SINGAPORE - When it comes to soft/posh-roaders, the product presentations typically highlight how car-like and ‘civilised’ they are in the concrete jungle. For the most part, these vehicles look the part, but not all can deliver, especially once the going gets rough and veers away from the beaten path.
In fact, some brands have perfected mimicking the rugged look that characterises off-roaders, albeit with many such aesthetics applied to two-wheel drive cars (front-driven at that), all the better for the owners to make their neighbours envious of their active lifestyles.
Of course, average soft-roader buyers these days are as likely to take their cars into the great outdoors as an exotic car driver hitting the racetracks regularly, so there’s a large market of folks that eschews the traditional sedan or MPV in favour of vehicles with more perceived lifestyle cachets – after all, to many buyers, image is everything and it’s less about what’s real and more about what other people think is real.
Now, with a name like Land Rover and its more expensive Range Rover counterpart, the bar is set immeasurably high, because this is a brand of impeccable provenance and thoroughbred pedigree... in fact, they’re probably as well-bred as the landed gentry and nobility that first embraced its models to survey the rolling hills and forests of their sprawling estates.
The Discovery model is an illustrious one, and is currently into the facelift of its fourth generation – if this isn’t an indication of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, we don’t know what is! A fact that not many people realise is its seven-seat capacity, and that’s full-sized passengers at that, not pint-sized munchkins that so many try to fob off as ‘+2’.
Coupled to the Disco’s off-road abilities, on-road comfort, lofty driving position and immense range from the SDV6 turbodiesel, it’s a pretty credible people-moving package and loads of car for the money… that is, if you can deal with its square-cut looks.
For the record, we love it, since LR/RR’s distinctive aesthetics are part and parcel of any fan’s passion for the brand. The narrow ‘box’ profile of the Disco that has remained largely unchanged through the generations serves a purpose too; we’ve actually seen it in action in the wild – the square-cut design makes it a cinch to judge and manoeuvre around in the boondocks, while the narrow profile allows it to squeeze its way along narrow trails.
So when Land Rover announced that the chunky Freelander replacement would join the ‘Discovery’ range (it’s called the Discovery Sport; think Range Rover and Range Rover Sport perhaps?), we couldn’t help but hold it to a far higher standard than its predecessor, since anything bold enough to wear the ‘Discovery’ name had better come close to filling its muddy shoes.
Compared to its chiselled older brother the Disco and the almost regal Vogue, the Disco Sport looks to be the trendy rebel of the family – it looks modern enough in the school-run line and supermarket carpark, but will the same curves work as well on the off-road terrain that should matter most to a Land Rover?
Our test-car happens to be in the higher HSE trim (erm, High Spec Equipment? the extra letter over the SE tell folks you’re in the more expensive model), so it comes with an expansive panoramic roof, other bits and bobs like electric-memory seats, auto parking, 19-inch rims and a slightly more powerful hi-fi. Of those, we’d probably only appreciate the big glass roof for the great view it’ll afford when you’re on light off-road excursions, as we were.
We’re staunch believers in turbodiesel SUVs, since the huge torque in the low to mid range is perfect both on-road, as well as off- in getting the car out of jams, both of the rush hour traffic, as well as the mud, ruts and inclined varieties.
For now, the Disco Sport features a turbocharged two-litre petrol mated to a nine-speed automatic; there’s good torque for road duties and it comes reasonably low-down the rev band so it works well off the beaten path as well, since you want to keep the pace slow and steady.
Like the bigger Disco, the Disco Sport serves up third row seating. It’ll seat two adults in a pinch, thanks to its 2741mm wheelbase; the second-row seats are even slide-adjustable to free up more legroom for occupants in the last row.
The quality of the cabin feels rough and rugged with its simple design and mix of leather and vinyl, but you can tell how important the off-roading role is to the car’s repertoire by the size of its Terrain Control panel, which in this case is a narrow strip below the climate control panel; you toggle left/right to access the usual drive modes to cope with the different types of surfaces the car is on.
As we’re about to set-off, a matte grey Defender pulls up. Meng Choon has a bit of a chortle at our ‘My First Landie’ and throws down the gauntlet. Bear in mind, this is a chap who can live out of his Defender and makes it a point to head into the wilds at least six times a year.
Oh, and we probably should mention he’s our photographer for the day… He’s found a ‘dirt patch’ on which to do the shoot, but he’s a little concerned the Disco Sport won’t be able to cut it. Challenge accepted!
Ok, so it turns out even the incline that leads to the shoot location requires careful guidance, and due to the slippery mud, we immediately experience the effects in the right Terrain Control setting when the car finally clambers up onto the trail.
The Disco Sport’s more curvaceous body isn’t as intuitive as the more square-cut cars when it comes to judging distances from branches and tree trunks, but we reckon this will improve with more time with the car.
It’s not a long trail, but it’s amazing how much distance the Defender puts between us as it bashes through the undergrowth, a complete role-reversal of the two car’s on-road performance, particularly on the highways.
We quickly discover the Disco Sport suffers from the similar issue as the Range Rover Sport; you need to pay extra note of the ramp breakover angle, especially on the descents, but it’s mostly the body-trim that bears the brunt of this.
Meng Choon tells us that properly set up with the right tyres and recovery points, the Disco Sport will be the perfect companion for long overland tours that see extended road and off-road use, especially with the long-range cruising comfort of the Disco Sport.
We give him a little bit more time with the car, and he is impressed with the compact SUV’s 981-litres boot-space with the last row flat; however, it’s the manner in which the cabin space can be varied and deployed that wows Meng Choon even more.
But then we have to ask, with such advances in modern technology, what’s the appeal in driving a Defender? That’s when Meng Choon really comes alive: “Driving the Defender is all about the experience. It may be rubbish on the road but it’s brilliant off-road and exudes an iconic British charm.
Best of all, the Defender’s styling has proven to be timeless and has stood the test of time. There’s also a practical aspect to my love affair with the car; the turbodiesel engine is torquey for load-lugging duties, and it can take me over all sorts of terrain to get the perfect shot, and carry all my gear in the process.
Most importantly, it helps me slow down my pace of life and lets me find peace in imperfection – like a human being in this world, it’s always a work-in-progress.”
PHOTOS TAN MENG CHOON
Land Rover Discovery Sport Si4 HSE
Engine: 1999cc, inline4
Transmission: 9spd auto
Top speed: 199km/h
Fuel consumption: 8.3l/100km
This Land Rover Discovery Sport feature first appeared in Top Gear Singapore #44 (December 2015)