DEC 12th 2014

Icelandic adventuring with Land Rover's new Discovery Sport

Four-and-a-bit hours of daylight, the chance of ferocious blizzards, and beer at six quid a pint… Iceland in December isn’t an obvious choice for a new car launch.

It’s mostly illegal to drive off-road too; the Icelanders’ desire to protect a beautifully fragile and surreally lava-strewn eco-system apparently outweighing any primeval urges to ‘hoon’ all over it. An even less obvious choice for a new Land Rover launch?

Maybe, but in winter even the ‘on-road’ conditions are such that a stonking driving adventure is in reach without ever leaving the designated highway; there are tarmac main arteries, but many of the lesser conduits consist of neatly graded stretches of loose black lava gravel, which get looser and more ‘de-graded’ the farther you stray from civilisation.

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They’re pretty much deserted at this time of year and, especially when topped with a pristine layer of freezing white stuff, are not suited to the faint-hearted traveller. As a test for a new Land Rover designed, not as the ultimate off-roader in the stable (a crown belonging to the full-size Discovery) but ‘merely’ the most capable off-roader in a burgeoning SUV class, you couldn’t ask for more.

Our party of would-be adventurers flew into Keflavíkurflugvöllur (a WWII US airbase now also known as ‘Reykjavik International’) on a friendly Icelandair service during which the flight crew shared news of a massive North Atlantic snowstorm due to make its Icelandic landfall just after our aeroplane. (Top tip: Next time you’re heading to the US, consider Icelandair’s unique ‘stop-over’ offer which gives you up to seven days to explore the island en-route. Even if you can only budget for one night in Reykjavik, the Einstök brewery’s Icelandic Pale Ale – see what they’ve done there? – is definitely worth exploring!)

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Our hosts issued arctic-grade parkas at the airport, and the weather warning was clearly being taken seriously. Our scheduled drive to the Hotel Ion – located on Mount Hengill, an ‘active’ volcano not due to erupt for another 2000 years (the confident assertion of the hotel brochure!), and close to Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station – was re-routed to avoid the most treacherous stretches.

A fleet of Discovery Sports – shod only with studded road tyres – awaited us in the darkness, and we set off in convoy between a variety of seriously snow-tyre equipped Defenders and Discoverys, all too conscious of the steadily worsening conditions but not really expecting too much trouble…

Certainly not expecting fearsome ‘white-out’ blizzard conditions whipped up by vicious winds that meant we literally couldn’t see the past the windscreen wipers to pick a route through the drifts. Progress slowed, and then limped to a disconcerting standstill – until a snow-plough equipped tractor arrived to guide us over the last few KMs to the hotel.  

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‘Iceland one, Discovery Sport nil’ wasn’t supposed to be the story, but as we supped cocktails in the bar over tales of personal derring-do, the snow-plough reappeared. It had been forced back to the sanctuary of our remote hotel, after failing to clear a path for itself back to Reykjavic. Land Rover’s honour was satisfied, and we enjoyed meaty Atlantic cod in the Ion’s nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant, hoping for better luck in the morning.

Which started dark, but thankfully clear, and – as we drove – slowly dawned (by about 10.30…) into a spectacularly beautiful Icelandic winters day.

Our route took us North on the first leg of the Island’s tourist ‘circle route’ (we’d love to do that in a hire car in the summer), through the Pingvellir National Park – a world heritage site where the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates rub together –  before peeling off West to the Borgarfjörður and Hvalfjörður regions, returning South on by now slushy tarmac to Reykjavik via the impressive 6km Hvalfjörður tunnel.

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So what of the new cars? It was clear early on that our Iceland adventure would offer little more than an indication of the Discovery Sport’s performance on the school or supermarket run, but that wasn’t going to stop us being impressed.

First off, in spite of relatively compact exterior dimensions (it looks like a supermini when parked next to a jacked-up full-size Disco on giant snow tyres), the Sport has a tardis-like interior and extremely comfortable seats and driving position.

It’s handsomely designed and put together too, with a hint of classic Scandinavian simplicity in the cabin, and none of the occasionally disconcerting bling – inside or out – has been carried over from the Range Rover Evoque. The pair share most of an engineering platform but in spite of its ‘lifestyle-enhanced’ Sport nomenclature, the new Land Rover is far less precocious. Sturdy (but classically elegant) shoes spring to mind when driving it, and who would adventure to Iceland wearing anything less?

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That said, you wouldn’t wear English brogues to scale a glacier, and the new-comer’s lack of a low-ratio transfer box and other hardware accoutrements suggests off-road performance is likely to be on a par with its flashier Range Rover sibling, if not a little improved thanks to class-leading axle articulation and the latest iteration of Land Rover’s Terrain Response system. The latter effectively letting you ‘set and forget’, even in conditions as challenging as those shown in our photographs, and especially when combined with a 9-speed ZF automatic gearbox that never breaks its confident stride.

The Terrain Response System’s presumably frenzied binary juggling of stability control, anti-lock brakes, torque-vectoring and shift-patterns would probably excite a mathematician, but is entirely invisible to the Discovery Sport’s driver. There’s scarcely a moment when you feel the car might even be scrabbling for grip, at least until you lose a wheel in a snow-drift, or try to make an icy turn at speeds that defy physics. But if you’d rather enjoy the scenery than interact too closely with it, our Icelandic adventure proved a Terrain Response-equipped Land Rover is marvellously relaxing tool.

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The punchy 2.2 diesel engine is carried over from the Freelander 2 and is man enough for the job, and seemingly rather refined although crunchy ice and studded tyres mask a lot of noises that may become evident on British tarmac.

The conditions only allowed glimpses into the Disco Sport’s fast road handling, although accurate steering and a composed ride support reports we’ve seen that the car takes to a fast British A-road better than even the R-R Evoque.

So Land Rover onto another winner, and that’s before mention of its amazingly packaged third row of seats, which fold out of the capacious boot floor to knock all of its rivals for six. (Or indeed seven if your passengers are friendly…)

Fortunately though, you don’t need to venture to Iceland to try the seats out, or to appreciate the new Discovery Sport’s many other qualities. But as always with a Land Rover, it’s nice to know you can…

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