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First Look: 2004 Land Rover Freelander

A welcome update to the baby SUV

Jun 25, 2004 SHARE
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A recurring theme through Stephen J Gould's essays on natural history, especially those recounting the history of science and scientists, deals with cultural bias. Those innate attitudes and common knowledges ingrained in our being can mask reality and blind observers to what is really going on. But it's not just scientists that slip into the trap. So I probably owe Land Rover an apology. After spending the previous day off-roading in the extremely capable 2004 Discovery, I hopped in a 2004 Freelander expecting another tippy, awkward car-based cute-ute wannabe. Not that everything was perfect, but instead I found an entertaining vehicle as happy on-road as off.

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Following its first significant facelift since its 2001 US introduction, this third iteration Freelander is no longer the red-headed step-child of the Land Rover line-up. With styling cues drawn from the top-of-the-line Range Rover and shared with Discovery, Freelander's new front and rear fascias and especially the new, clear twin-pocket headlights (70% brighter than the non-descript units they replaced) contribute to a strong familial resemblance. The rear taillights now reside higher in the rear bumper while up front, a new mesh grill and black inserts in the body colored bumpers lend a (somewhat) distinguished air to the littlest Rover.

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The interior also received an extensive and welcome reworking. A new fascia holds a better-looking instrument pod complete with new, easier to read "Range Rover inspired chronographic" instruments. Switchgear has been repositioned to be easier to reach and in addition to new door trim, the window/lock switches have been moved from the center console to the door handle in the SE and HSE. HVAC has been improved with quicker cooling and addressing a common complaint, a much quieter fan. The new dash now houses the SE3's six-disc CD changer (an SE/HSE option), more or less directly under the larger, dash-topping cupholders (there was no word on how waterproof the dash is...).

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The HSE now features perforated leather seats while the SE gets Alcantara covering. Both are available in black, alpaca tan or tundra green, though it will be interesting to see how the grippy (used in many race car seats) Alcantara is received over the long run. The leather seats in the test rig were comfortable and supportive both on and off-road which brings us one of Freelander's biggest--let's be charitable here--quirks.

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In order to tuck things underneath up and out of the way lest anything hanging down compromise off-road capabilities, seats in this rig sit up fairly high. This makes the space between the top of the seat and the top of the door frame closer together than some people find normal and has led to some bumped noggins. And though the high seating position gives a commanding view of the road it also means anyone over six feet tall can feel seriously scrunched and lead to a rather laid-back seating position. Many hoped the seat height could be changed as part of the facelift, unfortunately the floorpan needs to be modified in order to lower the seats. Seems $36 million only buys so much. That said, my 6-ft 2-in. frame did survive without a visit to the chiropractor. Our advice, try one on before you buy.

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Freelander's comfortably fat, two-tone steering wheel gave good feedback from the test HSE's optional 235/50R-18 Continental 4x4 Contact tires which in turn provided a respectable level of grip when teamed with the surprisingly firm suspension. Driven briskly over winding West Virginia backroads there was far less body roll than one would expect from a tall vehicle and almost sports sedan handling. The five-speed electronic automatic has both Normal and Sport modes and 'CommandShift' manual gear selection lets you keep the 174-hp 24-valve 2.5-liter V6 on the boil. On the other hand, the permanent all-wheel drive (biased to the front, slips to 50/50) Freelander tries to make up for its lack of a low range with a very low first gear. This makes the little Rover sluggish pulling into traffic despite 177 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

That low first gear does come in handy off-road. Despite a relatively high torque peak, Freelander ably handled a variety of off-road challenges. With approach and departure angles of 30.5 and 33.9 degrees respectively, a break-over angle of 22 degrees, over 7 in. of wheel travel in front and 9.4 in back, a minimum ground clearance of 7.6 in..s and tidy undercarriage packaging, the Freelander turns out to be a pretty capable off-roader.

The lack of a low range is offset in large part by Rover's excellent four channel - i.e., it works even if only one wheel has grip--ABS/Electronic Traction Control. ETC made light of a particularly slippery hill that nearly stymied the mighty Range Rover the next day. And Rover's Hill Descent Control is eerily effective even though it's a bit unnerving to step off the top of a large hill (in first gear or reverse only)and wait for the HDC to intercede at its 5.6 mph target speed (a more comfortable 2.3 mph in the Range Rover). Even though our chosen route avoided a couple of challenges the Discovery could carefully walk through and Freelander probably wouldn't, I'll wager it could take most people deeper into the woods than they would care to go. We certainly exceeded the recommended wading depth of 16", at least leaning to the right, without harm.

There are those who claim Freelander is just another cute-ute trying to get some mileage from its famous lineage but a day in the woods would soften their position. Freelander won't go everywhere Discovery will go, but if you happen to be in the market for arguably the most competent rig in the small sport-utility class, you are in luck. For 2004, Land Rover has dropped the S model and dropped prices on the five-door SE (down $2,405) and HSE (down $3,205) models. The SE now starts at $25,995 and the HSE at 28,995. Much of this cost savings came about when Rover dropped the Freelander's somewhat frivolous navigation system. The 3-door soft-top SE3's price is unchanged at $26,995 but now includes the aforementioned six-disc CD changer and integrated foglights.

2004 Land Rover Discovery
Torque is a funny thing. It always takes the path of least resistance. Differentials are also pretty interesting, especially when debating the plusses and minuses of open, limited-slip (clutch-type, Torsen, viscous-couplings...) and locked differentials. Torque moves us while differentials allow that power to get to the ground through axles and wheels that aren't necessarily moving at the same speed.

