was renamed as LR4 here: For too long, buyers’ biggest Discovery was a maddening stack of repair bills. Of all the obstacles this Discovery Sport can climb, convincing middle-class, $40,000-range buyers to take a leap — rather than the easy route with Audi, BMW, et al — may be the steepest.
Can this small-scale Disco play a new tune on reliability? If so, it’s got the makings of a crossover British hit.
2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport Specifications
- Base Price: $37,995
- Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4/240 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 251 lb-ft @ 1,750 rpm
- Transmission: 9-speed automatic
- Layout: 5-7-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
- EPA Mileage: 20/26 (city/highway)
- L x W x H: 180.7 x 85.6 x 67.9 in
- Wheelbase: 107.9 in
- Weight: 3,957 lb
- 0-60 mph: 7.8 sec
- Top speed: 124 mph