First impressions suggest that Land Rover has a real winner on its hands in the new Discovery Sport. It replaces the Freelander, but comes with the option of extra seats, which none of its premium SUV rivals have. It's refined, comfortable, well-priced and more competent in dire weather than most owners will ever know or need.
In the Metal:
As the new Discovery Sport draws some styling cues from the Range Rover Evoque, it's not as original looking, nor as alluring, but it's a handsome shape nonetheless. The design is balanced in the favour of conservatism, though there are plenty of bright colours and wheel options to make it truly stand out, if the buyer so wishes. Most impressively, while it's shorter than its key rivals - the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Volvo XC60 - interior and boot space are superior and, uniquely, it comes with the option of an extra pair of seats in the rear.
Those chairs are best reserved for young kids and teenagers, as getting in and out of them isn't an elegant process, though head- and legroom aren't as awful as you might expect, especially if the middle row is slid forward. Speaking of which, Land Rover reckons that the legroom in the middle row almost measures up to the long wheelbase Range Rover. It's undoubtedly spacious back there and the panoramic glass roof available on higher trim levels really brightens up the cabin. Notably, there are air vents for all three rows of seating.
The interior design is, like the outside, relatively conservative, but it's beautifully made and a cinch to use. The Discovery Sport marks the arrival of a new eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system to Land Rover and it's a vast improvement over its predecessor in terms of speed and usability. It still takes a little getting used to, but buyers won't mind that. In 2016 Land Rover Ireland will roll out a suite of 'InControl' apps that help the car interface with smartphones better. And apparently there's space for seven different USB charging ports throughout the car.
Our wintry drive through a very snowy Iceland was hardly the place for a detailed dynamic assessment of the new Discovery Sport, especially as all cars were on studded tyres and we had to deal with deep snow, blizzards and rock hard packed ice. Nonetheless, it excelled in the poor conditions. We expected it to be great on low grip surfaces and tricky rutted roads (and it was), but what really stood out was the refinement. Despite the noisy tyres and broken up road surfaces the car's inherent quiet and smoothness shone through. It should be exceptional on regular tarmac.
The variable ratio power steering system made controlling the Discovery Sport through deep snow and ruts a breeze, while the body control was perfect in all conditions we encountered. The nine-speed automatic transmission, as already tested in the Range Rover Evoque, is super-smooth too, quickly and imperceptibly changing ratios. We found little cause to slot it into Sport mode or take over control via the steering wheel mounted paddles. Land Rover has also done a good job of isolating the engine from the car's occupants so it's smooth enough most of the time and has plenty of urge down low. From the outside it's quite loud at idle, but unless you extend it to the redline this doesn't really infiltrate the cabin.
What you get for your Money:
All going to plan, Land Rover will have examples of the new Discovery Sport in Irish dealerships by the first week of January - and apparently pre-orders are already into three figures. At launch, retail prices start at an incredibly reasonable €37,100 - undercutting the outgoing four-wheel drive Freelander. Two versions of the carryover 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine are available, denoted TD4 for 150hp and SD4 for 190hp. Trim levels are S, SE, HSE and HSE Luxury, while all versions can be had with a six-speed manual gearbox or the nine-speed automatic we tested. In this first wave of the launch, the lowest emissions rating is 149g/km (TD4 engine with a manual gearbox), meaning an annual tax bill of €390. Land Rover Ireland expects most buyers to opt for the SE specification, which costs from €43,560.
The Land Rover Discovery Sport is about to get a lot more efficient. In June 2015, Jaguar Land Rover's new Ingenium engines will come on stream, meaning a brand new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel unit to replace the 2.2, bringing with it more refinement, better economy and lower emissions. At the same time a new eD4 model with front-wheel drive will be offered, expected to bring CO2 emissions down to 119g/km.
Land Rover Ireland reckons it'll sell about 350 examples of the Discovery Sport in 2015, but having had a taste of the new premium SUV we believe it'll need to up its order from the factory. The new car eclipses the Freelander and is suddenly the premium SUV of the moment. We can't wait to try it on proper roads.