With almost every car manufacturer having greatly expanded their product portfolio over the last 20 years, the differences between some of the models in their ranges can be quite subtle. Land Rover is no different, with two very similarly sized models sitting at the entry point to their range. Once, of course, there was one: the Freelander, which was conceived to sit below the Discovery, which itself was designed to provide something more affordable than the Range Rover as it had moved ever more upmarket and with more of a luxury orientation. The first Freelander, launched in 1997 came in tow versions; a three door with a removable roof and a five door which was among the earliest entrants in a market sector would grow explosively soon thereafter. The five door achieved most of the sales and so when a second generation Freelander was designed, this became the sole bodystyle. It notched up strong sales, as by all accounts, it was a very good product, though reliability issues afflicted it from new and were never really satisfactorily resolved. It was marketed very definitely as a Land Rover, and much was made of the fact that it complied with the brand’s heritage in terms of outstanding off-road capabilities, even if few owners would ever test this out let alone regularly drive it on anything rougher than the odd grass field that they were parking in. With sales of this sized car, in SUV and Crossover style growing beyond anyone’s expectations, it was perhaps not a surprise that Land Rover decided to offer a more styte-oriented product, and that this would adapt Range Rover badging, permitting higher prices and greater profit margins. This car was the Evoque, launched in 2010 and initially conceived as a three-door almost coupe like model, but it was realised that far more sales could be achieved with a five door model as well. Because of model life cycles, the Evoque arrived when Freelander 2 was mid-cycle, so there were a number of enhancements under the skin, in terms of platform, engines and technology that came in the Evoque at launch, but it was only a matter of time before many of these would find their way into the Freelander. By the time they did, a new policy on further sub-branding within the Land Rover product range meant that the Freelander badging had been foresaken in favour of the name Discovery Sport. This was applied globally, and is an approach that a number of other manufacturers have taken, especially in the all-important US market, using the suffix Sport to indicate a smaller and cheaper stablemate to a car with a strong reputation (think Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and the Nissan Rogue Sport, a car we in Europe known as the Qashqai). In Land Rover’s case, there must have been some debate about the merits of this for the US market, as previous generation Discovery models were known as the LR4, to try to ensure that any associations with the unreliable Discovery 2 were expunged and the Freelander had been known as the LR2 for much the same reason. With the Discovery 5 adopting this name in the US when it was launched, the logic appeared complete, though.
The Discovery Sport was launched in 2014 with cars going on sale in the UK in early 2015, where it was very well received by the press, and sales climbed strongly, such that by 2017 it has become Land Rover’s best-selling model, with sales far surpassing those achieved by its predecessor. It took a while to reach the US, where it had a rather less enthusiastic reception, as has been the case with all the rest of the brand’s products. Sales remain modest, not least because there are fewer dealers than there are for some of the rival products. Perhaps in an effort to try get more people behind the wheel of most of the range, as well as the Jaguars, a deal was struck by Hertz in early 2017 for the supply of a significant number of cars to be added to the Prestige part of their fleet. The first handful of cars were evident during my March 2017 visit but these were hard to track down. By the time of my September 2017 visit, though, there were rather more on fleet, but whilst I was able to secure a Jaguar XF, the rest of the models eluded me. Come the end of the year, rental car low season, and both the Evoque and the Discovery Sport were more in evidence certainly at the sizeable Hertz LAX facility. Having tried an Evoque, it was natural to want to try a Discovery Sport shortly thereafter to see not just what I thought of the small Land Rover, but also to see how it compared against the Evoque. I managed to secure one that was in a rather pleasant deep red colour that Land Rover call Firenze Red Metallic for a day. So how did it stack up? Read on.
