In the Dolomites mountain range, where switchbacks and steep ascents and descents are myriad, Land Rover has been tuning its new SUV.
Our first on-road experience of the new seven-seat Discovery Sport is with Karl Richards, principal engineer of stability control systems and Terrain Response at Jaguar Land Rover.
Richards has worked at Land Rover since 1997; initially he worked on the Freelander and helped develop its innovative hill descent control system. "I've worked on everything on that platform since; I then went onto the Freelander II and the Evoque," he says.
The Discovery Sport prototypes being trialled here are near-production ready examples, but with partially stripped interiors, camouflage and roll cages for safety.
There's also some additional switchgear and connections inside, allowing the engineers to disable and directly interface with the car's electronic systems.
With the car warmed up, and another development Discovery Sport following behind, we head out on to the winding Giau pass – where the altitude of the road peaks at 7336 feet.
“A lot of stuff we’re doing here is dynamic driving,” says Richards, as he flings the Sport with vigour into the first of many hairpins, “where a lot of the stability functions come together.”
A comprehensive list of systems has to work in unison to ensure the Sport performs as expected. The ABS activates into the corner, the DSC operates through it, particularly if you’ve got some understeer, torque vectoring by braking works to aid turn-in and the traction control fires up coming out.
Much to my surprise, the Sport doesn’t appear to protest at this hard and fast cornering treatment. It seems to respond swiftly to control inputs, understeer appears minimal and – despite the steep descents and repeated heavy braking – there’s little sign of any fade.
“Our goal is to make sure that whoever drives it will find it rewarding – and that all of the on-board systems will help them,” says Richards. “We have to make sure the software copes really well. It allows us to add character and flavour to the car and to make it exciting, while still ensuring it’s safe.”
This Discovery feels like it lives up to its ‘Sport’ moniker far more than I initially expected. What’s most notable is its ride and poise. It’s much firmer than predicted, although not to an uncomfortable extent, and body roll is minimal.
“I have a lot of faith and confidence in it,” says Richards. “It’s been one of the biggest targets: making sure it’s consistent and predictable and does what you want.”
Land Rover hasn't left the off-road element of the Discovery Sport unattended though. Although the company has benchmarked the Discovery Sport against the likes of the Porsche Macan, BMW X3 and Audi Q3, the fact that this is a Discovery has clearly not been forgotten.
“To get the green Land Rover badge it has to perform properly off road,” notes Richards. “It's been challenging making sure that the off-road capabilities are there but we've some clever technology and software that helps us meet those targets.”
We experience both petrol and diesel-powered examples, each equipped with a nine-speed ZF transmission. Both feel suitably fast and the transmission, despite being worked hard in the rapidly changing terrain, does a fine job of selecting the right ratio.
Traction rarely proves an issue, with the four-wheel-drive system shuffling power around with apparent ease, and effortless, quick progress is made over the tight, torturous and hilly roads. The overall impression is of a very surefooted and competent SUV.
The prototypes have also proven reliable, Richards says. “We’ve driven these cars 1000 miles in a day, then driven them in a spirited fashion around here for a week, then driven them to Belgium. Then you can go to the ’Ring, then do a couple of laps flat out. That’s the robustness of them,” he adds.
“We are making sure the customer finds no fault,” states Richards. Those customers, he thinks, will be people who want a car that offers performance, practicality, and a sense of adventure – and want to know that they've a car that's going to do the job wherever they go.
After all, many families are now looking to have one car that will tick all the boxes and suit all conditions. The Discovery Sport, with its seven seats, its plethora of advanced technology, potential driver appeal and off-road credentials, looks well set to embody those requirements.
“It has to do everything – on-road and off-road – well,” concludes Richards, “otherwise we've failed.”
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