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The Freelander's replacement goes big on prettiness and packaging, and as a result becomes the class leader

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Think of the Land Rover Discovery Sport as the new Freelander. Of a fashion. Because although it replaces the Land Rover Freelander, it represents something rather more than that, too.

It’s an extension of the Land Rover Discovery model line – or Discovery family, as Land Rover would have you believe it – intended to represent those who want a ‘Leisure’ Land Rover. For the record, a Range Rover is for those who seek ‘Luxury’ (naturally), while the next Land Rover Defender is set to provide the ‘Dual-Purpose’ of extreme off-road capability plus more habitability than it currently offers.

Discovery Sport's range starts at £31,095 for an SE manual, climbing to £46,510 for the HSE Dynamic Lux with the nine-speed auto

‘Leisure’, then, means the ethos of the Freelander’s replacement has changed a little. It’s a more spacious vehicle than before, to the extent that two chairs in the boot floor make it a seven-seater, albeit a compact one.

With that comes a higher price. At the moment, the range starts at more than £31,000. The 2.2-litre diesel engine offered at launch has been replaced by a smaller capacity turbocharged 2.0-litre Ingenium engine. Buyers can opt for the 148bhp version which is only available with a six-speed manual or choose the 177bhp unit available with Land Rover's nine-speed automatic. There is even talk of a hotter Disco Sport on the agenda to complete the range.

Then, of course, there’s a choice of trim level. The £31,095 entry point is an SE manual, before moving through SE Tech and HSE trim levels and topping out at the HSE Dynamic Lux priced at a gulpsome £46,510 when equipped with the optional nine-speed automatic gearbox.

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That’s a far cry from the sub-£20k three-door convertible Freelander that funked its way onto the market in 1997, accompanied by a more sensible five-door wagon. Sensible won over again when it came to the five-door-only second-generation Freelander in 2006.

Another generation where practicality overrides other factors brings us this seven-seat Discovery Sport today. Already we have compared it against the BMW X3, Hyundai Santa Fe and the Volvo XC60, and the new entrant to this market - Mercedes GLC - and truimphed twice, so let's see how it gets on under Autocar's scrutiny.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

The new Discovery Sport is considered as the successor for the Freelander
Discovery Sport has a distinctive C-pillar

When you learn that the new Discovery Sport will be built alongside the Range Rover Evoque at Land Rover’s Halewood plant on Merseyside, it would be easy to assume that the two share the same platform.

However, that’s only half of the truth. Although the two are largely the same at the front, the Discovery Sport is all new from the B-pillars back. This is eminently sensible. The major crash structure and most complex mechanicals of a modern car sit between the axle line and the A-pillars.

The car's most distinctive feature is the C-pillar, raked forward to enhance the 'pounce' quality of the Sport's styling

Making changes to those areas costs lots of time and even more money. So the subframe, with a magnesium crossmember and other components, is largely the same around the front, although, unlike the Evoque, the Discovery Sport has a pedestrian airbag in its nose.

Aft of the B-pillars, however, the Discovery Sport has a new structure that leaves it 80mm longer than the Evoque, all of which comes from within the wheelbase. The changes include a new multi-link rear suspension system that has only minimal intrusion into the passenger and luggage compartment, enabling the fitment of those +2 rear chairs.

JLR’s £500 million investment in its new engine plant in Wolverhampton has rid it of its reliance on other people’s powerplants, which has seen the 2.2-litre, Ford-derived turbodiesel become a thing of the past and replaced by the smaller capacity Ingenium units.

The model tested here is badged as the SD4, it’s offered in 188bhp form, which it generates at 3500rpm, with a torque output of 310lb ft at 1750rpm. Regardless of whether you buy Disco Sport with an SD4 or TD4 engine, that’s enough, says Land Rover, to tow 2200kg – or 2500kg if you delete the +2 rear seats. That’s quite a lot more than the claimed kerb weight of 1863kg, which might alarm some towers, so it’s worth noting that this test car tipped our scales at a substantial 2081kg.

That portliness will affect the fuel consumption, as will the Discovery Sport’s hardware. This is, after all, a Land Rover, so it isn’t let out of the factory unless it will do things off road that its rivals simply can’t.

To that end, the Sport receives Land Rover’s Terrain Response control, although because this is a coil and not air-sprung Land Rover, there’s a limit to what it can adjust and its performance largely centres around tweaking of the electronic stability program.

But the Discovery Sport also has a full-time four-wheel drive system with a Haldex centre coupling and is electronically controlled so it can push power forward or aft as it pleases. The Sport is also expected to wade through 600mm of water and have class-leading approach, departure and breakover angles.

Whether it can combine all those with fine on-road dynamics is what we’re about to see.

