The Freelander, Land Rover's newest entry in the North American market, is a child of BMW's unhappy marriage with Land Rover, and it's a combination of components and build strategies uncharacteristic of the Land Rover tradition. The result is something like a sport wagon yet clearly a Land Rover, with a number of technical upgrades that came about, I suspect, due to BMW influence.
A look at the components best illustrates the point. The Freelander is the only Land Rover to mix monocoque construction with V6 power and all-wheel drive. Freelander's 2.5-liter V6 is one of those out-of-character departures that clearly are for the better. Until now, V8 engines have been the only powerplants offered by Land Rover in North America. Even with V8 power, Land Rovers have always been more about torque and the ability to gather speed with proper British deliberation than they've ever been about aggressive acceleration. Powered by an aluminum 175-bhp 24-valve dohc six, the Freelander isn't blazingly fast, either, but it still manages to evoke the Range Rover's brisk acceleration profile and long-legged cruising capability. I'll wager that power-to-weight ratios remain about the same between the Freelander and other Land Rovers, but this newest combination delivers V6 mileage (estimated at 16/19 mpg city/highway) and runs on regular unleaded.
Excellent braking systems are another Land Rover characteristic, and Freelander lives up to that heritage. In this case, 10.9-in. front discs are complemented by rear drums. Again, the hardware is different from the all-wheel-disc setups in every other Land Rover, but the net effect is the same-stable stopping from any speed and a nicely progressive rate of pedal feel. Four-channel ABS means that, under braking, a patch of ice-or even hanging a wheel off the paved surface on a tight corner-creates no drama.
There are other similarities, some quite deliberate, between the newest Land Rover and Range Rover, lending the Freelander the look and feel of a downsized and updated Range Rover. Range Rover's crenelated hood, high roof line, command seating and overall handling feel are among the obvious ways Freelander trades on the Range Rover tradition.
Not to mention off-road capability. Range Rovers are thought by many knowledgeable experts to represent the ultimate in off-highway 4x4 refinement. This clearly defined heritage presented a challenge in designing the Freelander-a challenge that also included on-road dynamics equal to (if not better than) the best European sport wagons, and a price that was comparable to the less-expensive Japanese unibody awd SUVs. The challenge, in a nutshell, was to conceive an affordable, fully modern, practical Land Rover that remained consistent with the company tradition.
Land Rover's way of demonstrating the premise was to introduce the vehicle in Iceland, where the ultra-hip urban setting of Reykjavic gives way to the isolated dirt roads of the outcountry in a space of 20 miles and 20 minutes. Iceland is a place where the weather comes directly off the North Atlantic, and even in summer months can be unforgiving and life threatening.
The test routes took us for drives on icy glaciers, through wind-driven rain and across water-filled, deeply potholed dirt roads that transitioned from pavement to washout and back again with no warning. In these settings, the Freelander flatters the driver's inputs so well the temptation is to ignore the elements and the driving surface. While this is never wise in isolated settings or truly inclement weather, I'm convinced that Freelander could be an unusually faithful friend to skiers or other owners who must use bad roads or venture into unpredictable weather.
At the same time, Freelander is a distinctly European utility vehicle that would make a fine commuter, compact family runabout, and-with a little imagination-an interesting tuner car. Many of the qualities that make a good four wheeler can also be appreciated in strictly on-road settings. Dent-proof front quarter panels, for example, reduce weight and resist parking-lot dings every bit as well as off-highway bumps and thumps.
Whether its owners intend to use it for outdoor recreation or not, Freelander supplies a very substantial ability to address bad roads, infrequently graded dirt paths, in most any kind of weather, with unusual safety and security.
With best-in-class recreational capability unquestioned, Freelander still behaves like a road car, a practical compact sport wagon with five doors and solid awd road-holding capability.
And clearly, Freelander is the best-handling, most sportive Land Rover ever built. With less ground clearance to control and a four-wheel independent suspension, the Freelander is relatively nimble and precise yet supplies the steady and secure sense of much heavier SUVs. Much of that sensation is generated by touchpoints like the steering wheel, which is well insulated from road vibration. Transient response is not truly sports-car like, but the car is definitely fun to drive on narrow, winding roads. The availability of 17-in. alloy wheels and 225/65 tires are among the cues that Land Rover is determined to make Freelander something more than the average compact SUV when its owners decide to take the long way home.
A good part of the sport character is due to the five-speed automatic, which has a sport shifting mode, allowing the driver to hang onto a gear longer and quick-shift up or down as road conditions demand.
Recognizing that pricing has everything to do with entry-level products in the competitive U.S. market, Land Rover has been aggressive about making the Freelander affordable. Freelanders start at $25,000 for the S model, which includes as standard equipment permanent all-wheel drive, four-channel ABS, four-wheel Electronic Traction Control, air conditioning, heated windshield and rear window, quartz halogen headlamps and a long list of safety and security features. Such amenities as tilt steering, "Optikool" glass, power windows, rear window wiper and washer, and power folding heated exterior mirrors are all standard.
On the SE model, 17-in. alloy wheels are added, along with privacy glass, roof rails and illuminated mirrors. If you want a power sunroof, you will have to order the HSE, which would also include a premium 240-watt Harman/Kardon audio system, Becker in-dash CD and navigation system, and a six-disc CD changer. I'm not personally addicted to sunroofs, but I've savored the premium audio system with my own ears, and the major difference-aside from nine speakers and the power to run them at low distortion-would be the subwoofer, which adds a satisfying resonance and depth of sound quality consistent with premium European tastes.
For those interested in personalizing their Land Rover, there exists a wide array of Land Rover Kit accessory items, which can be installed at any of 110 Land Rover Centers around the country.