In Europe there are a number of different power outputs available, from both petrol and diesel engines, but in America, there is no choice at all. US market Discovery Sport cars all have a 240 bhp turbo-charged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine from the Ingenium family, coupled to a nine-speed automatic gearbox and with standard four-wheel drive. This unit is at the top end of the power spectrum compared to some of the European cars, so it should make the car decently brisk. Unfortunately, that is not always the impression you get from behind the wheel. For sure when you press the start engine button, the noise you hear sounds promising, with a distinct edge to it and although decently muted, a definite roar as you press the accelerator pedal and move off. However, I found there were times when the car seemed to hesitate a bit before picking up speed, after which it was well up to what is required to cope with the exigencies of the LA urban traffic and also the challenges of the hilly inclines on the roads in the canyons north of LA, which is where I headed with this test car. I can well imagine that fully laden, the car may feel that it needs more power, which is certainly the conclusion the US press have reached. Most of the time whilst I was driving it, though, I found it perfectly adequate, with plenty of mid-range acceleration. I did wonder if the hesitancy arose more from the transmission, though I have to note that this is the same ZF gearbox as was in the Evoque where it seemed to be rather more responsive. There are 9 speeds, and like most cars these days, it is setup to try to get to the higher ratios as soon as possible. The gearlever is one of those cylindrical knobs but unlike that of the first Jaguar XF where this debuted, this one remains up and in position regardless o whether the ignition is on or not. It is easy to use, but if you want to do the gear changes yourself, then there are paddles on the column that you can use. Evidence that the engine struggles a bit comes from the fuel consumption. I covered exactly 200 miles in my day with the Discovery Sport and it needed 9.4 US gallons to fill it, which computes to 21.28 mpg US or 25.42 Imperial, which struck me as disappointing. In a more positive vein, the Discovery Sport was generally quiet with the noise from engine, road and wind all well controlled.
The other driving dynamics are well up to the high standards that we have come to expect from Land Rover after Mike Cross and his team have been busy. The steering is responsive with plenty of feel, and weighting that is far more to my taste than the over-assisted set-ups you will find in most of the Land Rover’s rivals, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel was just the right thickness to make it pleasant to hold. It is good to drive, too, with plenty of grip and tidy and resolved handling that belie the bodystyle of this vehicle. The rear suspension of the Discovery Sport does differ from that in the Evoque, as it needed to allow space for the optional third row seats. The outcome is that the car rides very well, with a nicely cushioned ride helping the Discovery Sport to glide over the worst of the dreadful road surfaces that you find in the Greater Los Angeles area. The test car came on relatively high profile 235/60 R18 wheels. Of course, the Discovery Sport has been engineered not just to be capable on metallised roads, but also for when you take it to rougher terrain. I was not able to test this, as the rental contract terms don’t permit it, but the standard Terrain Response system is by all accounts deeply impressive and unlike almost all of its rivals, this is a car whose abilities live up to the off-roader styling. It stops readily, too, with powerful brakes that worked well. There is an electronic handbrake, as you find on so many cars now. The relatively boxy styling and large glass area means that visibility all round is good, with no real problems in judging the extremities of the car, with the rear-view camera helping when reversing into a space.
Inside the Discovery Sport, at first glance it looked very similar to the Evoque I had been driving only a couple of days earlier. Look harder and you realise that there are differences, just a heavy dose of family style and obviously a lot of shared components, to avoid unnecessary costs. The interior was largely black, just with gunmetal-effect inlays on the wheel and lining the centre of the dash and the console. As with the Evoque, the overall design is neat, and everything appears to be made of quality materials even though I did detect a slightly cheaper feel to the end result than was evident in that Evoque. There are two large dials grouped together under a single binnacle but each set in their own individual recessed cowl, with the area between them used for vertically arranged water temperature gauge and fuel level which straddle the trip compute display area. Cycling through the various menus and screens of this is done with buttons on the left hand steering wheel spoke, which also contains audio repeaters whilst the cruise control functions are also wheel hub mounted, on the right. Twin column stalks do the front and rear wipers as well as indicators and lights. The centre of the dash contains the colour touchscreen 8″ infotainment display for what Land-Rover call their InControl TouchPro system. Although the screen on this one was smaller than that in the Evoque – larger 10″ ones are available as a cost option or in top spec cars – the functions and menus were much the same. The system proved easy to use, with plenty of buttons to either side of the screen as an alternative to using either touchscreen or the haptic (gesture control) interfaces. The sound quality of the 10 speaker audio system, which included XM Satellite radio, was good. Navigation is included and this proved easy to use. Beneath this unit are three rotary knobs and a large number buttons for the dual zone climate control. Below this are the controls for the all-wheel drive system.
