Ice, snow and a river can't stop Land Rover's latest

It's 9 a.m., dark as midnight, snow flying through the headlight beams, and I'm chasing a distant set of taillights, following a vaguely rutted track somewhere in the middle of Iceland. Sunrise at this time of year is still an hour away. Normally this type of driving would stress my California-tempered driving skills and leave my knuckles glowing ghostly, but I'm comfortable and warm, notably calm as the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport I'm driving faithfully goes where I point it.

After the sun finally rises, I've passed a sign reading "impassable" in English and Icelandic and the track I'm supposed to follow has become ice. And not the kind of ice filling a Collins glass but a wet, slippery sheet that might just hang around all summer, if it likes the weather. The track curves and the Discovery Sport slides a little, as I'm going 35 mph, but then unseen systems take over, telling one wheel to brake a little, directing the differential to throw more torque to the front, arresting the slide and keeping me on the track.

Then there's the river. One of Land Rover's Scottish offroad experts checks that the Discovery Sport's Terrain Response System is set to Mud and Ruts, then cheerfully directs me to the ford. I have to wait briefly while another of Land Rover's Scots clears a small iceberg from the floe, then it's down the steep, icy bank and into water that was made on a glacier. The Discovery Sport plows across the stream, water running well over the wheel hubs, yet my feet remain perfectly dry. A little extra gas to pop up the opposite bank and it's over. And I want to do it again.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport
A steep, icy bank leads down to a fordable river. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Land Rover sponsored this exercise, flying me and about a thousand other journalists to frigid, little Arctic Circle-adjacent Iceland, to prove that its latest model could handle these types of everyday driving situations. The Discovery Sport, introduced at last year's Paris Motor Show, represents a new attempt by Land Rover to diversify from its mostly luxury model lineup down to at least the premium segment. During this event, Bob Prew, the Discovery Sports product manager, referred to a planned range of Discovery models as "leisure, not luxury."

Land Rover's world domination plans include the already well-developed Range Rover line, an expanding Discovery line, and a very intriguing-sounding Defender line, this latter based on the offroad icon Defender model just now ending its current generation. Land Rover unveiled a Defender concept, the DC100, at the 2011 Frankfurt auto show, so a new Defender should be well along in its development, and may even spawn many more Defenders.

Despite the different model lines under Land Rover, the Discovery Sport actually shares quite a bit of DNA with its cousin, the Range Rover Evoque . First of all, they both use the same platform, although stretched in the Discovery Sport. Both come with a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, turbocharged and equipped with direct injection. In the Discovery Sport, this engine produces 240 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, and puts power to all four wheels through a nine-speed automatic transmission.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport
The Discovery Sport ignores the 'impassable' sign. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

I found the power more than adequate for this Icelandic trek, although the acceleration was uneven. It started off soft then hit a surge point at around 25-percent throttle. I could attribute that behavior to a number of causes, such as efficiency programming, simple turbo lag, or the fact that most of my driving was done with Terrain Response set to Grass/Gravel/Snow, which would likely limit initial torque. I'll get a better sense of its everyday character when I get one in at CNET HQ.

And for this drive, Land Rover cheated a little, equipping the cars with Pirelli Ice Zero tires, featuring small metal studs to help with traction on the aforementioned ice sheets. As such, I can't give a reliable report of the ride comfort on clean asphalt.

I can say that the Discovery Sport comes with almost the same offroad systems as the impressive Range Rover and Range Rover Sport . That means the Terrain Response System with four settings, hill descent control and a center differential capable of full and partial locking. That means it can ensure that all wheels are getting power when necessary.

The main feature lacking on the Discovery Sport is an adjustable suspension, fixing the wading depth at 23.6 inches and the ground clearance, the latter unspecified by Land Rover. As such, it won't have the entire capability of the Land Rover family, but as I found out the available offroad systems made it an excellent snow dog.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport
Still quite dark in Iceland at 10 a.m. in January. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As a more typical example for those driving in wintery climates, my Icelandic route involved an unplowed, snow-covered track up a hill and down the other side. When I was careful, meaning easy on the accelerator, the Discovery Sport chugged up the ascent, held the steering line with ease and used its hill descent control for a safe stroll down the other side. When I got aggressive with the controls, the car waggled a bit then brought itself back in line.

What really impressed me with the Discovery Sport was the amount of speed I was able to maintain running along the flat, snowy tracks.

As for styling, the Discovery Sport borrows a lot from the Range Rover Sport, but lacks the presence of that behemoth. It's got a sloping roof and raked C-pillar, and cut-outs signifying vents on the front fenders and hood. However, I couldn't help but see a little 1990s SUV styling in the profile.

The "leisure not luxury" phrase frequently came to mind when I looked around the cabin. The seats were very nice on this top trim HSE Luxury model, and soft-touch material covered the dashboard. But here and there were hard plastics with a cheap look. And instead of controlling the Terrain Response System, as in Range Rover models, the dial on the console was the drive selector for the transmission. I toggled through the different Terrain Response modes with a set of plastic buttons on the center stack.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport
This useful screen shows the degree of differenital lock, steering angle and offroad mode. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

At the top of the stack, embedded in the center of the dashboard, was an 8-inch touchscreen showing navigation, stereo, phone and car settings. This infotainment system represents the newest generation offered by the combined Jaguar-Land Rover company, similar to what I saw in the Jaguar XE which debuted at the Paris Motor Show last year.

I did not have the chance to go in-depth with this system during the Iceland trek, and as a US model, the car did not have European maps for its navigation system. But the touch response from the screen was good, and I enjoyed its offroad information screen, showing me the Terrain Response setting and just how much lock it applied to the differential. The Discovery Sport will also come with Land Rover's InControl apps integration.

What came in handy was the backup camera, which included trajectory lines and let me park within an inch of boulders and snow drifts. Lane recognition was also present, and appeared very ambitious as it claimed to recognize lane lines on snow-covered roads.

2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport
Few vehicles of this size offer third row seating, at least in the US. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

One of Land Rover's biggest party tricks with the Discovery Sport is its available third row seating. Referred to as 5+2, the rear seats completely take up the cargo area. Getting back there requires stepping on the backs of the folded-down second row and a passing acquaintance with yoga. I found that an adult could get back there and enjoy about the same comfort as a coach seat on an airplane. Land Rover offers up to six USB ports, as well, although the rear seat ports are simply power ports, and not connected to the audio system.

The 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport is supposed to come in as a more accessible vehicle than the Range Rover line, but its base price still comes in at $37,995. Bring it up to HSE Luxury, like I drove, and we're talking about a base price of $46,495. That may seem a lot for the vehicle at first glance, but its capabilities seem to justify the price. The only vehicle that really compares is the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, offering a similar amount of interior space. The Jeep's offroad capabilities vary from lesser to greater than the Discovery Sport, depending on the option package and trim. The Discovery Sport showed me excellent snow and ice utility available on its base model.

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