By now, it's pretty clear that petrol cars are coming back into fashion, and it's especially apparent in the luxury segments. We've seen the introduction – and reintroduction – of a lot of petrol luxury sedans lately, but you know things are getting serious when luxury SUVs are launched with petrol engines. There are two good reasons why SUVs in general tend to have diesel engines. One, if you care at all about fuel economy and running costs, you'll know that filling expensive Unleaded into a heavy, four-wheel-drive SUV is like hara-kiri for your wallet. And two, the torque surplus that diesel motors inherently possess is ideal for moving a bulky, fully laden SUV in effortless comfort; not to mention yanking you out of a tight spot should you actually go off-roading.
But, thanks to the formidable forces of Demand and Supply, we have here the Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.0 Si4 and the Mercedes-Benz GLC 300 4Matic (phew, what a mouthful). Land Rover has taken the 240hp 2.0-litre petrol motor we've seen in Jaguar's sedans and plopped it under the hood of the Discovery Sport, while Mercedes launched the long-overdue GLC in this '300' guise, also with a 2.0-litre petrol motor, but with 5hp more than the Disco.
The good news is that these are both modern, direct injection turbocharged four-cylinder motors, rather than the thirsty V6s you might have had in such a big SUV a decade ago, and both are paired with high-tech nine-speed automatic gearboxes, so the running costs might not be as bad as you feared. Plus, the Discovery has 340Nm of torque and the Mercedes 370Nm, both of which sound sufficient to pull roughly 1.9 tonnes of SUV along swiftly. Ultimately, though, these are both luxury SUVs that cost more than Rs 55 lakh, so they have to make you feel special too, and because they're petrol powered, some driving pleasure and extra refinement would be nice too.
FORK IN THE ROAD
Just looking at these two, you can tell they are going to be very different vehicles. The Discovery Sport is just so typically Land Rover. Even though it's a lot softer-looking and 'Evoque-like' than its predecessor, the Freelander, every inch of its bodywork screams rugged off-roader. There are pronounced scuff plates, front and rear, minimal overhangs for better approach and departure angles, blacked-out pillars, a grisly grille and neat straight lines. The GLC, on the other hand, is very much a modern Mercedes in its look. Soft, curvy, flowing lines are the order of the day, and though it certainly has an SUV shape, the treatment is a lot more elegant and urbane. However, there's a fair bit of sport thrown into the mix too, with that big star on the nose and sharp-looking 18-inch alloy wheels.
The differences are just as stark on the inside. The GLC has an interior almost identical to the C-class', and like its sedan sibling, it is easily the most luxurious one in the segment. A thick slab of glossy wood makes up the centre console, with rich, knurled metal buttons making up the switchgear. The dashboard flows outward from there, bisected by a strip of metal, and the instruments are housed in a large cowled binnacle. As ever, Merc's free-standing COMAND screen is a sore point on an otherwise beautiful dash. One point of note, though – the generous glossy wood veneer is very prone to scuffs and scratches, as our seasoned test car showed.
And that's where the Discovery Sport is different. Every surface in here looks hardy, and like it can stand the test of time. The plastics look tough, and what's interesting is that even some of the sturdier-looking bits like the dash top and door sills are actually made of high-quality textured material, and not rough plastic; just run your hand over them to see for yourself. The design, however, is nowhere near as inviting as the Merc's, with a more straightforward and functional look, true to Land Rover's style. Even the switchgear is mostly simple black plastic that just doesn't feel as special as something in a car of this price should.
The driving positions in these cars also reflect their contrasting ideologies. Ever the off-roader, the Discovery Sport has a low-set dash and window sills giving you superb visibility. The GLC on the other hand has a tall dash and high window sills that make you feel better cocooned, like in a sports sedan. However, it should be noted that both drivers' seats offer a wide range of height adjustment to let you go from a low-set position for a driver-centric feel to a tall, commanding position as some would prefer in an SUV. The Land Rover's slightly slimmer chairs have good central cushioning that will keep you comfy on a long drive, but ultimately it's the Merc's bigger, more luxurious front seats with their softer cushioning that feel a bit better. The GLC also offers more adjustability and a memory function on both front seats; the Disco Sport petrol misses this because it isn't offered in top-spec HSE Luxury trim, like the diesel is.
A quick word on equipment, and both cars get quite a healthy dose of the stuff. Parking sensors, front and rear, a reversing camera, navigation, electric front seats, dual-zone climate control and sunroofs are the norm here, but there are a few differences. The Merc gets a third climate zone for the rear, a powered tailgate and an electrically adjustable steering column, which the Discovery does not. The Land Rover also has a large, single-piece glass sunroof that doesn't open, while the Merc has a dual-glass setup which opens at the front, both of which have their own appeal. As for the infotainment systems, the Disco gets JLR's InControl touchscreen, which isn't as slick as the newer 'Pro' system on more expensive cars, but functions well, and while Merc's COMAND screen looks a lot classier, the usability still leaves a lot to be desired.
