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Can the overhauled Discovery Sport revitalise Land Rover's fortunes?

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New CEO Thierry Bolloré has promised to shake things up, and the business recorded surprisingly strong pre-tax profits late in 2020, but the fact is this: Jaguar Land Rover has been in the wars of late.

Abroad, troubles in the Chinese market in 2018 catalysed a sales nose-dive, the impacts of which are still being felt. And back at home, the simultaneous public flogging of diesel cars and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit have done their best to add two black eyes to the firm’s already bloodied nose. This axis of misfortune, along with a £3.1 billion write-down in the value of company’s capitalised assets, saw this storied British manufacturer post a staggering £3.6bn loss for the financial year ending May 2019.

Being a conservative facelift styling-wise, the new Discovery Sport maintains its distinctive C-pillar, the styling of which is inspired by that of its full-sized Discovery sibling

It was into that somewhat tempestuous environment that the subject of this road test emerged, in 2019. And the importance of the Discovery Sport’s role in the wider Land Rover picture should not be underestimated. Since its arrival as a replacement for the Land Rover Freelander in late 2014, the seven-seat family SUV has been a shining beacon of success for the marque and quickly became its best-selling model.

In 2017 Land Rover sold 126,078 examples of the Discovery Sport – the highest single-year sales figure for any Land Rover model in the firm’s 71-year history. And while that figure slumped by a considerable 26% in 2018, this dip was attributed to customers holding off for this highly anticipated new model.

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It might only be a mid-life facelift, but it brings with it a new platform, new technology and a range of mild-hybrid petrol and diesel powertrains to help keep it competitive and give it a new lease of life. If it’s to nurse those declining sales figures back to health and do its part to contribute to the rejuvenation of its marque as a whole, surely these are encouraging signs that JLR isn’t resting on its laurels.

The Land Rover Discovery Sport range at a glance

Engine choice for the Discovery Sport is based around Jaguar Land Rover’s family of 2.0-litre Ingenium units. All have four-wheel-drive and a 48V mild-hybrid system, apart from the entry-level model, which also comes with a six-speed manual gearbox, and the P300e, which touts a 305bhp plug-in hybrid powertrain and CO2 emissions of 44g/km. Trim starts at standard Discovery Sport level, moving up through S, SE and then HSE.

Discovery Sport R-Dynamic cars follow a similar path, starting at S then progressing through SE and range-topping HSE trims.

Price £43,175 Power 177bhp Torque 317lb ft 0-60mph 10.3sec 30-70mph in fourth na Fuel economy 31mpg CO2 emissions 155g/km 70-0mph 62.2m

Read more: Best family SUVs

DESIGN & STYLING

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2020 road test review - hero side

The Discovery Sport’s platform shift has been spurred on by the need to ensure the model can accommodate the latest generation of electrified powertrains. Just like the new Range Rover Evoque, then, this revitalised junior Discovery now sits on JLR’s new Premium Transverse Architecture (PTA), with motive power coming from a range of 2.0-litre four-cylinder Ingenium petrol and diesel engines.

The vast majority of these power plants now feature 48V mild-hybrid architecture, while a ‘driveline disconnect’ feature helps to further improve efficiency. At the time time of writing*, outputs range from 148bhp to 237bhp for the diesels, and from 197bhp to 246bhp for the petrols, but it’s only the entry-level 148bhp diesel that is offered without the 48V system.

I like the new black exterior styling trims, which break up its expansive bodywork quite effectively. And I’m very glad they weren’t tempted to copy the Discovery’s asymmetric rear-end design

In this 148bhp guise, not only is it the only RDE2-certified Discovery Sport in the range, but it’s the most efficient, too. This is largely down to the fact that it eschews four-wheel drive – and the nine-speed ZF automatic transmission with which those models come equipped – in favour of front-wheel drive and a manual gearbox. That it’s the only Discovery Sport in the UK that doesn’t feature a seven-seat layout surely helps, too. That said, it’s likely that the variant’s title as eco champion of the line-up will be usurped by the forthcoming three-cylinder plug-in hybrid, which is expected to arrive this spring.

