Driven: 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport

Of all the many hostile environments that Land Rover has faced down in its 66 years, the market for premium compact crossovers is not among them.

The original Freelander, though popular in Europe from its launch in 1997, was never more than a sales blip in the crucial North American market. Blame a fairly dreadful Rover six-cylinder engine and a painfully downmarket interior, along with chiding from motoring journalists who considered the SUV altogether unworthy of the Land Rover name. “Freeloader” they called it. Not helpful.

Ode to the Freelander

<img src="https://ichef.bbc.co.uk/images/ic/raw/p02jg1r8.jpg" alt="Land Rover Freelander">

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of joining Land Rover for a drive across Mongolia, alternating along the way between Discovery 3 and Freelander. No surprise, the burly Disco was the undisputed steppe-master, bounding across the Gobi with Land Rover-ly aplomb. But despite a hairy moment or two, the elfin Freelander held its own. In truth, there was nothing the Discovery could do in Mongolia that the Freelander could not match, and at least one feat – joy-riding over the half-mile-high Khongor Dunes – that defied its big brother. I feel certain that the new Discovery Sport can match or top the Freelander in off-road athleticism, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Land Rover’s square-jawed little fighter. —MP

The Freelander name was pretty much mud in the US by the time the second-generation car arrived in 2006, so Land Rover called it the LR2, following the company’s decision to affix an “LR3” badge to the entirely new 2005 Discovery 3 (a name that had also turned to mud after a decade of reliable unreliability). No matter: the LR2 née Freelander would flounder in the marketplace against sharp rivals such as the BMW X3, Mercedes-Benz GLK and even the Volkswagen Tiguan. A pity, really, as the LR2 had some really heroic qualities (see sidebar).

The new Discovery Sport is not the next LR2, but rather something new for Land Rover – altogether sharper, smarter and more capable than the car that precedes it. It is also more spacious, more luxurious and more technology-laden than the LR2. And, perhaps most important for Land Rover, the Discovery Sport is something the LR2 never was: genuinely competitive.

The Discovery Sport name riffs on the solid-gold goodness of the Range Rover Sport. And as the Range Rover Sport complements the flagship Range Rover, so too will the Discovery Sport complement a proper full-size Discovery, which will supplant the LR4 next year, looking a lot like the Discovery Vision concept unveiled during the 2014 New York auto show.

Inside, the Discovery Sport is finer in every way than the Freelander, and in terms of material and assembly quality, right on par with its German opponents. The cabin is stylishly straightforward, intentionally less glam than that of Land Rover's compact Evoque (though the Sport features what may be the largest panoramic glass roof in the business), and it offers one surprising bit of kit: seating for seven, thanks to an optional two-place third-row bench, which features its own air vents and USB port. Like the available third-row in the last-generation Toyota RAV4, the Sport’s “+2” zone is strictly for the sippy-cup set; adults and older kids are unwelcome. The consumer take rate on the RAV4’s third-row seats hovered at about 4% before Toyota finally ditched the option, and it’s hard to imagine the Disco Sport’s back-back row – which adds $1,750 to the car’s bottom line – doing much better. But an “A” for effort.

At launch in the US, the 240-horsepower 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine from the Range Rover Evoque provides the motivation; as promised at this year’s Detroit auto show, a diesel engine will follow. The diesel-powered Disco Sport will face off against the BMW X3 xDrive 28d and the next generation of the Mercedes-Benz GLK250 Bluetec. For now, the turbo four is a fine match for the Sport’s 3,900lbs. Matched to a new nine-speed automatic transmission, the engine is smooth yet pleasantly playful. The US EPA rates the Sport at 20mpg in the city and 28mpg on the open road – slightly worse than the four-cylinder BMW X3 but better than the six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz GLK.

Off-road, the all-wheel-drive Disco Sport is capable, if not exactly Defender-like in its ability to inspire confidence. Driving off marked roads is strictly prohibited in Iceland, where ruts in the landscape can last for decades thanks to the sparse and slow-growing vegetation. That said, in the hinterlands, the term road is best used in quotes, as the tracks are unpaved, ungraded and, now and then, bisected by flowing water. This suits the Disco Sport well. Armed with a arsenal of acronyms – heady features like EDC (Engine Drag Torque Control) and GRC (Gradient Release Control) – the Sport is every inch the model of the modern point-and-shoot SUV. Just aim and push the throttle.

Land Rover’s brainy Terrain Response system does most of the work, with driver-selectable modes controlled now by a row of small buttons on the centre console rather than a selector knob. During our stint with the car, we forded a fast-moving 2ft-deep riverlet, scampered up steep, snowy hillocks and negotiated some patches of black ice, and the Discovery (admittedly fitted with studded tires) never missed a beat. It was hardly a scientific test of its abilities, but it was at least a suggestion that most owners will never approach its limits.

Much easier to approach are the limits of the Disovery Sport’s pricing. The base model, dubbed SE, starts at $37,995 in the US (inclusive of a $925 destination fee), for which the buyer gets partial leather seats and a 10-speaker audio system. The HSE model ($42,495) adds full leather and that huge panoramic roof, and the top-shelf HSE LUX ($46,495) rolls with nicer hides and a better audio system.

However good a value – especially relative to German competitors whose options sheets can resemble Gutenberg bibles – the Discovery Sport must live up to a distinct set of expectations. It will be competitive not because it's a worthy successor to the Freelander, but because it is a worthy Land Rover.

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