In the HSE trim of the test car, the seats are part leather upholstered and they have 10-way electric adjustment, including lumbar support, always a welcome addition. Combine that with a telescoping steering column and it was easy to get the optimum driving position to suit my bodily proportions. The seat itself proved very comfortable, and you do get the benefit of a slightly raised seating position compare to a regular hatch or saloon model. That said, you really don’t notice it when you get in or out of the car. You certainly do notice the extra headroom that is available, though.
There is plenty of space in the rear, notably more than you find in the Evoque. The rear seats are on sliders, so you can vary the amount of leg room in exchange for a bit of luggage space if you really need to, though even with the front seats set well back, you will not see the need. There is only the smallest off bumps for a central transmission tunnel, and the centre console does not protrude back unduly, so a middle seat occupant will not feel like they are getting the raw deal that they do in some cars. You do sit relatively upright, but with ample headroom here, that is not an issue, and you can adjust the backrest angle through a few degrees, too. Occupants here get the benefit of a drop down central armrest with a cubby in it and pop out cupholders, as well as separate air vents in the B pillars, a couple of power sockets and there are bins on the doors and nets on the back of the front seats for odds and ends.
The Discovery Sport is unusual in its class in that it is available as a 7-seater. The test car did not have the third row of seats, but the consequence of this being an available option is that the boot is particularly generous, being both long and deep. There is not much in the way of extra space around the spacesaver wheel that you will find under the floor. More space is created by dropping the asymmetrically split rear seat backrests, creating a long and flat load space. As you would expect there are plenty of practical touches throughout the cabin and there is a decent amount of space for odds and ends, with a good-sized glovebox which has a shelf above it, an armrest cubby, door bins, and a sizeable and quite deep recess in front of the gearlever.
There is a much reduced range of Discovery Sport models offered in the US market compared to what is on offer in Europe. Just three versions comprise the 2017 model year range, all mechanically the same, with just an ever longer list of standard equipment the further up the range you go. The Discovery Sport SE comes as standard with partial leather upholstery, 10-way power-adjustable front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, an 8-inch touch screen, a 10-speaker stereo, Bluetooth, three USB ports, and rain-sensing windshield wipers. Available features include full leather upholstery, 12-way power-adjustable front seats, heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, a third-row USB port, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, proximity keyless entry, a power liftgate, an 11-speaker Meridian sound system, satellite radio, HD Radio, navigation, and a Wi-Fi hot spot. Upgrade to an HSE and you get leather upholstery, 12-way power-adjustable front seats with memory function, a panoramic roof, front parking sensors, proximity keyless entry, and a power liftgate. Available features include heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 10-inch touch screen, and a 16-speaker Meridian sound system. Available driver assistance features include adaptive headlights, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, driver condition monitoring, lane departure warning, lane keep assist, traffic sign recognition, automatic parking assist, a surround-view parking camera, and a head-up display. Top of the US range is the Discovery Sport HSE Luxury which adds Windsor leather seats, an 11-speaker Meridian sound system, satellite radio, HD Radio, and navigation. Most available features from the HSE are available in the HSE Luxury as well.
Next day, when I saw my friend Annie, at Hertz, who had ensured I got to drive this car, she asked me not just what I thought, but also how I rated the Discovery Sport in comparison to the Evoque, as she said that lots of customers ask her this question. I did not take me long to come up with an answer, which was as follows: Both are good cars, and I said that anyone renting either of them should enjoy the experience, especially if the alternative was something as mediocre as a Mercedes GLA. But if both are available, in adjacent stalls, which should you choose? Well, the Discovery Sport has two advantages, one of which will always be true, in that there is more space inside it; and also because Hertz has bought these in HSE Spec, whereas their Evoques are currently in less-well appointed SE Premium guise, you will get more features, which may matter to some people. But if you can live with the lesser space, I though the Evoque just edged it in terms of driving, and style. It would be the one I would pick if given the choice. Just as with the Evoque, though, I am not sure I could choose to own one, though. Sadly, reliability reports on the Discovery Sport are somewhat disappointing, still, nowhere more than in America, it would seem. The name change may have banished the memories of problem-struck Freelanders, or rather LR2 cars, but there could be a new problem that the Discovery Sport still trails the class in dependability. This is such a shame, as in all other respects, this is an excellent product that I would love to be able to recommend wholeheartedly.