25 January 2016

Test Drive: Land Rover Discovery Sport

For the last twenty years or so, Land Rover’s smallest vehicle has been the much maligned Freelander. For 2015 Land Rover reorganised their product range and placed the third generation Freelander in its ‘Discovery’ family, giving it the name Discovery Sport (DS).

It’s a decision that has caused some confusion, especially as the Discovery 4 is getting on a bit and due for replacement, and some thought that the much smaller DS was the new Discovery. For those of us who are long-standing Freelander owners, it’s sad to see the name consigned to history; a victim of its undeserved reputation for unreliability. Indeed I have it on good authority that the Freelander 2 is probably the most reliable Land Rover ever built, and a standard Freelander 2 will go everywhere a standard Defender 90 will – but with better fuel economy and more comfort.

The DS is based on the same platform as the Freelander 2 and its sibling, Range Rover Evoque, but is slightly longer and slightly lower than the Freelander 2. Initially the DS also came with the Freelander 2’s 2.2 litre diesel engine, sourced from Ford & Peugeot, which was also fitted in later Defenders. Some consider it a bit coarse, and there is a little bit of roughness when cold, but it’s certainly not intrusive, and will happily cruise at motorway speeds without impressing itself upon you.

For 2016 Land Rover have installed their all-new, own-engineered 2.0 litre ‘Ingenium’ engine, which can also be found in Jaguar’s XE and is also now appearing in Range Rover Evoque. It comes in two power versions, 150 or 180, and can be attached to either a six-speed manual gearbox (also from Freelander 2) or a nine-speed automatic gearbox from German manufacturer ZF. In practice the automatic ‘box makes use of the top eight cogs, leaving the extra low first gear for off road use.

As with most Land Rovers, DS has permanent four-wheel drive with an electronic locking centre differential, traction control and Land Rover’s superb Terrain Response system to coordinate everything and keep you moving. A two-wheel drive version will be available in the future.

The UK only gets the diesel engine, but petrol versions of the Ingenium engine are available in overseas markets.

The DS has been designed by Gerry McGovern, who also designed the original Freelander, and it bears a strong resemblance to other recent Land Rovers, including the current Range Rover range. It carries its size well, and it doesn’t look unwieldy or top-heavy, and not as boxy as Freelander 2.

There are four models in the range: SE, SE Tech, HSE and HSE Luxury, and all can be further embellished from an extensive options list. The car I drove was an automatic HSE Black; the ‘black pack’ being glossy black wheels, badging, roof, grille and other details, plus privacy glass.

Inside you can see the evolution from Freelander 2 and the influence from Range Rover Evoque with clear dials, an information screen between them that keeps you informed of what’s going on, lots of buttons to control the essentials, including the Terrain Response system, and a centrally mounted screen that’s used for the sat. nav., DAB & FM radio, climate control, heated windscreen and other features. As an option you can upgrade the centre screen to dual-view with a Meridian sound system, which allows your passenger to watch TV while you simultaneously see the sat. nav. on the same screen at the same time. Pure witchcraft!

Safety systems are the order of the day and the DS is equipped with autonomous emergency braking to prevent in-town shunts, and the optional road sign recognition system can show the current speed limit or selected other restrictions on the information screen. There are also automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, and a lane monitoring system that will vibrate the steering wheel should you wander across the white lines without using your indicators (and sometimes even if you do). There’s also a full complement of airbags for the occupants, and if you should hit a pedestrian an airbag on the bonnet to help cushion the impact. As with other Land Rovers there is an emergency stop feature built in to the electric handbrake that will bring the car to a rapid, controlled halt using the ABS should it be applied whilst the vehicle is in motion – the idea being the passenger can intervene should the driver be incapacitated.