Our SE-specification test car, meanwhile, makes use of the midrange diesel engine, which develops 177bhp at 4000rpm and 317lb ft between 1500 and 3000rpm. It’s rated to tow up to 2.2 tonnes. In addition to its ability to house these new powertrain options, the PTA underpinning’s renewed, lightened, mixed-metal construction contributes to an improvement in body rigidity. Land Rover claims that, along with rigidly mounted subframes, it allows for improvements in noise, vibration and harshness levels. Our microphone tests will no doubt determine how effective these measures have been.

Suspension is by way of MacPherson struts at the front with a multi-link set-up at the rear, while coil springs make for a fixed ride height. Adaptive dampers are available optionally, although our car was supplied without.

As before, Land Rover’s Terrain Response off-road program focuses on adjusting the Discovery Sport’s electronic stability systems, but being a Land Rover the model should nonetheless be capable of travelling farther off the beaten track than any of its immediate rivals. Brake-based torque vectoring at the rear axle should help out in this respect too, while making for tidier handling manners on the road.

 

* Since this review was written, and taking effect on the MY2021 Discovery Sport, Land Rover has lightly revised the engine line-up, slimming down choices and adding the flagship Land Rover Discovery P300e plug-in hybrid – officially the most efficient car in the range. As such, the impressions in this review now best apply to the 201bhp D200, rather than the 177bhp D180 driven here. 

INTERIOR

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2020 road test review - front seats

Playing the less opulent but still appreciably premium fiddle alongside the Range Rover Evoque in the family SUV class has always left the Discovery Sport with a precarious path to tread. Too luxurious and the more spacious model might cannibalise sales of its profitable sibling; not luxurious enough and less capable but materially plush rivals such as the BMW X3 and Audi Q5 beckon.

It’s a relief, then, to find that Land Rover has judged this cabin well. The hallmarks of the brand – comfortable chairs with a high hip-point, a simple, sizeable steering rim and utilitarian rubberised mouldings – are still here, as is the striking breadth of the dashboard. The digital instrumentation array makes for a newly sophisticated ambience.

Climate controls are much slicker than before. They integrate large rotary dials, which control temperature, into a touch-sensitive surface

Higher trim levels, including our SE-spec test car, are fitted with digital instruments in place of old-world dials, and standard across the range is the same 10in infotainment display from the Evoque and Land Rover’s rotary climate controls, which are both sleek and intuitive.

Jaguar Land Rover’s latest 10in Touch Pro infotainment system is standard across the Discovery Sport line-up and neatly embedded into the sloping dashboard. On our SE test car, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring were offered, allowing passengers to use apps such as Spotify and Waze or Google Maps. Land Rover also offers an Online Pack with 4G wi-fi hotspot and a 10-speaker Meridian sound system.

However, despite the sleek aesthetic and broad capabilities, this Touch Pro system still falls foul of some familiar usability drawbacks. The menu icons are small and can be difficult to use on the move, and there is a degree of latency you’ll not find in rivals, not least the BMW X3, whose iDrive system also benefits from a central rotary controller. However, the Land Rover hits back with the option of no fewer than six USB-A ports and four 12V outlets.

The cabin feels as hard-wearing as befits the Land Rover badge, but not unduly so. And that’s despite the occasional hard plastic and overall panel fit which is inferior to that of Audi or BMW (but level with Volvo).

The Discovery Sport really hits its stride with its practicality. Head room is generous even with the optional panoramic roof, and the second-row bench can slide backwards to create far more leg room than the average passenger would ever need. Uniquely among the premium cars in this class, a third row of seats is also available on all but the lowliest D150 model. It gives the car an added layer of versatility, even if it is only children who will find them comfortable over any distance.

Along with good storage – there are generous door bins and various other cubbies, plus a decently capacious boot – the Discovery Sport feels very much the archetypal multi-tool car, albeit one with no small sense of occasion.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Performance against the stopwatch has traditionally been an abstract concern for Land Rover, but models such as the Discovery Sport must today offer reasonable speed and good drivability to fulfil the expectations of owners migrating from more conventional cars.

