Land Rover used to have a slogan: "The best 4x4x far". This was when a Land Rover was the domain of your local farmer, or rich landed gentry. But at what point did a Land Rover become the default vehicle of the upwardly mobile?

Take a look out on the street. It's noticeable that Land Rovers and Range Rovers are everywhere. And whether you're city-bound or out in the country, the Discovery Sport is the main reason for the apparent Land Rover takeover – it's the company's best-selling car. Until the new Defender rocks up sometime in the next year, it's also the most affordable Land Rover, too.

So what's the appeal of the Discovery Sport? Why are they so popular? There's Land Rover's image for a start. A few years back, SUVs took a bashing – they were the vehicle everyone loved to hate, because of their gas-guzzling, space-blocking qualities. But then everyone decided that actually, they too fancied a bit more space, a posher image and the feeling of sitting higher than regular cars. Car makers worked out how to make SUVs – and their less-off-road orientated crossover cousins – almost as economical as regular cars. So now SUVs are just dandy, thanks. Advantage Land Rover.

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Now that everyone has decided that an SUV is where it's at (car buying-wise), having a Land Rover, AKA the original SUV, is a natural choice. Not only do you get the space, high driving position and chunky looks of every other "me too" SUV brand, you also get a car whose brand image tells the world you're doing just fine, and a product that's actually authentic – it won't leave you embarrassed, spinning its wheels in vain in a muddy field on school sports day. A Discovery Sport will actually take you places the competition won't, thanks to its four-wheel drive system, featuring Land Rover's terrain response control.

Finally, there's the fact that, practically, it's no bigger than the competition – the be Audi Q5, BMW X3, Merc GLC and Volvo XC60 – yet is the only one of these cars to offer seven seats.

In an unmissable shade of Phoenix Orange, our review Discovery Sport is a fairly distinctive piece of design. The Sport is, by name, related to its big brother – the full-size Discovery – but it not only sits on a different platform architecture, it sports design looks that are better balanced and less ungainly than the bigger car, particularly from the rear.

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It's distinctive too. That floating roof, kick-up C-pillar and Land Rover grille means that when you rock up somewhere, no one will mistake you for being in a generic SUV.

Land Rover has made a few tweaks to the design for 2017, mostly around technology availability and what's inside the car, but on the outside the new front and rear bumpers give the car a slick, faux-sporty look which we don't personally love. But with 20-inch black "aeroviper" alloys and in the HSE Luxury specification of our test car, the Discovery Sport is about as sporty and as slick looking a Land Rover you can buy. That orange paint will rush you £1,765, though. Looking like the Tango man has never been so expensive.

Step out of any of Land Rover's (or Range Rover's) other products, and the Discovery Sport has always felt like a step down in quality and materials. It's less expensive than the other models, so that stands to reason.

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However, it clearly pays to go high-spec, because our HSE Luxury review model – with its Ebony Windsor Leather, cirrus headlining and leather dashboard covering and steering wheel – feels significantly more premium than the last Discovery Sport we sat in.

There are still plenty of hard plastics on the doors and lower dash to make you raise an eyebrow, and overall, the biggest turn-off in the Discovery Sport is that the interior feels a step or two behind an Audi Q5 or Volvo XC60 in terms of modernity, materials and tech. But the standard Panoramic roof, which bathes the cabin in light, certainly helps the feel of things in here.

What's more, tick the box for this top-spec HSE Luxury model and you get the leather seats, steering wheel, dash, big wheels and panoramic roof as standard. In this (180hp) diesel engine spec, it'll cost you £43,400. Hardly cheap, but smack-bang comparable with a similar spec Q5 or XC60.

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Also standard are LED lamps with high beam assist, a heated windscreen, keyless entry, rear parking camera, a powered gesture-kick-to-open tailgate, heated and cooled front seats, plus heated ones in the rears and InControl Touch Pro – Land Rover's 10.2-inch, widescreen central display interface. That's mostly stuff the opposition make you pay extra for.

You also get the Land Rover-y stuff, which means if you do go fording rivers and driving up dales, it shouldn't get stuck. There's Terrain response – which allows you to select what type of ground or conditions you're on, or in (snow, sand, ruts, etc) – which sets-up the car appropriately. Sand mode we found particularly fun… just don't ask us where we found the sand. There's also Hill Descent Control – which automatically brakes the car for you and keeps the speed below a threshold so it doesn't run away on slippery downhill sections – and Trailer Stability Control, which will come in handy for anyone into towing. 

All of this would be enough for most people in terms of standard spec. It certainly runs beyond what you get as standard on the equivalent Audi Q5 or BMW X3. But that didn't stop someone having a "kid in sweetshop" moment when speccing our review car, bumping the price from £43,000 to a scarcely credible £58,185.

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Chief culprits for this inflation were the paint (£1,765), rear seat entertainment screens (£2,075), 825 W Meridian Sound System (£2,280) and the all-round vision assistant (suite of cameras which can see every which way – for £2,385). We'd have happily lived without almost all of the options (thought notably, the Meridian sound system is excellent – but Land Rover's standard units are typically pretty good). The options we'd keep are limited to the Vision Pack and Driver Assist tech (which is £1,245 – including blind spot monitoring and an emergency brake system).

In this spec, the Discovery Sport features a widescreen centre display, dubbed InControl Touch Pro.  At 10.2-inches, it gives you plenty of screen to play with and infinite adjustability of many systems.