In the centre console there are a couple of cup holders under a glossy black roller shutter, and one of them lifts out to reveal a deeper cubby hole which looks big enough to accommodate sunglasses, wallet, first-aid and some of the other bits and pieces that tend to accumulate in cars. There’s more space inside the armrest too, including power sockets and a data connection for your phone or iPod, which can be controlled via the touch screen in the centre console (I understand support for Apple’s CarPlay system is coming soon). Another power socket is provided on the back of the cubby box for those in the back seats. Or, more properly, the second-row seats.

Depending on the variant, the seats are either part leather, manually adjusted, or full leather and electrically adjusted. The electrically adjustable seats include lumbar support, and are very comfortable. It feels as though you sit slightly lower in the DS than in Freelander 2, and it feels very car-like, but you still get a good view through big windows and a tall windscreen. The steering wheel manually adjusts for both reach and rake, and the electric seats adjust for height at both the front and back of the cushion to provide extra support for the back of your legs if that’s your preference. The backrest is nicely shaped to support you through the corners, and I could happily spend a few hours in the saddle – as indeed I did on the test drive.

With keyless ignition, you just press a button to start things off and as the engine starts the automatic selector knob rises out of the centre console – a trick first seen on Jaguar’s XF and since repeated on automatics throughout the Jaguar Land Rover range. Fortunately that is where the theatrics end, and you don’t have electrically opening air vents or other unnecessary fripperies; the cabin definitely errs on the side of practicality and is all the better for it.

The quality of the interior is very good, and it certainly feels like the upmarket vehicle it purports to be; although Range Rover Evoque is slightly better finished, as you’d expect for a premium vehicle. The DS’s cabin is a very nice place to be, although it does feel a little more cramped than in Freelander 2 owing to the wider centre console and the shape of the dashboard, but during my drive nothing got in the way, and I didn’t bang my elbows or knees on anything.

On HSE models a full-length panoramic glass roof is standard, which presents a challenge for those needing to fit radio antennae or warning beacons, but it does give the cabin a very airy feel. The headlining is white as standard, although a dark one is available as an option, and a matching full-length electric blind can be deployed across the glass roof to keep the sun out. SE models have a conventional metal roof with the glass being an option.

In the second row of seats there’s as much leg room as in the DS’s larger brethren, and the seats can be slid forwards for more boot space, and even reclined. An armrest with cup holders and a small cubby box is also provided, as are the obligatory ISOFIX connections for child seats. Optional rear seat heating is available, plus additional USB charging sockets and video screens in the front seat head restraints. The seats fold almost flat, and lock in place with a typical 60/40 split. A nice touch is that the backs can be released via buttons in the boot, although they still need a firm hand to click them down in to place.

The second-row seats also tilt and slide to give access (of sorts) to the third row of seats, which fold flat in to the boot floor when not in use, and take just a few seconds to swing up and lock in to place, complete with head restraints. They will accommodate an adult, but are really +2 seats best suited to younger members of the family. Optional air vents and USB sockets are available for third row passengers.

The roller-cover unclips and lifts out

Without the third-row seats deployed, the DS’s boot is a good size and should comfortably swallow a family’s luggage, shopping or whatever other paraphernalia you need to cart around, but with the third-row seats in place you’ll struggle to carry much more than a furled umbrella. You don’t get the third row of seats with the 150 engine, but they’re standard with the 180.

Tyre repair kit in the boot floor

With the engine running, the cabin is still a very peaceful place. An electronic handbrake means that you just need to turn the selector knob to ‘Drive’ and press the accelerator for you to be on your way. The 180 engine in my car was very willing, and keeping the speed down was something that took a good deal of concentration as you don’t get any particular sense of speed, wind or road noise.

A gentle foot on the accelerator is required otherwise the automatic gearbox gets very excited and seems to have trouble making decisions as to which gear it wants to be in.

Out on the Motorway the car settles in to ninth gear and, whilst I’m sure it’s environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient, the engine sounds a bit blunt and dull instead of sparkling and willing. Going anywhere near the accelerator means a change of gear. There are gear change paddles on the steering wheel, and using either of them switches to ‘Command Shift’ mode, AKA manual. A long pull of the up paddle will return you to full automatic mode.