Any 4wd vehicle has a center diff that sends power to the front and rear diffs which in turns directs the power out the axles to the tires and ground. If all those differentials are open, it is conceivable that the engine's power can be directed to just one tire, the tire with the least amount of traction. In other words, despite the machinery, it is now a one-wheel-drive vehicle. And that tire is probably spinning. While World Rally teams spend fortunes on active differentials searching for maximum traction and tenths of a second, serious off-roaders use a different approach. They like lockers.

Locking a differential splits the power evenly, lock the center diff and even if a tire on one end spins the other end still has power flowing to the wheels and off you go. A simple, mechanical, traditional solution, like something Land Rover used to build.

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And now with the 2004 Discovery, does again. Many Land Rover fans are rooted in the company's heritage. Informal feedback from truly dedicated off-roaders indicated that, despite excellent ABS, 4 E(lectronic) T(raction) C(ontrol) and E(lectronic) B(rakeforce) D(istribution) and H(ill) D(escent) C(ontrol), they wanted a manually locking center diff in the Disco's two-speed ZF transfer case to help distribute the 4.6 liter V8's 217 hp and 300lb-ft of torque. Which somehow seems appropriate for the only Land Rover still built with separate body on a ladder frame and the guaranteed ground clearance of solid 'live' axles. So the company obliged. S, SE and HSE (with dual sunroofs and Self-Leveing Suspension standard) models are available starting at $34,995.

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Meanwhile, the big news at Range Rover is the announcement of the upcoming Westminster Edition. Only 300 units, featuring pearlescent Java Black paint over Jet Black leather and Black Ebony wood interiors, will be made. The really big news is sales. Up 41% to 12,086 units, the $71K rig is celebrating its best ever year in 2003. Not messing with success, there are no big changes (Rain Sensor wipers and an integrated cargo net are being introduced on the Westminster Edition) for the 2004 model and only two options, the Heated Accessories package, a separately available part of the Luxury Interior package. Also unchanged is the big rig's tremendous off-road capability. --TM

The Land Rover Driving School at the Greenbrier
"A wheel that's not in contact with the planet is a wheel that's doing us no good."

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One feels a bit self-conscious crossing the lobby of the storied Greenbrier hotel in muddy boots and dirty jeans. After all, in a few short minutes, the dress code at the genteel five-star resort politely requests a jacket and tie for even a well-deserved beer at the Lobby Bar. But the dirt was honestly earned and the dowager's disapproving glances are easily disarmed with a smile. And a tie seems a small price to pay for the opportunity to put a new Freelander, Discovery or Range Rover through it spaces over nearly 25 miles of off-road trails wandering over most of the resort's 6500 acres.

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"The driving schools are placed in resorts that reflect a certain facet of the Land Rover lifestyle," said Lead Driving Instructor Greg Nikolas. "But we're not limited to the people staying in those resorts and you don't have to be a Land Rover owner to come to the school." In fact, Land Rover research shows while 80% of students are owners during a school's first year, that number changes dramatically--up to 60% non-owners- as the school becomes established.

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"We're here to teach people how to safely and responsibly use any 4WD vehicle," continues Nikolas. "The techniques we teach, as slow as possible--as fast as necessary, are universal. As SUVs become more popular, they're being used more and that is putting more stress on the trail networks that already exist. We want to try and protect those trails."

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Some 1,200 to 1,500 students a year come to the West Virginia mountains to learn Land Rover's expedition-style driving. Instruction is based on the idea of getting from Point A to Point B and still having that vehicle usable when you need to get back to Point A. "We teach a very realistic style of driving for the normal off-road driver, someone wanting to use their daily driver for a little bit more than trips to the grocery," said Nikolas. "This is a style of driving that will allow someone to use the vehicle off-road and not put it, or themselves, in any danger." Adds Camel Trophy veteran and Land Rover legend-in-training Tom Collins, "Off-road driving is really about finesse. To have a vehicle survive and use it again and again, you need to learn that finesse."

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After a walk-around discussion of differentials, approach angles, ramp breakover angles and departure angles, every student first drives a section of Creek Trail as an instructor assesses their skills. From there, almost any off-road challenge can be undertaken. Most clients at the Greenbrier opt for the 2-hour/two-driver course, the majority being couples (though overall 60% of the clients are women). Clients can also opt for one, four or eight hours of instruction. Multi-day and specific skill set instruction, i.e. multiple winch recovery can also be arranged. New instructors are taken to a devilishly difficult stretch. There's only one possible line, sometimes even that is impassable, but humility is a hard-won lesson and the winching is good practice.

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Clients choose one of Land Rover's latest models equipped with automatic transmissions and all available electronic drivers aids. Modern hill descent and traction control systems require a slightly different technique to fully exploit. "When you boil everything down," said Nikolas, "Our primary means of slowing this vehicle is still engine compression and gearing. The electronics supplement what's already there".

The Land Rover Driving School at the Greenbrier operates year-round and will soon be joined by the family-friendly Fairmont Montebello Resort in Montebello, Quebec. Housed in the largest log structure in Canada, the school will re-launch this spring. Land Rover is also actively searching for a Southern California site. For contact information and updates log onto www.landrover.com and click on 'Experience Land Rover'. The Greenbrier can be reached at 800-624-6070 or on the web at www.greenbrier.com.

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