INTERIOR

A look from the driver's point of view of the Land Rover Discovery Sport
Discovery Sport's driving position is appropriately superior

The channel Land Rover has had to negotiate with the Sport’s cabin is a narrow one. A premium look and feel are vital if the model is to compete with upmarket offerings from BMW and Audi, yet it cannot be permitted to trample on the toes of the Evoque, which remains above it in the range pecking order.

Thus, the debonair sense of style you get in the Evoque is restrained here. This is plainly a more workaday effort. The chunky handsomeness – best expressed in the bold, straight lines and clearly labelled switchgear – owes much to the outgoing Freelander’s aesthetic, although the cliff face of dashboard is pure Evoque. The driving position, happily, is merely archetypal Land Rover, meaning somewhere between crow’s nest and comfy lounge chair.

The removable boot floor doesn't sit snugly in position, leaving it to potentially float about like a miscreant Tupperware lid

A Range Rover customer would spot the bottom-line compromises made by the manufacturer when it picked out trim materials (evident even in our high-spec test car), but a good dealer will encourage you to swivel around and regard the Sport’s extra seats as the proper point of differentiation.

There are six trim levels to spec the Land Rover Discovery Sport out in. The entry-level SE trim comes with part-leather trim, climate and cruise control, heated front seats, Bluetooth, rear parking sensors and JLR's latest 8.0in colour touchscreen with DAB radio, all as standard. Mid-level SE Tech adds sat-nav, automatic lights and wipers, front parking sensors and the useful power tailgate. 

Opt for the HSE level and expect such luxuries as keyless entry, a panoramic sunroof, rear view camera and a 380W Meridian sound system, while the HSE Black trim adds black exterior trim and 20in alloy wheels. In HSE Luxury trim, the Discovery Sport further gains full leather interior, heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel, USB ports and a self-parking mode, meanwhile the range-topping HSE Dynamic Lux adds sporty details and trim.

The packaging sleight of hand is impressive – you really wouldn’t think there’s room, despite the 2741mm wheelbase – although its cons are obvious enough. With hardly anywhere for the second tier to go, a potentially shin-bruising clamber is required to reach the third row, making the two rearmost seats virtually adult-proof from the start.

Nevertheless, the individual pews, modestly raised from the boot floor, are proper little perches rather than mere hollows, and with the sacrifice of the some leg room for the passenger in front, there’s clearly enough room for fledgling legs.

As the +2 designation suggests, the arrangement is about short-haul capacity only. This is not a seven-seat family car in the conventional mould. Certainly, there isn’t much load space left once the third row is up. That doesn’t significantly detract from the usefulness of the system, though.

Much like the Sport’s ability to climb a mountain, you wouldn’t expect to use it every day, but it’s nice to know it’s there should you need it. 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The Land Rover Discovery Sport rides well on open roads...
Discovery Sport can be threaded along with the kind of linear delicacy rarely accorded to hatches, let alone SUVs

There is only two engine options on the Discovery Sport - both use the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel unit, producing two outputs - 148bhp and 177bhp.

However, our test car used Ford-derived 2.2-litre diesel and the Sport’s most noticeable connection to the past is unmistakably that engine, which currently shadows everything the car does with the clatter and gunsmoke odour of yesteryear. Denying the car the new four-cylinder Ingenium oil-burner from launch was clearly the model’s on-paper Achilles heel and, to a greater or lesser extent, that’s the way it plays out on the road.

For a car that weighs the wrong side of two tonnes, a sub-9.0sec 0-60mph time is very decent

However, although the direct-injected 2.2-litre motor is not a paragon of refinement or efficiency, its later-life development has at least ensured that it produces the unmistakable surge expected of a modern blower-equipped diesel.

On stream, its 310lb ft of torque is a plentiful amount, and it feels that way. For a car that tipped the scales on the wrong side of two tonnes when we weighed it, a sub-9.0sec 0-60mph time is very decent. So is the 9.0sec it takes to get from 30mph to 70mph, very slightly bettering the time we recorded for the much-admired 2.2-litre engine in the Mazda CX-5 a couple of years ago.

In fact, the soft underbelly of the package is at times evident less in the 20th century motor and more in the 21st century gearbox to which it has been shackled.

Rather inevitably, the nine-speed automatic transmission’s keenness to keep the engine spinning at its productive mid-range pitch means that you’re going to have to live with a lot of downshifting – particularly on the motorway, where the never-ending 47.5mph per 1000rpm final ratio cannot be trusted with even modest acceleration.

However, it’s the intermittent hesitancy experienced at fast getaways that tends to chafe. It’s not quite clear whether this is a function of the gearbox’s default to second – keeping an ultra-low first ratio chiefly for off-road duties – or the initial reluctance to lock up that we’ve sometimes encountered in other ZF-equipped Land Rovers, but the half second of driveline bemusement is infuriating when you’re trying to make a gap in the traffic.

Nevertheless, the nine-speeder’s otherwise swift function (it will block change rather than cycle sequentially) and inclination to shift are what make the automatic Sport significantly faster than the six-speed manual and keeping the fire stoked is an attitude that suits the car just fine.