I will freely admit that I am not a fan of automatic gearboxes as they typically have an unerring ability to never be in quite the right gear for a given situation. If by some quirk they are in the right gear, they’ll soon shift to one too high or too low. That said, I’m clearly in the minority because manual cars, particularly at the higher end of the market, are few and far between and even cars supposedly aimed at driving enthusiasts are eschewing conventional gearboxes.

The automatic Freelander 2 I drove a few years ago was very poor, and around town at 30mph the gearbox chose too high a gear resulting in a resonating vibration through the cabin. The solution, I was told, was to switch to manual mode – but if that’s the solution, why not just buy the (cheaper, less complex and more economical) manual version in the first place?

My DS was fitted with the nine-speed ‘box and with all that choice you might expect there to be a lot of cog-shuffling going on, and there is. However, unless you try to hustle it, changes are generally smooth and go mostly unnoticed. But if you give the accelerator a prod hoping to use torque to propel you forwards, or decide to have a play on a tight, windy road, the gearbox becomes somewhat intrusive and uncooperative, hopping from gear-to-gear in an apparent lather of indecision. In these cases, switching to ‘Command Shift’ mode is essential to maintain some sort of order as the car surges, pauses and lurches, generally giving the impression it has no idea what it’s doing. You can almost hear Corporal Jones telling everyone not to panic.

That said, if you’re considering using the vehicle off road then the automatic gearbox will be ideal owing to that extra low first gear and no loss of traction when changing gear. I’ve yet to see many videos of the DS off road, but it’s likely to be at least as capable as its forerunners.

Off the motorways and on more general A-roads the car was just as comfortable, and cruised along without fuss. The suspension seems well tuned, allowing it to soak up bumps and imperfections without jarring the occupants, whilst being taut enough not to roll or wallow too much. On a typically demanding fenland road everything remained composed despite the exceedingly uneven surface with lots of sharp dips, ridges and hollows. But at the end of the day it is moderately tall and heavy so don’t expect it to handle like a performance saloon car. As with most new vehicles there are various electronic stability aids to keep you where you want to be, but just remember they can’t re-write the rules of physics.

Manoeuvring it around car parks is easy enough thanks to reasonable mirrors. The tapered shape isn’t as helpful as the large, square almost van-like items on Freelander 2 and Discovery 4, but they’re perfectly adequate. HSE examples also have a reversing camera which overlays various lines on the centre display to help you line yourself up – although somehow I never managed to park at anything other than a slightly jaunty angle. I’m sure part of the overlay is to help you stop so you have enough room to open the (powered) tailgate, but I didn’t manage to master that either. Front and rear parking sensors complete the picture, so if you bump in to something in the car park it won’t be through any fault of the vehicle.

For a vehicle that’s marketed as being for people who love the great outdoors some strange decisions seem to have been made during the design process. Thanks to the third-row seats, there isn’t room for a full-sized spare wheel but you can have a space-saver wheel installed, slung underneath the back of the car. But if you do that, you can’t have a tow bar. I can’t be the only person who needs to tow and wants the confidence of having a spare wheel in case a tyre or wheel gets damaged off road. You get a tyre repair kit and compressor, but they are seldom all that successful – especially if you’ve torn the sidewall of the tyre on a rock.

I asked someone from JLR’s marketing team just after the DS launch about the spare wheel issue and was told that they don’t include spare wheels as standard as they are heavy and reduce fuel economy meaning the car might end up in a higher road tax category. When I asked about removing the third-row seats, which must be reasonably heavy, on the same basis, I was told it wasn’t possible. I dare say it would be possible to remove the folding seats from the back of the car and buy the fittings to accommodate a spare wheel from the 150 engine model instead, but no doubt without the approval of Land Rover.

Would I buy one? An unequivocal ‘yes’. I’m told there’s a three month waiting list at the moment, and I’ve a Freelander 2 to sell first, but this is a superb vehicle that will certainly do everything I need it to do, and do it well.