2020 Land Rover Discovery Sport First Drive: Modern Classic

The Gran Hotel La Florida sits high on Tibidabo mountain, looking out over the hustle and bustle of Barcelona. From its patios and terraces, 1,700 feet up, you're treated to a completely new perspective on a familiar place. That makes it the perfect location for Land Rover to debut the new 2020 Land Rover Discovery Sport, a new take on a classic theme.

Heritage may be an overused word these days, but you recognize it when you see it. In this north-western corner of Barcelona the luxurious rooms feature wide planks of hardwood, tall ceilings, intricate crown moldings, stately furniture, and gorgeous textiles. Massive windows open out onto large balconies, each revealing spectacular views of the Catalan urban gem.

Most visitors to Barcelona will spend their time touring the labyrinthine Gothic quarter and enjoying tapas, or perhaps admiring Gaudi's imaginative architecture that's found throughout the city center. Step off the beaten track, though, and it's still capable of surprising. You could say the same about the new 2020 Discovery Sport.

Make acquaintance with the New 2020 Discovery Sport

The Discovery clan of cars sits squarely in the middle of the Land Rover's family tree. On one end you have the Range Rover, which promises refinement with its off-road prowess, while on the other end the just-launched Defender epitomizes extreme durability. Somewhere in the middle, the new Discovery Sport tries to combine the best of both worlds in a compact premium SUV.

The Discovery is no stranger to the marketplace, being present in Land Rover's lineup for the last thirty years. But while the 2020 Discovery Sport isn't exactly brand new, this freshly minted iteration of the Discovery series has undergone an extensive mid-life refresh – one that took about three years to complete. When you take into account it can take four years to produce a new car, the substantial exterior and interior updates must not be underestimated. Throw in new engines and loads of great tech to boot, and there you have the "New" in the title.

What makes the 2020 Discovery Sport different?

For starters, the New Discovery Sport features a "Premium Transverse Architecture" mixing High Strength Steel (HSS) with a host of other materials for a car body that's a quoted 10-percent stiffer. That translates into a more stable and quiet ride. The all-new Ingenium engine is available as a 48-volt 286 horsepower mild-hybrid, too, to assist the combustion engine in achieving lower fuel consumption. Land Rover says you could see gas savings of up to 6-percent.

While there'll be gas and diesel versions of the New Discovery Series, there's still no truly electrified plug-in powertrain yet. Still, I'm taking to heart the fact that the automaker reconfigured the chassis to accept a PHEV drivetrain in the near future.

The two options for now, then, are the 2020 Discovery Sport S, and the sportier-Sport, R-Dynamic version. Both use the 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine with a 9-speed automatic as their starting point, with Land Rover's second-generation All-Wheel Drive system.

Land Rover takes performance on and off the road seriously. So, it's worth noting some more tidbits about the suspension and architecture. Active Drive Dynamics, for example, continuously monitor surface and terrain conditions and adjust the SUV's settings for optimum performance. Torque, meanwhile, is intelligently distributed between the front axle and each of the rear wheels. The new Discovery Sport can also switch between AWD and 2WD mode in under 400 milliseconds, for greater efficiency. This, combined with a MacPherson front suspension, makes for a comfortable driving experience.

Getting down to the nitty gritty

We started our drive on small and twisty town streets. The 9-speed can get a little agitated when searching for the right gear, but once through the travails of city traffic, the Discovery Sport starts to relax and show off its full potential out on the open road.

Hitting the highway means time to step on the gas. The car does 0-60mph in about seven seconds, and while it doesn't necessarily feel like an aggressive speed demon, it has plenty of power and hummed along smoothly in a manner worthy of a Sade playlist. Montserrat mountain isn't short on demanding curves, but the Discovery Sport proved sure-footed, with communication of grip and balance coming through strong through the steering. Speaking of which, an accurate wheel with little play proved welcome when there's a wall of rock on one side, oncoming cars, and then a precipitous cliff on the other.

