Iceland in the winter is a proper setting to test drive a new SUV. Gale-force winds blow snow across unpaved roads that traverse barren lava fields and frozen streams. Trolls can lurch out at any moment. For these reasons, Land Rover chose the country’s rugged landscape to launch its new Discovery Sport. Navigating the island’s gravel and ice as well as its sophisticated capital, Reykjavík, the car is equally at home.
The much-improved successor to Land Rover’s LR2 and a more spacious sibling to its Evoque, the four-door Discovery Sport joins a class of premium compact SUVs and crossovers like the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes GLK that (along with SUVs, generally) have overtaken sedans to become the most popular vehicle body style in the country. The SUV crossover combines the footprint of a passenger car with enough ground clearance (8.3 inches in the Discovery Sport) to get you far beyond asphalt. In Iceland last January, I met British polar explorer Ben Saunders, a Land Rover ambassador, who extolled the Land Rover’s versatility as his workhorse in the French Alps and Scottish Highlands while training for his record-breaking walk from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole and back last year.
“We were able to load them up with skis, climbing gear, clothing, food, mountain bikes, my dog, and do huge country-hopping drives in the same sort of comfort that you’d find in any high-end German station wagon, yet with the ability to drive half way up a mountain when we got to our destination,” Saunders recalled. “A few days later, I’d use the same vehicle to get to a speaking engagement at a glitzy awards ceremony in the city.”
For starters, the new Discovery Sport is handsome, with an upright body, leather seats, and spacious interior. The entry-level SE (at a very attractive $37,070) comes standard with partial leather seats, two-zone climate control, cruise control, a 10-speaker audio system and rear parking sensors; a few-thousand-dollar-upgrade comes with full leather seats, panoramic roof, a powered tailgate and front parking sensors. By redesigning the rear suspension, Land Rover was able to fit an optional third row of seating—making space for seven passengers, especially if two of those passengers are toddlers.
The Discovery also comes standard with all-wheel drive, a nine-speed automatic and a 2.0-liter turbo engine. Reaching 60 mph in 7.8-seconds, it’s not as quick out the gate as some of its competitors, but speedy enough. Where it excels is in handling—controlled and capable, as I found driving Iceland’s ice and gravel-covered roads (with Pirelli studded tires). Off-highway, the car’s innovative Terrain Response System kicks in, offering settings, on the center console, for gravel, mud, snow, sand, and other hairy conditions. The car can scale or descend gradients of up to 45 degrees, and has a wading depth of 23.6 inches—that’s about mid-door, although I didn’t have the chance to find out.
One night in January, I ran the Discovery Sport through the blizzard test. Not that this was intentional. I’d rolled out of Reykjavík in light wind and wet snow, making for a chic “luxury adventure” hotel situated at the foot of a volcano an hour’s drive away. On Iceland’s desolate highways, the Disco Sport is a smooth and cozy ride, with heated, ventilated seats and a new 8-inch touchscreen-based navigation and audio system that represents a leap ahead for Land Rover infotainment. Outside of this sealed comfort zone, however, steady gusts hurled snow sideways across the windshield. The flakes grew denser as I climbed in elevation. At a roundabout, a police car stood blocking the road ahead: there would be no paved way to the hotel that night.
No problem. Land Rover’s ground team charted an alternate course down an ungraded road (“Is this a road?”) branching off the roundabout. I pushed the console button for “grass, gravel and snow,” activating the car’s Terrain Response System, which monitors and adjusts things like wheel speed and vehicle position. This set in motion a very confident, sturdy ride through a layer of fresh snow, which piled up into patches of drifts along the way. At a certain point, going further appeared too ambitious, and I was directed to take a U-Turn back to Reykjavík.
The Discovery Sport has a lot of electronic automation going on behind the scenes, from lane-departure warning to high-definition surround cameras, Engine Drag Torque Control to an autonomous braking function that slows or stops the vehicle to help avoid collision. The case for the vehicle is its off-road bona fides, which one expects from a Land Rover, combined with a handsome design that an urban dweller would dig. And with a starting sticker price of under $40,000, that case is very compelling indeed.