The Newest Land Rover Discovery Thaws Iceland

This year, Land Rover is releasing a completely rebuilt Discovery Sport. We drove it off a glacier.

Like a proper British expeditionary, Land Rover has a thing for adventure in exotic lands – luxuriously equipped, naturally. While we might have voted for thongs in Fiji, Rover stuffed us into parkas and chose a beautiful-but-inhospitable clime to test the new Discovery Sport: Iceland. In January.

Take its single city, Reykjavik, out of the mix, and this volcanic island atop the North Atlantic looks one part Middle Earth, one part Mordor. That includes charming painted doors on roadside boulders for the Elvish Huldufolk, the “Hidden People” of Icelandic legend. We swore we spotted Bjork ducking into one such portal, warbling something about the winter solstice and native fishermen.

For Americans whose garage doors lead to luxury SUVs, this surreal landscape was as reflective of the real world as a Peter Jackson CGI spree – or maybe Christopher Nolan, who found Iceland the next best thing to outer space for Interstellar locations. But we happily succumbed to the off-road fantasy, guiding the Discovery Sport through ice-choked rivers, doomy mountain passes and barren lava fields. Then we took a steamy dip in Iceland’s sprawling Blue Lagoon hot springs, beers in hand, and mulled key questions: Is the Discovery Sport a manlier, yet manicured rival to small urban hipsters like the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes GLK? Most definitely. And do enough Americans have amnesia about the Discovery name – once attached to the most heartbreakingly unreliable SUVs in the land — to give this reborn Discovery a shot? We’ll get back to you on that one.

Yet if Burberry-Brit style, class-topping passenger space and genuine four-wheeling skills provide ample temptation, a test drive may well put you in a bygones-be-bygones mood. First, chalk up another runway hit for Gerry McGovern, the Rover chief designer whose acclaimed Evoque, Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models have him on a serious roll. From the appealing underbite of its hood and grille to its rising fuselage and downward-dog roof, the Discovery Sport exudes a capable, outdoorsy vibe that eludes many citified crossovers. This Disco also cleans up nicely to impress a weekend date, including its airy, smartly tailored cabin. Leather thrones, ribbed for your pleasure, assume the upright, commanding position that’s a Rover signature. A strongly horizontal dashboard is topped with an intriguing fine-grained slab that recalls some kind of volcanic substrate. And where Rover’s screen-based infotainment systems, shared with its Jaguar partner, were as infuriatingly slow and obtuse as a Kinko’s employee, this one finally says “Cheers, mate” to the 21st century.

When it steams from Solihull, England to our showrooms this April, the Discovery Sport’s packaging and performance should make people forget its obscure predecessor, the LR2, if they haven’t already. A few inches shorter and wider than any competitor, the Rover manages to carve out space for seven passengers, though its optional third row is for children or the aforementioned elves. Credit a space-saving rear suspension design, heavy on the aluminum, that also ups the Discovery’s handling game.

Should nature-averse suburbanites choose to cross near-mythical streams, at a wading depth of up to 23.6 inches, they can dial up the Terrain Response System – moved to a more-mainstream spot on the dash, rather than the chunky console knob of other Rover models. It offers settings for mud, snow, and other dicey conditions, in tandem with trusty four-wheel-drive, 8.3 inches of ground clearance and approach-and-departure angles that let the Rover climb or descend up to 45-degree slopes.

Don’t assume that the Discovery Sport is some oafish Paul Bunyan within city limits. Like its pricier stablemates, the $38,995 Discovery Sport makes a surprisingly dynamic case on pavement. Electric, variable-ratio power steering combines pleasing weight and feel with an extra-tight turning circle. Racing back to Reykjavik on slippery roads, the Rover carved a confident course, including automatically dabbing individual brakes – torque vectoring is the technical term – to smartly pivot the back end around corners. 

With bonus gears so in vogue, a nine-speed, paddle-shifted automatic mates with the 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower turbocharged four from the pint-sized Evoque. Abetted by the sweet-shifting nine-speed, this Rover feels just quick enough, scooting to 60 mph in 7.8-seconds; though that trails the Audi Q5 2.0 by nearly a second, and BMW’s X3 35i by more than two seconds. A foot on the gas reveals this Laddie’s Achilles’ Heel: Turbo lag, with a gulping breath of hesitation before the 250 pound-feet of torque comes to the rescue.

The Discovery Sport is first in a planned family of Discovery models, including a redesign of the midsize LR4. That LR4 is still called Discovery outside of America, and it’s not hard to guess why Rover ditched the name here:  For too long, buyers’ biggest Discovery was a fat stack of repair bills.

From Evoque to Range Rover, Land Rover’s pricier models are setting company sales records in America and around the globe. If the Discovery Sport can surmount its reputation like it conquered the Icelandic countryside, this dashing, able-bodied SUV looks like the latest British alternative hit.