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Car Culture: Land Rover's Discovery aces ice test

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

In the middle of winter you'd think an automaker planning to launch its latest sport utility vehicle to the world's media might choose somewhere warm, an island in the Caribbean, or the south of France perhaps.

But no, since this was Land Rover the destination was anything but predictable. The plane ticket said Iceland, an island in the north Atlantic whose rugged charm I've experienced before in the summer but not in January.

So it was I found myself driving the 2015 Discovery Sport, Land Rover's latest compact SUV, through some of the most forbidding scenery on the planet. In fact, Iceland's virtually uninhabited interior is so desolate and bleak that it is frequently used by Hollywood directors as a location for movies (such as the recent Interstellar) set on grim, inhospitable alien planets.

The Discovery Sport is the latest in a small flood of compact premium/luxury SUVs or crossovers to hit the market. One of the first and most successful entries has been the Audi Q5, but others include the BMW X3, Mercedes GLK, Volvo XC60 and Lincoln MKC. It's a hot segment because consumers, feeling more confident about their spending power, are drawn by the combination of attributes offered by smaller, upscale crossover vehicles; versatility, comfort and luxury convenience features that normally come only with larger SUVs or sedans.

Such is the case with the Discovery Sport, although per Land Rover's overall philosophy, this model is more true sport utility vehicle than dainty crossover. The Discovery Sport sits between the brand's utilitarian Defender model and the ultra-luxurious Range Rover. While the Discovery emphasizes its versatile character, it also displays a much more stylish, sophisticated design than the boxy Defender.

Based on the steel body structure of the Range Rover Evoque model, the Discovery Sport boasts the use of weight-saving aluminum for its roof and tailgate panels and its suspension components. Versus its competition, the Discovery scores in several areas, notably the convenience of its interior layout. The model can be specified in either five- or seven-passenger versions, the latter offering two child-sized seats that fold out of the cargo floor. The second row seats slide fore and aft for convenience and are set a little higher than the front seats to give passengers a decent view forwards.

If there is a chink in the Discovery's armor it might be the look and feel of the dashboard, which while practical and well equipped, is a little too plain and ordinary in appearance.

Before Indian company Tata Motors bought Land Rover in 2008, the British brand was owned by Ford and the Dearborn automaker still supplies one significant mechanical component, the engine, for the Discovery. The Ford turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder motor is not the most sophisticated powerplant in the class. But coupled with a nine-speed automatic transmission, the 240-hp engine does a decent job, with plenty of thrust when you need it and an ultra-low first gear for crawling around off-road. Speaking of which, the Discovery's 8.3 inches of ground clearance and sophisticated permanent four-wheel drive system, with driver-selectable modes for different conditions, means you will have to try pretty hard to get this Land Rover stuck.

On Iceland's treacherous ice-coated back roads, the Discovery performed ably, due in part to the use of studded tires. On regular tires, these slick roads would have been more of a challenge, but thankfully in the U.S. we rarely have to deal with such conditions.

The Discovery Sport will be hitting U.S. showrooms this spring, starting at a surprisingly affordable price of $37,070. It will make a welcome addition to a practical, capable and upscale class of vehicle.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com