Not far from the capitol city of Reykjavik is a land known as the Pingvellir, a rugged, inhospitable, snow-covered fissure zone where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in a jumble of rock. The ground is covered in snow and the sky is white, blurring the boundary between heaven and earth. On the ground, only yellow sticks positioned every few yards show the way forward.
Winters in Iceland are full of driving challenges, but the all-wheel-drive 2015 Discovery Sport HSE Luxury model I’m driving instills confidence in spite of the daunting terrain and poor visibility. The snow is deep but the compact SUV, coming to the U.S. early this year, handles it well, thanks to its 8.3 inches of ground clearance and a smooth-shifting nine-speed automatic transmission. The new multi-link rear axle helps, too, making the car very agile while also reducing road noise in the cabin.
From Pingvellir, I drive into the Kaldidalur (Icelandic for Cold Valley)—a treeless, wind-blasted landscape of glaciers and volcanoes. There’s less snow here and after slogging through miles of deep white, the temptation is to hit the throttle. That would be a mistake, since conditions are not as innocent as they first appear. All I see of the road ahead is gravel, made from crushed volcanic rock, and two white strips of ice stretching to the horizon. The Discovery Sport stays on track with nary a shimmy and only a light touch of the wheel, thanks to an electric power steering system that provides extra control at lower speeds.
The last major challenge of the drive is a river crossing across the top of a glacier-fed waterfall. Wading through rivers isn’t part of my normal driving routine, so my eyes widen as the Discovery Sport dips into the frigid waters. Data from depth sensors in the door mirrors appear on the dashboard’s eight-inch screen. And just in case you can’t keep your eyes off the swirling water to glance at the display, an audible tone increases in frequency the deeper you drive. I am so focused, I don’t even hear it. The Discovery Sport can safely wade up to 23.6 inches in depth. (All I need now is a fish finder.)
Back on pavement, the Discovery Sport has enough kick in its four-cylinder, 240 horsepower, turbocharged engine—borrowed from the pricier Range Rover Evoque—to motor past slower-moving vehicles with ease. With my adrenalin levels lowering and the driving more relaxed, I can appreciate how comfortable the trip has been despite its harrowing nature. The keen-eyed will see styling cues derived from the Evoque (think: wraparound headlights), but the Discovery Sport offers a tad more than 31 inches of additional length. That extra space is put to good use with comfortable reclining rear seats and a generous cargo area that can be converted into a family-friendly third row of seating. Additional tech highlights include a touch-screen infotainment system-cum-WiFi-hot-spot that’s easy to use and a clever “breadcrumb” navigation feature that lets you backtrack your route.
It’s a tempting proposition, but the light doesn’t last long during Icelandic winters, and there’s no way I’m doing this drive in the dark.