Snow king: Land Rover Discovery Sport

March 7, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Land Rover

Know who’s happy about the lousy winter weather pummeling the U.S. this year? Body repair shops and automakers that make sport utility vehicles. Both are doing a healthy business this season, especially in places like Boston.

In fact, no other automotive category in the U.S. is growing more quickly than compact SUVs and crossovers. They have the footprint of a smaller sedan, but generally give enough clearance to drive over humps of snow, especially in models that are available as all-wheel-drive.

All of which leaves Tata-owned Land Rover in a very sweet spot. The company is releasing a 2015-year compact SUV it calls the Discovery Sport, with sticker prices starting around $38,000. At such a relatively inexpensive price, the luxury carmaker expects the Discovery Sport to become its volume player. (The priciest HSE Luxury model starts at more than $46,000.)

After several days of testing, I can confirm that it really can handle inclement weather, living up to Land Rover’s rough-and-ready reputation. The company was so intent on making that point that it asked us to drive the car in Iceland.

The name of the country kind of says it all, right? If you can drive it there, you can drive it anywhere. (Though when I tested the Discovery Sport in January, the temperatures in New York were colder than those in the hinterlands of Iceland. Go figure.)

The Sport, as I’ll call it, is actually an all-new and rebadged version of the LR2 model. In the States, the LR2 was under-marketed and rather unloved, the almost Land Rover. And when Land Rover released the stylish, compact Evoque, it made the LR2 seem even sadder. Cue the trombone.

The new Sport is built on the same platform as the Evoque, and at first glance they’d seem to be at odds with one another. After all, does Land Rover need two compact SUVs in its portfolio?

But the two mini utes are destined for two very different audiences. The Evoque, which starts at only about $4,000 more than the Sport, is a fashion statement, especially in its coupe form. The roofline rakes back, which looks dandy but creates a squeeze for rear passengers.

While the Sport gains only a tiny bit of length over the Evoque, the interior is far airier, and Land Rover claims that it can seat up to seven — believable as long as two of those passengers are small children. Company executives said they actually took cues from successful compact crossovers from Japanese and Korean makers when it came to interior packaging.

Land Rover Discovery Sport
Courtesy of Land Rover

It’s a good point. A Honda CRV has tons of room inside; whereas a BMW X6 seems thrice its size and lends virtually none. (You wanted to get five adults and luggage inside the Bimmer? Best of luck.)

That means that the Sport abandons any pretense of style, as the roof extends higher and the overall proportions are more relaxed. Whereas the Evoque is all cheekbones and ripped muscles, the Sport is rounder and more rotund.

The Sport also has new suspension and a spiffier interior. Almost everything is improved over the outgoing LR2 except for the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, which is also in the Evoque and the only real failing point. With 240 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, the turbo-charged motor is somewhat underpowered, especially considering the heft of the vehicle. The time it takes to reach highway speeds (almost eight seconds to 60 mph) is sluggish.

But the suspension! The Sport succeeds at the most difficult of tricks: Creating a ride that is happy and mannered on regular driving roads, but also able to tackle dirt, gravel and worse. It’s comfortable enough to drive every day, doing very unadventurous things like getting groceries. But it also skips over big potholes and crumbling pavement, saving occupants from jarring hits. And if you deign to do some light off-roading, it’s truly built for it.

The all-wheel-drive system is always on, but the driver can alter its characteristics to best apply power to snow or sand. It never felt less than very capable on a vast variety of situations from packed snow, loose snow with ice underneath, wet and dry roads, and even while fording a fast-flowing river. This is seriously smart suspension. With it came a feeling of safety, which will be what most users will care about.

It must be noted that the company outfitted our test models with studded snow tires, which aided grip. Buyers should be very picky about the tires. If you’re in Boston, for instance, be sure that you get sturdy all-weather rubber, and not slicker, less-treaded tires which would be better suited to someone in, say, Miami.

But of course, a Miami driver would opt for the sexier Evoque anyhow.

Comparison: How’s the Discover Sport Hold Up Next to the BMW X3?

BMW got into the SUV game earlier than most of the other luxury carmakers, releasing the midsize X5 in 1999. The company also recognized the importance of even smaller SUVs to its audience — and so we got the X3 as a 2004 model year.

A month after testing the Land Rover Discovery Sport, I spent a week in a 2015 X3 with all-wheel-drive and a 3.0-liter inline six engine. I hadn’t been in one in a while, and it served as a reminder of why BMW is so good at the SUV and crossover game.

The conditions were just as bad as those we found in Iceland, if not worse. I drove the X3 several hundred miles, over snowy highways, ice-slicked back roads, and snowed-over dirt roads. Like the Land Rover, it never felt anything less than super confident. I even tried to induce a slide, leaving all the electronic controls on. Nope. The all-wheel-system knows better, and it cut power to the wheels before I could get anywhere near sideways. (I could have shut off those systems and had a pretty good time, actually, but my wife has a really effective “don’t even think about it” glare.)

The X3 absolutely rules when it comes to the engine. The 300-horse six-cylinder is plush with power. And the X3’s navigation and head’s-up display are superior to those of the Land Rover, and details like the Xenon headlights and the headlight washers (part of the $950 cold-weather package) really mattered when conditions got messy.

That said, the xDrive35i started at more than $46,000, and came to $54,200 with all the options. That’s hefty, as the Discovery Sport HSE Luxury tops out around $48,500, even with the vision assist package (and is otherwise loaded).

And the Discovery Sport has made huge strides in terms of interior. Surfaces are nice to the touch; the trim looks expensive, and it conveys a feel more consistent with Land Rover’s big brother, the Range Rover. BMW still struggles with matters of COMFORT, as if it can’t quite force itself to give you squishy surfaces that you actually want to rest on. Score one for the Discovery.

For some buyers, it will simply come down to the nameplate and the price. The Discovery Sport is a mild deal, and the new name may take the sting out of the choice for some. Others will want BMW’S original — and still one of the most capable.