Fun times off-road: steep inclines and a mind-blowing hill-descent

You'll be unsurprised to hear that Land Rover made sure to include an off-road section. Later in the route, and deep into the heart of the Spanish countryside, the new Discovery Sport ploughed over rough dirt roads like child's play. Wending our way over rocks, rock slabs, and through thick brush and forest, the steep uphill and downhill sections actually did manage to get my heart pounding – with gradients that were 23-percent and higher – an apropos reminder of where Land Rover pushes the envelope and excels.

Fewer buttons on the more minimalist main control panel and Touch Pro screen make it easy to adjust the Terrain Response system. All it took was a slight turn of the dial from "Snow and Sand" to "Auto", and the SUV could power over and around challenging ground without complaint.

The best was saved for last when, at the crest of a hair-raising downhill so steep I hesitated to proceed, the "Hill Descent" system engaged. Effectively cruise control for off-roading, I set a slow speed with the Forward Progress Controls on the steering wheel, and settled back as the Discovery Sport proceeded down in a safe and controlled manner.

Let’s cut to the tech … goodness, gracious, great-balls of tech

The new 2020 Discovery Sport is not short on tech. The 360-degree surround camera system more than proved its worth throughout the rough and tumble Spanish outback section, while ClearSight GroundView system takes full advantage of the 12.3-inch high-definition full color screen for an omnipotent look of the path ahead. As a smaller driver, at 5'4", the camera tech's ability to essentially render the hood invisible was a welcome X-ray-like vision through the body of the SUV.

It's not the only clever camera system, either. The ClearSight Rear View mirror took some getting used to, beaming video from the rear of the car to the switchable rear-view mirror at the top of the windshield. At first it seems like you're looking at an HDR impressionist painting of the scene behind your vehicle, but in the end I preferred it to the traditional rear view mirror experience.

Elsewhere, the car's interfaces have been pared-down and streamlined, leaving them intuitive to use. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are present, along with wireless charging, USB ports for all three rows, 4G WiFi Hotspot, and AI smart settings for custom preferences. Your phone can also double as an InControl Remote, to monitor most aspects of the car from afar.

Land Rover's Activity Key gets an honorable mention, a secure RFID fob for around your wrist that's waterproof up to 50 meters. A deactivated traditional key can remain inside the locked car while you go and enjoy a run or hike; it will definitely be a crowd pleaser among the active and athletic types. When you return, all you have to do is bring the wristband close to a small circular insignia on the back windshield and, voila, the doors unlock.

What about physical comfort?

So, what's it like to ride inside over all these bumps and humps? The cabin was quiet and the seats have a healthy degree of padding. The standard version uses a recycled non-leather Luxtex material that is comfortable and looks sharp. But, if you're a stickler for the finer things, then you'll find seats crafted with handsome Windsor leather in the R-Dynamic version.

Ample leg room up front, and plenty of spots to stow your gear and keep it neatly organized, leave the cabin practical as well as handsome. There's 1,794 liters of space, 24 seating combinations, and the ability to fit up to 7 people. The middle row is unexpectedly comfortable, with independent temperature controls and well-placed ventilation.

As for the very back row of pop-up seats, kids might clamor to get back there and have a blast too, but adults may not be so entertained by the idea. Nevertheless, two extra seats for occasional use is a great option, should you need to transport extra friends along the way.

2020 Discovery Sport Verdict

The new 2020 Discovery Sport may be a little less refined that the elegant Evoque, and slightly less rugged than the all-new Defender, but with a price tag that starts at $37,800 for a base model it's a worthy way to land yourself a spot in the Land Rover club. The automaker's goal of a premium compact SUV that's equally good at city duty and back country excursions was an ambitious one. Overall, however, the new 2020 Defender clocks in at decent value, given the pedigree of the brand, the materials and ride quality, its hauling and seating options, and of course the technoloty and off-roading capabilities.

In short, the 2020 Discovery Sport sits in a versatile middle-ground, promising the ability to go just about anywhere while still delivering welcome degrees of refinement and luxury. Now we're just eager to see a full electric plug-in Discovery Sport join the range.