RIDE & HANDLING

The Land Rover Discovery Sport can be driven briskly
Land Rover's Discovery Sport rides well and can be driven briskly on an open road

Of the many potential hurdles to fall at here, the first does not trouble the new Discovery Sport.

Emphatically, this still feels like a modern Land Rover – and in a segment now oversubscribed with top-hatted saloon cars, the appeal of that single fact cannot be understated.

The Discovery Sport can be threaded along with the kind of linear delicacy rarely accorded to hatches, let alone SUVs

The Evoque’s success has given the manufacturer licence to repeat much of the formula. Even with its bigger skin, this is a purposeful device – not so much rugged as street tough, but simultaneously lean and big-shouldered enough to justify its visual presence.

For those switching from the smallest Range Rover, it’s worth mentioning that the edges are more apparent here – especially in the quality of the secondary ride, which occasionally stumbles from crisply rugged to downright bony, a vice not helped by the Sport’s wider failure to isolate you from the audible machinations of the suspension.

This chivvying at the comfort levels does the car a disservice if for no other reason than that the primary ride – its capacity to soak up the low-frequency hillocks of UK roads at a cruise – is generally stellar.

Again, this is the manufacturer’s unparalleled understanding of how a contemporary Land Rover must be made to handle: not, crucially, as a sports saloon might, but rather how something tall, forceful and hefty ought to.

The contrivance at work among its rivals is absent, replaced by the apparently organic fluency of an SUV not disguising its amplified body movements but instead tuning them to an inner-ear-pleasing model of consistency and linear balance.

Apart from an occasionally awkward weight at manoeuvring speeds, the same finesse has been applied to the steering, which allows this mass to be threaded along with the kind of linear delicacy that is rarely accorded to hatchbacks, let alone SUVs.

Consequently, on the open road, the car can be driven swiftly and very pleasingly. Its occasional harshness and questionable refinement notwithstanding, it is the charm of this two-way relationship that defines the Sport as ‘good to drive’ beyond all else, and wonderfully typical of Land Rover’s current output.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

The Land Rover Discovery Sport
The new Land Rover Discovery Sport is the successor to the Freelander

At present, the Discovery Sport starts at about £10k less than our top-spec test car, and that’s a good thing.

Truth be told, at £45k – more than the starting price of a full-size Land Rover Discovery – the car doesn’t feel like especially good value, not because it isn’t very well kitted out (it is) but because the smaller yet more stylish Evoque and the much quicker BMW X3 xDrive30d are both available for less.

For now, buyers will have to make do with a claimed 44.8mpg on a combined cycle - pruned to just 33.9mpg when we subjected it to True MPG analysis

The fact that the BMW, despite being 68bhp superior in output and two cylinders to the good in size, also trumps the Sport on quoted economy and emissions highlights just how badly this new model needs its Ingenium engine.

Later, a more frugal two-wheel-drive model will prop up the range. For now, though, buyers will have to make do with 44.8mpg combined – pruned to just 33.9mpg when we subjected it to True MPG analysis – and 166g/km of CO2, a full 49g/km more than the two-wheel-drive Volvo XC60 D4, which is the class leader on running costs. However, the Sport has excellent resale values and trumps the BMW X3 and XC60 in this area, being able to hold its retained value stronger over a three year period.

Nevertheless, in SE auto spec, the Sport is decently equipped and generally well priced compared with its mostly German rivals, even if some of the things you really want – sat-nav, a powered tailgate, front foglights – are the preserve of the aptly named SE Tech trim and above.

We'd avoid the manual gearbox and the top spec HSE Luxury trims level. Our pick would be the nine-speed automatic transmission with the mid-level SE Tech trim and all the optional USB sockets.

 

VERDICT

The Land Rover Discovery Sport

Focus on the Sport’s shortcomings and it’s conceivable that half a star could justifiably be trimmed from its score.

Although fielding a new model with a very short expiry date stamped on the engine bay isn’t entirely unheard of, it remains cruel and unusual. The car also doesn’t entirely convince on refinement or relative comfort. The Ingenium engines are a vast improvement, although they lack the outright performance of their German equivalents and sound gruff on start up, there is enough low down grunt to compensate.

The Discovery Sport is another convincing Land Rover with lots of handling finesse, style and capability

However, the Discovery Sport appeared to have the makings of an instant hit as a show concept, and prolonged exposure to the real thing does little to dial back that impression.

The rich seam of desirability that Land Rover tapped with the Evoque is readily apparent – not just in how it looks but also how it drives. It's another convincing Land Rover with lots of handling finesse, style and capability.

That the experience is now underpinned by a car better proportioned to meet the needs of a family will prove the clincher for many buyers. Prudence may cause some to pause with the Ingenium engines in mind, but Land Rover has built a car worth waiting for.

 

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Land Rover Discovery Sport 2015-2019 First drives