19 April 2015

Review: Land Rover Discovery Sport

So, is the new Discovery Sport just a rebadge for a new generation Freelander? In a sense, yes, writes Brian Byrne. In another, no.

Nope, I'm not fudging the answer. First, Discovery Sport is now the smallest Land Rover badged SUV in the famous off-road brand's lists. So yes, it replaces Freelander. But it also substantially upgrades what Freelander was.

What Land Rover has done is put some kind of order on its product naming. There are now two distinct 'pillars', Land Rover and Range Rover. The former 'premium workhorse', the latter 'luxury workhorse'.

Defender?, I hear from the back of the hall ... hmmph, there's always one of you. Defender is done. Gone. Reflected in the point that the ESB put in an order last year for 40 special chassis-cab versions because they wanted to have them in stock before production ended. Which it has. There will be a replacement next year, but L-R is keeping pretty close on what it will be called, and on what it will be based. Defender has been the closest direct descendant of the original post-WW2 Land Rover, and anyone who learned their off-roading without the electronic technology of its more sophisticated family members have already been heard in grumble tones.

Back to Discovery Sport, though. It hit our shores in February, late to the 2015 numbers game of our new dual-registration system. But late merely meant delayed deliveries. There was an order book already, and as I write it is clear that the allocation to Ireland for the rest of this year will be sold in advance of deliveries, and the importers would love to have more.

The new car looks significantly more than the final Freelander. Though some of that is style. But it is slightly longer, a little wider, and is a little lower in height. All of which make for a larger look than each of the changes are individually.

The most important change is a lengthening of the wheelbase, which not just provides more room for the usual five occupants, but also for the option of a pair of occasional seats in the rear that makes the Discovery Sport the first in its class to offer a 7-seat configuration.

It feels bigger inside too. In fact, it feels bigger than its rich sibling, the Range Rover Evoque, thanks in no small measure to the roofline of that latter. The Discovery Sport is for the more practical, and for those who like to spend wisely even if they are spending significantly.

For anyone familiar with the current generation of Land Rover/Range Rover vehicles over recent years, the cabin of the Discovery Sport will be reassuring. There's no doubting what brand you're in. The instruments, the finish, the colours, the screens. All what you're used to. A definite upgrade on the old Freelander, too.

The review car was up along the grade ladder, an SE with automatic trans (there's a 6-speed for the manual basic). With the Ford-based 2.2 diesel, this powertrain is the same as you'll get in an Evoque, and the 9-speed auto is both creamy smooth in operation and very economical. Its operation is by the rotary knob that lifts from the centre console when you switch on, first used in the Jaguar XF. The Terrain Response system is now managed by a set of buttons at the bottom of the centre stack, rather than the original rotation knob.

From the occupants' perspective, the car is very quiet indeed, with no sense that this is a diesel other than the redline point on the rev-counter. Even when pushed under acceleration, nothing intrudes as things progress. As a highway machine, it challenges the best of saloon cars in its class, while offering a much higher view of the countryside being smoothly travelled through. The new car has superior on-road handling performance thanks to a torque vectoring by braking system as used in the Jaguar F-Type sports car, and a new multi-link rear suspension. It also has an SUV first with its pedestrian airbag.

The review car was AWD — there will be a 2WD version coming — and though it doesn't have a set of low ratios for really rough work, the electronic management of traversing difficult terrains makes it all very easy. The standard specifications are strong. Terrain Response with four settings for offroad use. A wading depth of 600mm which is better than that of the iconic Defender. I wouldn't try to go where I might bring a Defender without thought, but for most of the countryside driving where this will be used, it'll tackle it and win easily.

Since many Land Rover owners need to tow, there are a number of solutions here which facilitate this. Oh, and a full-size spare wheel. Under the boot floor in the 5-seat, under the vehicle in the 7-seat.

The entry level is now at €37,100, or more than €2,000 less than the starting price of the previous version. Though you can at the moment order it in upspecced to the tune of €57,350.