It's not the fastest system in the world, but there are a few nice features – it's colourful, features big buttons and you can shortcut a couple of frequently used functions from the home screen menu (call your voicemail for instance). 

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The screen is high up on the dash, which we like because it's only a short dip of your gaze to glance at it, and it doesn't feel like it's impeding forward vision like some stick up screens in other cars. Unfortunately, from our seated position at least, the screen was a real stretch away, rather than falling neatly to hand, so the touchscreen element wasn't that useful on the move.

Our test model sticks with an instrument cluster that features a pair of analogue gauges, split by a central digital screen. The gauges are easy to read, and we generally found the system relatively intuitive. However, many rivals – with their increasingly digital clusters which allow full navigation views and easy adjustment of radio station, media and making phone calls from the wheel – do this a lot better.

Like any Land Rover, beyond the screens you get chunky knobs for the climate control (so you can use them with gloves on) and the terrain response and mode control system is well labelled and easy to use.

The usability is generally a Discovery Sport strong point – there's a huge central cubby, a big glovebox and stash mat at the bottom of the console where your phone will neatly reside, plus USB ports in the back, and climate control vents for all (even the third-row seats).

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The pop-up rearmost seats – which turn it into a 7-seater – aren't going to accommodate a pair of six-foot adults, though. But for kids up to early teenage years they're perfect, and fold away easily into the boot floor to leave you with a massive load bay.

Further forward the middle row gets generous leg room, while the front seats work as commanding pews – giving you a much more commanding view of the road than any crossover, and never failing when it comes to comfort. They're electrically adjustable in HSE Luxury spec, too. 

Ultimately, if it's practicality you're after – or you sometimes need to carry more than five people, but don't want to graduate up to the more cumbersome full-sized 7-seat SUVs – then this the Discovery Sport's ace card.

For a vehicle that's so capable – so over-engineered for the typical way you imagine it will be used – one of the Discovery Sport's most impressive aspects is how it drives on road. If you're looking for a really car-like experience, a Q5 or XC60 will serve you better. But if you're buying an SUV for that commanding, waft-along-above-the-masses sense, the Discovery Sport nails it.

There's a level of heft to the driving experience and sense of momentum being carried that means the Discovery Sport is never going to be something you go tearing up Tarmac in. But well-weighted steering, a sure-footed ride and good wind and road refinement make it a good experience on board. To say it feels hefty implies perhaps that it wallows or lurches, but it doesn't – and thus the primary impression is one of comfort, refinement and making the driver feel in command. Your passengers will thank you for choosing a Discovery Sport too – because it's a really nice thing to sit and be conveyed in. So long as you don't come over all racing driver. 

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It's not without fault, though. The step-off from stopped is not quick, and in this lower-powered 180hp diesel guise that's particularly true when you've a full complement of people and luggage on board. You have to really mash the throttle into the carpet to make decent progress on uphill inclines. And acceleration is never what you'd call brisk. On a more positive note, the engine seems much more hushed and refined in this setting than in the last Jaguar XE we tested. And if you're worried about the speed thing, Land Rover offers an SD4 version, with 240hp – but ticking that box will cost you nearly £4,000 more.

Given many people's current concerns about diesel, you can also specify a 290hp, Si4 petrol engine on some variants of the Discovery Sport. We've not tried this version, so can't vouch for its capabilities, but be warned – the diesel barely returned 30mpg in our hands, so the petrol is likely to be significantly worse. And beyond running cost and emissions, that would exacerbate one of the Discovery Sport's most annoying features – a comparatively small (54 litre) fuel tank, which makes fill-ups an overly regular occurrence.

Verdict

It's difficult not to warm to the Land Rover Discovery Sport. While the company seems to be knocking out new Range Rover variants on a regular basis, it's this most workaday Land Rover that's the volume seller, and the key family car for the brand.

Live with one for a week and you can see why they're so popular. It's a classy piece of kit, that few would object to parking on their drive. Yes, the furthest off-road you might take it is a muddy overflow car park, but it feels reassuringly over-engineered for purpose, and ready to take on anything. Its off-road capabilities and the idea of "go-anywhere" might be the dream the Discovery Sport sells, but it's the versatile interior, 7-seater option and refined on-road behaviour that make the car a real box-ticking family favourite.

It doesn't feel as modern as a Volvo XC60 or Audi Q5, nor as car-like. And for some, this will be a let down. But the fact that Land Rover's standard spec is generous, and the tech has been updated, is a significant bonus that keeps the Discovery Sport competitive in a class that's full of more recently introduced competition.

So, still "The best 4x4x far"? From the driver's seat of a Discovery Sport, it's easy to buy into that idea.

Volvo XC60 review image 1

Runner up in our car of the year awards in 2017, the XC60 has made a big splash in this segment with its great looks and leading technology. It won't take you as far off-road as the Land Rover and the rear cabin and boot space is nothing like as large, but for those up front the experience is significantly more premium. The XC60 offers a wide range of engines – including an appealing, if expensive, plug-in hybrid version and is generally more car like to drive than the Discovery. 

Read the full article: Volvo XC60 review

Pocket-lintaudi q5 2017 review image 3

Audi's evergreen SUV got an update last year – although looking at the exterior you'd barely notice, this is typical Audi evolutionary stuff. The Q5 offers a huge array of tech and equipment – although much of it is optional, even on higher grade models. But it's a very decent and refined drive and you could only be in an Audi cabin when the quality is this high. Massive range of engines, including a storming SQ5 version, although strangely there's no hybrid or electrified version yet. 

Read the full article: Audi Q5 review