BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Thursday July 16, 2015 – Its January and Iceland looks bleak and cold as we descend into the spanking new Keflavik airport on the lava fields in the south west of the country. Geographically stunning, this volcanic island with a population of 325,671 living in an area roughly the size of Britain makes it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Over the next 2 days a press corps representing Korea, the Caribbean, Central and South America are in this remarkable country as guests of Land Rover to test the “Unrivalled all-terrain performance” of the new Discovery Sport to see whether it lives up to company’s claim as ‘the world’s most versatile premium compact SUV’.
On arrival all of the assembled journalists and media personnel were given a simple safety briefing by the Land Rover team, supplied with Land Rover branded cold-weather clothing and led into an adjacent airport parking lot where we were given the keys to a fleet of Discovery Sports. With just enough time to have a quick check to ensure we understood the GPS directions on the windscreen mounted pre-programmed iPhone…we were off.
In January, the sun in Iceland has dipped below the horizon by 4.30 in the afternoon and leaving Keflavik at 5 pm it had gotten quite dark. The Discovery Sport’s automatic headlights were in operation from the onset providing an instant demonstration of the Automatic High-Beam Assist which monitors other vehicles’ oncoming head lamps, automatically dipping the lights as vehicles approached. Its a welcome feature as the road we were on – the iconic Route 41 ‘pipeline road’ – is a dark, lonely place to be on a Friday night.
My companion in the Discovery was Claudio – a journalist from Panama – who had never driven in winter conditions and after only two hours into our route was negotiating tricky snow covered tracks. Conditions became increasingly challenging the nearer we got to the overnight stop at the Hotel Ion located in a remote region North of the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. During the descent to the Ion we were stopped by the Land Rover support crews at one particularly steep, icy area and it was ‘suggested’ we activate the vehicle’s Hill Descent Control® (HDC) which maintains a set speed while negotiating steep off-road inclines. With dual-zone climate control and a battery of airbags for driver and passenger, knee, side curtain and thorax, I guess it was slightly ridiculous that I felt anything other than safe in the heated front passenger seat watching Claudio creep slowly but sure-footedly down the hill.
Ten minutes later we were safely ensconced at the Hotel Ion. Guests at this remote hotel can give their names and room numbers to the nightwatchman to administer a wake-up call should the elusive and unpredictable Aurora Borealis (northern lights) make an appearance. No call ever came, but that may have been just as well. Saturday’s 11 hour all-terrain epic would require a sound night’s sleep.
After breakfast Bob Prew, the Discovery Sport product manager, gave us a technical briefing on the vehicle and we left to make our way to the Pingvellir National Park. Ninety minutes into the route with Claudio at the helm, conditions had deteriorated into the realm of ‘whiteout’. Near gale force winds and a road rapidly disappearing due to wind-swept snow slowed our progress, but only due to caution on the part of the driver – not the Discovery.
The late morning stop at the custom-built Land Rover Ice Huts – which will be donated to a search and rescue organisation after the event – was a welcome break and my turn to take the controls. With the weather now really rotten, somewhat nervous looking Land Rover personnel decided to issue each vehicle with a radio and group the cars into 6 vehicle convoys with a support vehicle leading and one bringing up the rear. After successfully driving through some deep snow covered passes the weather gradually cleared as we descended off the range into the starkly beautiful Kaldidalur valley.
A couple of kilometres into the valley and we were brought to a stop a couple hundred metres from a river. Fed by glaciers and crystal cold, we watched as the Korean journos in the lead Discovery received a quick briefing and were directed down to the river bank to test Discovery Sport’s ‘wading’ capabilities. As they safely and successfully exited the river on the opposite side, I moved our Discovery slowly towards the grinning Land Rover Team Member who issued us with the simplest of instructions – “Look at where the guy on the opposite river bank is pointing you to go. If you start to create a bow wave – keep going. Oh and nice and slow as you go in.” A bow wave? Seriously?
Forward ever, backward never…
With 212mm of ground clearance and class-leading approach, departure and breakover angles of 25, 31 and 21 degrees respectively, it was unlikely the vehicle was going to ‘bottom out’. Discovery Sport’s ‘Wade Sensing’ removes the uncertainty from crossing deep water. This vehicle can wade through water to a depth of 600mm (about 2 feet), an obvious benefit in off-road situations and when roads are flooded – an increasingly common occurrence in the Caribbean. Relaying information from sensors in the door mirrors, the Wade Sensing™ feature informs the driver of the water depth with a visual display on the vehicle’s 8-inch touchscreen and an audible tone that increases as the depth rises. The air intake is positioned high above the wheel arch to ensure no water enters the engine. Climbing out on the other side, I can report no water entered the engine…or the cabin for that matter. Toasty warm and very dry.
After that excitement it was a far more relaxed drive to our lunch halt at Hotel A. By now the weather had completely cleared. Icelanders will tell you – “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes, its bound to change”. It’s very, very true.
The lunch halt necessitated a driver change, and with Claudio back behind the wheel we headed up the Hvita valley. With clear, cold conditions, the deep snow we encountered as we traversed some challenging mountain tracks were dealt with very effectively by my Panamanian colleague who was learning fast (helped of course by a little coaching from me…). Stunning views of volcanoes led us to the remote ‘English House’ cafe for a ‘tea’ stop and the last driver change before the run back to Reykjavik via the Hvalfjordur coastline.
A final opportunity therefore to experience Discovery Sport – first on steep wind swept gravel roads and then along the occasionally icy and constantly windy route 47 that skirts the Western Icelandic coastline.
If I had to choose one word that describes this vehicle it would be ‘confident’. Cosseted from the constant gale that was blowing across the road there was little or no effect on either us or the vehicle itself. Land Rover has ensured that this car handles whatever is thrown at it and has engineered it to do so with an effortlessness that does not scream or shout, huff or puff. It simply gets on with it. The suite of off-road driving technologies do not remove the driver experience – they simply make it safe and enjoyable. You feel confident driving it – whatever the conditions.
“The characteristics that make Discovery Sport so versatile off-road also make it a genuinely accomplished vehicle on-road,” says Mike Cross, Land Rover Chief Engineer, Vehicle Integrity. “The new multi-link rear axle provides incredible agility, while the vehicle’s composure not only helps on rough terrain, it also results in a controlled fluidity over British B-roads. It gives a keen driver more confidence, and all occupants a high level of comfort.”
“The characteristics that make Discovery Sport so versatile off-road also make it a genuinely accomplished vehicle on-road” -Mike Cross, Land Rover Chief Engineer, Vehicle Integrity.
A dynamic assessment was not possible due to the ice and snow that covered the Icelandic roads, but the car’s offroad and adverse road conditions abilities were beyond reproach. It is worth noting however, that performance aside, Land Rover have incorporated some extremely functional basic details in the design of this vehicle. The versatility of 5+2 seating, six USB charging ports – almost one for every occupant, multiple cup holders, air vents for everyone and with rapidly melting snow covered boots, wonderfully designed fitted floor mats which pooled the melted snow rather than have it run off the side and soak the carpet. Of course there are all the high tech cabin comforts from the all-new infotainment system with 8-inch touch screen display to dual-zone climate control and the Meridian Sound System on the HSE Luxury.
As one previous reviewer has written, “Land Rover’s biggest problem with Discovery Sport, will be having production meet demand”. Its styling could be described as generic, but it is not boring and possesses a sophistication and polish that is precisely why it will be in demand – particularly among our generally conservative Caribbean population. Ultimately its very much a Land Rover – and is confident and capable – whether its the gravel, ice and snow of Iceland or the sand, heat and rain of the Caribbean.