Yes, the Land Rover is the rugged one, and as such comes with 'Terrain Response' drive modes for various traction conditions, but it also gets an Eco button to help you save fuel. The Merc, on the other hand, gets five different 'Agility' drive modes, as well as a separate off-roading programme with three different settings, so it's perhaps not as much of a softie as you think. Something to keep in mind is that the GLC is now locally assembled, and this means a change in the equipment list as well as a revision in price, which we were awaiting at the time of going to press. Also, as you can see on our test car, the Land Rover exclusively offers a third row of seats in this segment, but the five-seat version is the one that's priced closer to the GLC. That third row, however, is super tight on space, even with the middle row slid forward, and leaves almost no luggage space when it's in use. Still, the flexibility that this option offers is a trump card for the Discovery Sport.
The second rows are the ones that matter more though, and as mentioned, the Discovery Sport lets you slide the bench back and forth, and also lets you fold it in a 40:20:40 split. However, squeezing all that lovely flexibility in has meant the seat is slim and not very generously cushioned, feeling a touch firm. The GLC has more luxurious seats with much softer cushioning, and though they can't do the same gymnastics as the ones in the Disco, they do fold down in a 60:40 split at the push of a button if you want to extend the luggage area. Both cars offer more than enough headroom and legroom, but it's the Discovery Sport that has the flatter floor, making life for a third passenger much easier. Ingress to the GLC is a little trickier with a seat that's further back, high window sills once again make you feel a little cooped up comparatively, and it falls behind, albeit only slightly, on thigh support – a flaw it's inherited from its platform donor, the C-class.
These two SUVs' powertrains are similar – 2.0 litres in displacement, mated to nine-speed torque-converter automatic gearboxes and are four-wheel drives. The only difference is that the Land Rover has its engine mounted sideways with a front-wheel-biased power delivery, while the Mercedes' engine sits longitudinally, with a rear-biased power delivery. In practice, however, they are very different. But yes, both cars do have more than enough torque to make light work of their mass.
The Discovery first, and it fires up to a very smooth and refined idle. Get going and you'll find the revs build quickly, but then so does the noise. It's a slightly grumbly tone that's not quite as harsh as what you get from a diesel, but not what you expect from a petrol either. You also get a bit of turbo lag, but that's made up for by a strong punch when the turbocharger comes on song at just under 2,000rpm. It can be quite addictive once you're used to it, but then the fly in the ointment is the gearbox, which does feel a little jerky and indecisive at low speeds, but it isn't a bother so long as your throttle inputs are smooth.
The GLC's engine and gearbox work really well together, giving you smooth and seamless acceleration to the point that it almost feels like the car has just one long gear, rather than nine. It's also far more refined than the Land Rover, and it's only past about 4,000rpm that it gets audible at all. Enthusiasts might miss that punch in the kidneys you get from JLR's engine, and sure, the Merc's top end isn't quite as strong, but most will prefer the smooth and linear way this car makes its power; you often have to glance down at the speedo to realise how fast you're actually going. The gearbox is also a lot cleverer in the Mercedes, being judicious about when it needs to kick down and how many gears it has to shift; there's very little 'searching' that happens before you've arrived at the right ratio.
ROUND THE BEND OR OVER THE HILL
Despite the word Sport in its name, the Land Rover is not one for corners. It's stable and predictable, but the steering is safe and slow, so there's not much joy to be derived from pushing it hard. The steering is also a bit heavier than the Merc's but not to the point that it's difficult to park. The GLC's steering, like the C-class, is quick and sharp, egging you on to push the SUV into corners hard. Unlike the C-class, though, the suspension is very soft, which means halfway through a quick corner, you want to back off a little because of the immense body roll.
And that's the difference; while the Discovery Sport isn't fun to corner hard, it is at least predictable and rolls quite a lot less thanks to its stiffer setup. This also gives it immense stability at three-digit speeds, letting you chew up long highway miles in comfort. The firmness can be felt a little bit through potholes and rough patches though, with the stiff body moving around as you cross them. The GLC is superb at ironing out sharp bumps thanks to its softer setup, but on the flip side, should you hit an undulation at higher speeds, you'll get a lot of float and bounce. Ultimately though, we think it's the Merc's more comfort-oriented ride that customers will prefer.
TWO CAN PLAY AT THAT GAME
Ultimately, that's what it comes down to – preference. These SUVs ended up being a lot more closely matched than we thought they'd be, despite being so different in character, and for every strength, each one has a flaw. The Discovery Sport is the more sensible and practical choice, with its good visibility, third row, flexible seats and greater boot space as a five-seater. It's also got the punchier engine and better highway manners, and that rugged appeal most want in an SUV. And while we didn't get a chance to push either too hard in the mud, the Land Rover felt more at home out there and will almost certainly be the better off-roader. Neither of these SUVs is a great handler but at least the Merc feels a bit sportier. It's got the better powertrain overall and has the comfier seats too. It has the edge on equipment too, it's more refined, and its classy and sporty exterior will appeal to the other set of SUV buyers who don't like things too rugged. But the Mercedes comes away as our winner because of one simple thing – it makes you feel more special on the inside. The cabin design, build quality and richness of the material feel like they should in a car of this price. The Land Rover is not bad, but that it doesn't have that same degree of finesse and luxury, which ultimately what a luxury SUV buyer will want most. Factor in what is sure to be a better price after local assembly, and the GLC's lead only increases.