It’s an area in which the old model at first rather fell on its face, using a Ford-derived diesel that would, as we wrote at the time, “shadow everything the car does with the clatter and gunsmoke odour of yesteryear”. Matters improved somewhat with the introduction of JLR’s downsized Ingenium diesel part-way through the model cycle, but even these EU6-compliant engines were no match for their smoother rival counterparts, generally of German origin.

It seems likely BMW will supply the next Discovery Sport’s powertrain, which would address two of this car’s shortfalls: performance and efficiency

Only the most wistful thinker would expect the addition of mild-hybrid technology to have a transformative effect on the Ingenium’s performance, and in the world of 2.0-litre turbodiesel premium off-roaders, the Discovery Sport remains the sauntering sort. With four-wheel drive, never does it struggle for traction, even on damp roads, but against a kerb weight flirting with two tonnes, the D180’s 0-60mph time still slips to the wrong side of the 10-second mark.

Neither is the car especially quick to respond to throttle inputs once rolling, although it is unlikely that anybody paying for a family SUV with genuine off-road ability will find progress so lazy as to be frustrating. The D180 moves well while in the meat of its torque band between 1500 and 3000rpm, although the busy nine-speed gearbox can take its time to find the right ratio, so overtakes executed at short notice are best avoided. The transmission software’s need to continually change gear has consequences at low speeds, too, when downshifts are occasionally accompanied by a small but nonetheless noticeable shunt through the driveline.

Overall, if there is any meaningful performance benefit from the supposed ‘torque-fill’ of the powertrain’s electric element, our testers failed to notice it, and this ponderous D180 stills lacks the drivability of the equivalent BMW X3 20d or Volvo XC40 D4. However, as we’ll shortly discover, the Discovery Sport now has new-found strengths that lie elsewhere.

RIDE & HANDLING

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2020 road test review - cornering front

The old Land Rover Discovery Sport handled well despite its agrarian underpinnings, and this new version’s updated platform promotes better handling still. And yet this car drives not in the alert-steering, low-roll, slightly artificial manner of so many nouveau off-roading crossovers, but in a laid-back manner recognisably and enjoyably Land Rover in feel.

It starts with the leisurely geared steering, which ensures the Discovery Sport will never be considered among the most agile cars of its type but lends proceedings a level of composure and, for the want of a better word, class. As with other products in the JLR stable, there’s an elasticity to the motion that’s married with good linearity. The result is a steering set-up that suits the heavy, high-riding Discovery Sport. It doesn’t attempt to disguise the car’s physics but still breeds confidence.

The Discovery Sport’s body unsurprisingly rolls in corners, but it’s a well-controlled shifting mass that doesn’t detract from a pleasant, if not pin-sharp, driving experience

As expected, body control is relaxed, although not to the extent that the Discovery Sport lollops down a B-road in the manner of an original Land Rover Discovery without anti-roll bars. In fact, Land Rover deserves recognition for its tuning of this suspension, because the car’s rate of roll is well-judged and pretty much seamlessly matched to the steering response. It all makes for a pleasant, easy experience as the Sport flows along – so long as you don’t stray too far from the stately pace it demands.

Do so and you’ll find this chassis, anchored to the road with Pirelli all-season tyres, isn’t one overly endowed with grip, which is perhaps why the ESC is quite conservatively tuned. Given the car’s reasonably good balance and the progressiveness of the weight transfer, you’re unlikely to trigger the electronics during normal driving. Grip levels are also well matched to the ability of the chassis, and the overall driving experience is not one defined by particularly notable levels of agility or precision but rather by dynamic coherence and surprising polish in the controls.

No ladder chassis or full-time four-wheel drive here, but a conventional monocoque architecture and on-demand Haldex driveline still deliver more off-road ability than most are ever likely to need. This platform heralds new electronic wheel-management controls, which can direct torque across the axles to maximise traction. All the driver needs do is keep their foot deep into the throttle, at which point the Terrain Response brain, which also controls the locking rear diff, takes matters into its own hands. Modes include Sand, Grass-Gravel-Snow and Mud & Ruts, with differing levels of slip and torque profiles for each.

