The new Land Rover Discovery sport: Smooth, roomy and quite responsive

I ate a palm tree. Not the fruit from the tree, not even the leaves; but the tree ITSELF, the stem, the trunk.

The person behind this occurrence is the Number two chef in Mauritius, a good hostess who takes real pride in her work; and she must, seeing how she convinced a large group of straight-thinking adults that they can actually eat a tree trunk without having to gnaw on it like a termite.

The vehicle that conveyed this large group of straight-thinking adults to the achingly beautiful and infinitely picturesque south coast of Mauritius where the chunks of tree awaited us on square side-plates was the Land Rover Discovery Sport.

The Heart Of Palm is something I had never seen or heard of before as a consumable dish, let alone tasted.

The Discovery Sport is something I had also never seen or driven.

They both look pretty anodyne in their raw untouched forms: the palm trunk is white, plain white and could pass for anything from formless plastic to chunks of well-made goat cheese (almost).

The Disco Sport’s profile looks like one of those front-drive Ford cross-overs that are so popular in the US and keep appearing in various movies and TV shows (“Baraza, what car is that?”… “Don’t know, don’t care; Jack Bauer is about to disable the car with a rope and a bucket only, I need to see this”).

To make the tree become a convincing victual, it needs garnishing, steaming, simmering and all those other culinary terms that basically mean “cooking”. To make the Disco Sport appear less Ford-like in your mind, you need to take a walk around it.

THE LOOKS

Exterior

The side profile may be overly generic, a characteristic that is shared with the Chevrolet Trailblazer, but the nose and tail treatments are typically Land Rover… or rather, are typically Range Rover Evoque, to be specific.

But there are differences, the biggest difference literally being the tail-lamps are bigger.

It is after noticing these Land Rover cues that one is driven back to staring at the side profile, and one starts to notice things. The tapering roofline… The rising shoulder line… The thick C pillar… The slightly nose-down vehicle stance… The rear spoiler… The anthracite big rims shod in thin-walled low profile tyres on the Black Pack-equipped cars (this is the car to buy, just to be clear). that Land Rover is finally getting serious about naming its cars; the new Sport drives sportily, while the new Disco Sport at least looks sporty.

Interior

Jump inside and you see more of the Evoque, particularly the around the driver controls. The instrument panel is straight off the baby Range Rover, jewel-encrusted dials and all. The centre console is a Freelander/Discovery throwback, especially the “repositioning” of the Terrain Response II System and the HVAC controls, though the gear selector is the same rotary thingy that has adorned the more expensive Jaguar and Range Rover vehicles.

The car is roomy, very roomy. The back seat has the kind of leg space not commonly seen in vehicles cheaper than an Audi A6. Yes, the car will accommodate seven adults; the question is: for how long? You see, the internal roofline dips noticeably right at the C pillar, where the lovely UV-resistant moon-roof ends, and below the floor goes up.

The result is that two or more adults that can allegedly fit in the boot will go right ahead and fit, but before too long, six-foot bean poles will start to notice their scalps brushing the faux-suede lining above and that their knees are not as far away from their chests as they would like them to be.

The DS is a lifestyle vehicle. Certain aspects of detailing within the vehicle attest to this: the choice of surface materials — the leathers, aluminium and plastics are easy to wipe off of muddy stains without resorting to industrial-strength cleaning agents from the local supermarket.

However, after a hot and sweaty afternoon of hardcore lifestyling, back seat passengers will be just a mite disappointed to discover the cooling effect of the AC is not as effective at the back as it is at the front.

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

So you drive. The 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol mill at the front is fired up using a button, not a key — this is the 21st century, after all.

The circular selector dial rises proud of the centre console with the now familiar P-R-N-D-S left-to-right arrangement.

Foot on the brake, select whatever drive mode you want and get on the throttle. Here is a fancy little trick with the Disco Sport: you don’t need to actually disengage the parking brake, it automatically releases when the throttle is opened.

It is a handy little feature for the extremely lazy: at a set of lights, you could leave the vehicle in Drive and simply engage the parking brake, which grounds the vehicle. When the tree glows green, simply power up and go.

No wasted hand and foot movements; no need to keep your foot on the brake as the car shudders, the torque in the transmission straining against the brakes.

