The baby Disco is born
We didn’t get off to the best of starts, Discovery Sport and I. As soon as the details were announced, and before I’d really digested its styling (more of that in a bit), I was tapping the calculator to work out just how much more expensive than the Freelander 2 it was. I didn’t expect it to be priced identically, but between £4000 and £7000 more like-for-like, and starting £900 more than the supposedly more upmarket Range Rover Evoque, seemed a bit rich.
The gap is narrowing, now that JLR’s own 2.0 diesel Ingenium engines are heading the Discovery Sport’s way, but the base models are still £495 apart, and no sub-£30,000 model is forthcoming now that the c.£28,000 eD4 2WD has been canned.
I assumed it was being called a Discovery in order for it to be priced that way, although I’m assured that’s not the case. It’s all about establishing the three-branch family of Range Rover, Discovery and Defender. The Disco Sport has seven seats, a nine-speed auto box, a pedestrian airbag and autonomous emergency braking, among other features that set it apart from what went before, and it’s not meant to replace the Freelander 2, says Land Rover.
And, the looks? Eight months on, its anonymous shape has grown on us a little, although we still struggle to tell whether it’s a Discovery Sport or a Range Rover Evoque approaching from 50 paces. But, the world can’t get enough of the Evoque it seems, so I doubt anyone at Land Rover is losing any sleep over that. It does make the Freelander 2 look very old hat, I’ll give it that.
My first audience with the Discovery Sport was at Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant, where the model is built. A lively ceremony heralded the arrival of the first off the line, and it was clear that a huge amount of investment has been put in to the Merseyside site for the model. There’s little more satisfying than witnessing a booming production line in full swing, and I think that rubbed off on me. A prod and poke of the new baby made me believe it IS a step up from the Freelander 2 in quality and design execution, even if I still wasn’t bowled-over by the looks. Its roominess inside and packaging success was immediately evident, that’s for sure.
My first drive came in Iceland, being one of the first dozen or so journalists to get behind the wheel, on studded tyres, in atrocious blizzard conditions. I kept it out of the ditches, and came away impressed: ‘Now we’re able to read the road ahead, and get out of second gear, the Discovery Sport demonstrates a massive improvement in ride, handling and refinement over the Freelander 2.’
And, I conceded that I had been proved mostly wrong: ‘I still don’t think it feels at all like a small Discovery 4 (which is how Land Rover would like you to see it), but it’s far better than the sum of its parts and has its own distinct character.
‘In versatility terms it is a small Discovery, and is worthy of joining that family by name. In many ways it’s as refined as a Range Rover Sport, and it’s as nimble as an Evoque while being much more practical – if it were a true continuation of the Freelander line it would be funkier and simpler. It could do with a bit more oomph and visual attitude to live up to the Sport tag though, it looks too Evoque-like and bland for me.’
Off-road at Eastnor
Then assistant editor Mark Saville took it for a proper off-road test, at the legendary Eastnor Castle. His verdict? ‘I expected it to be a competent, comfortable and accomplished off-road performer. It most certainly is, within the limits of the vehicle’s ground clearance, and I’m looking forward to taking one round LRO’s Real World Test route.’ You’ll find his Real World Test verdict in the June 2015 issue of LRO (on sale May 13).
Living with an SD4 auto
So, what’s it like to live with? Once Mark had finished his testing duties, and the rest of the LRO team had experienced it too, I nicked the SD4 HSE auto for a week in Northumberland and used it as if it were my own.
Thanks to its split-fold and sliding second row seating, it swallowed two and a half mountain bikes, two and a half suitcases and three people inside with ease. So, it scores very highly for versatility and proved the unexpected value of a panoramic roof (there’s no way my 27.5in wheeled XL-framed Scott mountain bike would have fitted without the extra clearance the glass roof gives).
Then it started to unravel… In preparation for the four-hour stint up the A1, I picked a stack of choice CDs from my collection, only to find this £40,815 Disco Sport didn’t have a CD player. None do, without without spending £2500 on the Entertainment Pack. That made me feel old, and poor.
Then, the Disco Sport didn’t translate from Iceland snow to UK roads anywhere near as well as I’d thought it would. The steering response and feel is terrific, but while the ride is supple on well-surfaced A-roads it’s very firm on slower, lumpier, B-roads. Yet that firmness isn’t matched with tight roll control when you press on. It’s actually quite soft, and not really that sporty. My passengers said they felt sick, and I wasn’t encouraged to make them prove it.
I’ve never had as much of a problem with the ageing 2.2-litre SD4 engine as some commentators, it’s a decent unit, but it doesn’t feel sporty either. And, while the nine-speed ZF auto box shifts seamlessly most of the time (its Sport mode really isn’t suited to the SD4), I experienced a handful of worrying drive/gearbox glitches in a week. Erratic engine revs on acceleration from rest are one thing, but selecting Drive and getting a flashing ‘D’ light and a box of neutrals on a gravelly hill wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat. Land Rover has since interrogated the vehicle, but couldn’t find anything wrong.
Dimensionally, the Discovery Sport is the least capable Land Rover ever. Its approach, departure and ramp breakover angles are all a little worse than the Freelander 2’s, but with more rear wheel travel and the control benefits of the super-low gears in the nine-speed box it’s proven itself to be a capable off-road tool. But I wouldn’t like Land Rover to compromise those dimensions any further. Following the Defender-made ruts of a slightly damp and grassy but pretty tame greenlane, the land got perilously close to grounding the Disco Sport a few times. Unfailing off-road confidence really shouldn’t be on a Land Rover’s options list.
So, what do we know?
The Discovery Sport is not a bad car, far from it, but there’s something stopping us from falling in love with it. I think I know what it is…
Ultimately, it feels like the Discovery Sport is trying to be (or is forced into being) something it’s not. If it started from a £25,000-30,000 base, and was badged Freelander 3, perhaps we wouldn’t be so critical. It’s a massive step forward from the Freelander 2, but arguably not all in the right direction if it’s meant to be a Discovery. If it ditched the sporting pretensions in favour of comfort and a little more off-road capability, it would sit far more comfortably as part of that family.
But, what do I know. The proof is in how well it sells, and more than 15,000 buyers so far can’t all be wrong…
What do you think about the Discovery Sport? Have you bought one? Are we wrong? Email mike@LRO.com