The car can also be optioned with Land Rover’s ClearSight Ground View camera, which projects images from beneath the car onto the 10in cabin display, appearing to render the bonnet invisible. On the 45deg gradients the car can climb, such technology no doubt proves useful.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

You can tell within 50 yards that the Discovery Sport was not designed solely with endless ribbons of smooth Tarmac in mind. Even at speed there are edges to the ride, and this chassis picks out ripples and ridges more enthusiastically than any of the junior Land Rover’s premium rivals. A jostle here and a thud there are the price paid for genuine off-road ability.

But equally, for a car with 600mm of wading depth and class-leading approach, breakover and departure angles, the Discovery Sport is still unusually well mannered. Vertical movements are supple but generally stop show of any hint of bounce. The car operates slickly at a cruise, too, it’s fluid primary ride doing more for the everyday cause than the low-profile tyres on a more sporting alternative might manage.

However, acoustic isolation is where the greatest improvements have been made. Ninth gear drops motorway engine speeds to a slither above tickover and all but silences the powertrain, and developments for the platform have seemingly banished a good degree of vibration and tyre roar. The Discovery Sport doesn’t operate with quite the chapel-like calm of an Audi Q5 but neither is it comprehensively outclassed by the best in this segment.

Then there is the fact that no rival offers such a commanding driving position, which is equal even to the Porsche Cayenne in terms of height from the ground. This contributes to a feeling of security and wellbeing that is, much like the driving controls, unmistakably Land Rover.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2020 road test review - hero front

Discovery Sport prices start as low as £31,320 for the front-wheel-drive model, but most buyers will plump for a four-wheel-drive variant. These start at £35,840 and go as high as £47,000, for the P300e in R-Dynamic trim. Our MY2020 177bhp SE-spec test car, meanwhile, starts at £44,170.

That seems like reasonable value for an upmarket seven-seat SUV with a rich level of standard equipment and a more genuine level of go-anywhere capability than most of its competitors. That it’s fractionally cheaper than a comparable BMW X3 xDrive20d M Sport (£45,705) serves as an initial deal-sweetener.

Land Rover is forecast to perform competitively against rivals like the BMW X3 and Audi Q5, but its advantage is slight

There is, however, a price to pay for this additional functionality. With CO2 emissions of 194g/km and a claimed WLTP combined fuel economy of 38.1mpg (we saw a test average of 31mpg), the Land Rover is both thirstier and more expensive to tax than the BMW. By comparison, the X3 is rated at 44.1-47.1mpg on the WLTP cycle, while its CO2 rating stands at 156-167g/km. When we road tested it in 2018, we saw a test average of 37.1mpg.

Of course, the most tax-friendly Discovery Sport, and the one with the potential for truly excellent fuel economy, is the plug-in P300, which officially manages 143.1mpg and 44g/km CO2, with an all-electric WLTP range of 34 miles. 

 

VERDICT

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2020 road test review - static

There are more comfortable, efficient and quicker alternatives to this revised Land Rover Discovery Sport, whose new-found mild-hybrid status should be taken with a pinch of salt. And despite the convincing technological showcase of the cabin, at times the Sport’s weight and thick-set manner can make it feel a touch antiquated among more polished classmates.

However, few if any of those cars match the Land Rover’s off-road ability or sense of integrity, and none marries such a commanding driving position with controls that inspire an enjoyable degree of confidence. In these aspects the Discovery Sport transcends the norms of the class and inherits the character of more senior Land Rover wares.

Off-road fidelity and character outweigh a lacklustre powertrain

While the Discovery Sport can’t match the likes of Audi and BMW for rolling refinement, its abilities in this regard are not so far off the pace that the versatility of its capacious, thoughtfully appointed interior couldn’t give this entry-level Land Rover an edge in the minds of potential owners.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Land Rover Discovery Sport First drives