This also gives plenty of scope for minor accidents: with the parking brake on, just the slightest touch of the accelerator pedal releases it, and if the car was in Drive, it is fairly obvious what happens next: bam! this is especially true in the Kenyan perspective where we tend to bunch up our vehicles in gridlock.

We are now in motion. At parking lot speeds, the steering wheel is finger light and surprisingly direct for what is for all intents and purposes, an SUV. The view out lies on the excellent side of average: it is not class-leading but the massive blind spots that plagued the Evoque have mostly been ironed out.

Let the car glide by itself: the torque in idle is sufficient to keep you moving steadily as you maneuver your way out of the parking area. Reach a T-junction. Notice the length of the bonnet and the fact that to get a comfortable driving position, you have tilted your seat way back… so that means you can’t see clearly what’s coming from the left or the right.

Here is the thing about Mauritius. The road surfaces are near-perfect, but the roads themselves are worryingly narrow. Add to this the fact that there is absolutely no run-off area whatsoever, no pavement to speak of: pedestrians and cyclists have to walk on the road itself.

The hard shoulder does not exist.

SMOOTH AND QUIET

The length of the Disco Sport’s bonnet and the cab-backward (sporty) design means your palms get sweaty and your heart beat triples as you cagily creep right into the path of a hitherto unseen and unheard massive Nissan Diesel bus barrelling down on you at a speed most people would consider inappropriate for such a narrow and twisting road.

To prevent disaster, it means you have to gun it out of the junction and out of the way of the bus since reversing is not an option. The response is not immediate.

Blame the “electronification” of all major motor vehicle systems nowadays. In a car from before, I’d simply mash the firewall with my right foot, dump the clutch, yank the wheel hard on one side and join the road in an instantaneous and violent arc, letting the wheel straighten itself through my fingers to prevent excessive turning from too much lock.

In these new-fangled, over-wired cars, the gearbox programming is by default set to start off in second gear (not enough torque to launch the car hard), the throttle is electronic rather than cable-operated— so it has to “think” via the traction control system whether you really want to do such an absurd launch — it will look at the steering angle, the selected gear, the speed and amplitude of your foot action when stomping on the accelerator — THEN it decides to react, and it will react the way IT believes is appropriate, not the way YOU want.

There is a lag; it might be indiscernible to most people who have only driven modern cars, but to those of us who cut our teeth on accelerator cables and manual wind-up windows, the response is not as immediate as we would like it to be. Oh well…

The car is smooth for the most part. Smooth and quiet. NVH has been contained rather well; better than it had in the soon-to-be-extinct Freelander. But I had issues with the driving experience.

The second gear launches lack any sense of urgency, which tends to dilute the whole “Sport” aspect of the Discovery Sport. There is also a propensity for consistent high gear selections in low-gear circumstances, which means, more often than not, you may find yourself in the 1400-1600rpm range, and the car starts to thrum; a low frequency vibration you feel in the seat of your pants and hear from the back seat.

People who drive manual cars may be more familiar to this vibration: it is the same vibration you get when driving in fourth gear at low speeds inside a parking lot. You will need to downshift.

In that case thank God for the paddle-shift availability.

TO BE CONTINUED

I found myself almost always having to pull on the left paddle to gear down at least once and restore the silkiness of driving in the proper rev-range.

I am not sure what all this low rpm driving does to the Sport’s transmission, but I doubt it is a good thing because in lesser vehicles, it tends to mess things up after a while, particularly the clutch mechanism.

There is another way of driving this car, and that is ditching D and going for S (sport mode). First gear is suddenly now available.

The car holds onto gears longer. There is a modicum of improvement in the responsiveness. Another hack I was taught by one of the instructors was to select “Sand” mode in the Terrain Response System, and this is where the car comes alive.

What was initially a boring and slightly annoying drive now becomes a fake time trial hoon session, what with the hairpins, switchbacks and endless esses as we poured downhill in a small convoy of prototypical demonstrators.

Word limits are the bane of every writer and this is as far as I will go for today. Look out next week for the second part of this review, where we find out whether the Disco Sport is the real deal, or whether it is a #MayPac-style ripoff: overhyped but underdelivering…

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