Land Rover's new family Disco
Like a Range Rover Evoque, but bigger and with more seats, the new family-friendly Land Rover Discovery Sport should be a sure-fire hit. William Scholes finds out if it hits the target
FIRST, its 4x4s conquered the world's most inhospitable terrain, from Amazonian rainforests and the Himalayas to the Sahara and Arctic tundra, and its distinctive vehicles even became fixtures on our own streets throughout the Troubles.
Over the last few years Land Rover has also conquered another, perhaps more challenging and fickle, environment: the sales charts.
These days the British brand, now under the stewardship of Indian conglomerate Tata and partnered with compatriot Jaguar, cannot build its vehicles fast enough to satisfy the world's apparently insatiable demand for SUVs in general and its outrageously competent wagons in particular.
The posh and pricey Range Rover Evoque has been a huge success for the company, especially in wooing women customers, and Land Rover has now got round to replacing the Freelander with a car which has all the ingredients to be catnip to the same Cath Kidston and Boden set.
Called the Discovery Sport, it neatly addresses the Evoque's main shortcoming, namely its lack of space for passengers and their chattels.
Its boxier couture allows space for not only a big boot but also three rows of seats and the ability to carry seven people.
With all the Discovery Sport's rivals - BMW X3, Audi Q5 and so on - soldiering on as strict five-seaters, the significance of this extra pewage cannot be overstated, particularly for school run mums and dads.
This gives it an all-important unique selling point in a crowded marketplace.
Styling which draws heavily on the desirable Evoque doesn't do it any harm either. The two cars share more or less the same front grille and headlamp treatment, for example, and most people will look at the Disco Sport and probably conclude it is simply a larger, more practical Evoque.
That largely falls in with the company's masterplan that cars wearing a Land Rover badge should major on 'leisure' and practicality while those with a Range Rover label focus on luxury.
And the Disco Sport is practical in spades. This is an uncommonly well thought-out car for the modern family, from the number of USB sockets to the sense of space and light that floods the cabin.
Middle row passengers get acres of leg- and headroom, and their general sense of wellbeing is aided by the seat being set a little higher than those of the driver and front passenger, thus helping to give an even better view out.
Similarly, third-rowers also get a raised seating position. Two individual seats fold into the boot floor and a tug of a strap is all it takes to erect either; it's a simple, fuss-free operation.
The middle bench is able to slide and tilt in various combinations to alter legroom, and while adults can be consigned to the rear-most seats for short journeys they are best suited to children, not least because accessing them still requires some agility... Land Rover calls the seating arrangement '5+2', as opposed to a full-blown seven-seater.
A clever new rear suspension design is to thank for freeing up the space which allows the third row of seats to sink into the floor while retaining the sort of off-road ability that any bona fide Land Rover must have.
That shows admirable commitment to the brand's DNA, though it has to be questioned just how many customers will ever really benefit from that sort of attention to detail, particularly when Land Rover will also sell Discovery Sports that are exclusively front-wheel-drive...
For now though, you can only have your Disco Sport with four-wheel-drive. The car launched with a version of the company's long-serving diesel unit, though this month it becomes available with Jaguar Land Rover's brand new diesel engines, which it calls Ingenium. Gearbox is either six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic.
Prices start at £30,695 and rise to £43,000, taking in five trim levels from SE to HSE Luxury.
All are well equipped, though Land Rover has been a little surprised that the more expensive models have proved so popular. Entry-level SE models gets part-leather trim, climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth, heated front seats, parking sensors and the company's new touchscreen control system - a huge improvement on its previous efforts.
Satnav and a powered tailgate appear in mid-range trim levels, and by the time you get to the top-of-the-range HSE Luxury, full leather interior, xenon headlamps, heated rear seats and keyless entry all appear on the spec sheet.
I've yet to drive an Ingenium-engined Discovery Sport, but equipped with older unit, the newest Land Rover is every bit as polished on the road as the rest of the company's line-up.
Despite the name, it isn't especially sporty - the Audi Q5 does the 'sport' thing better - but the Discovery Sport is imbued with that distinctively Land Rover trait of isolating its passengers from the imperfections of the road with a first class ride and a general sense of imperiousness.
More than its excellent handling and steering - which are perfectly in proportion to what you would expect of a large, high car - this level of comfort will be deeply appreciated by driver and passengers.
Nor is the Discovery Sport as intimidatingly large to pilot as the full-fat Discovery. It is a doddle to drive, in fact.
That, plus the child-friendly interior and cast-iron image means that Land Rover has another sure-fire hit on its hands.
Prepare for the Discovery Sport to become every bit as ubiquitous as the Evoque on the school run and in the Sprucefield car park - terrain which is, in its own way, every bit as difficult to navigate as rainforest and mountains. Land Rover alone is master of all.