Sports and luxury cars from automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Ferrari have special appeal to certain buyers because of those companies' long motorsports heritages, and no matter how good a Lexus might be, it likely will never have the same sort of historical authority in the marketplace. Similar natural laws apply in the world of sport-utility vehicles, where the names of Jeep and Land Rover have ruled for more than half a century. Sure, the Toyota Land Cruiser has been around nearly as long, and the Mitsubishi Montero has its own storied tough-guy past, but the words Toyota and Mitsubishi do not equate immediately to "off-road" in the way that Jeep and Land Rover do. If a Ford Explorer or a Chevrolet TrailBlazer can handle the rough stuff, that's great, but no one really expects them to be anything more than all-weather station wagons. However, we do expect Jeeps and Land Rovers, first and foremost, to be excellent off-road vehicles. That is their very reason for existence.
Jeep, of course, started as a World War II military vehicle, and Jeep's success in that capacity directly inspired the creation of Land Rover in 1948. Although it was intended originally as an agricultural vehicle and a means of increasing Rover's postwar exports, the Land Rover gained fame not only for the countless expeditions it has led but also for its role as a military vehicle in Britain and in dozens, if not hundreds, of other countries around the world. For 2002, Jeep and Land Rover have two new vehicles, the Liberty and the Freelander, respectively, that add some heft to the mini-, or "baby," SUV market. But do they fulfill the promise of off-road adventure and rugged lifestyle that their nameplates imply?
To find out, we took a Freelander HSE and a Liberty Limited 4x4--both top-of-the-line models equipped with V-6 engines and automatic transmissions--off-roading in Southern California's San Bernardino National Forest. Our Freelander stickered at more than $32,000, the Liberty at nearly $29,000--not exactly "baby" prices. But, then again, these are not exactly farm implements. Our two test vehicles were aimed at people with similar-size pocketbooks, but the Liberty casts a wider net for potential buyers, with four-cylinder and rear-wheel-drive models. The Freelander is, as Land Rover says, a "premium, small sport-utility vehicle." In other words, a bit more plush than the safari Land Rovers we see on the Discovery Channel. Besides the everything-is-standard HSE, Land Rover offers a base Freelander S for $25,600 and the $28,400 SE, which is expected to be its volume model.
As it did with the Liberty's predecessor, the Cherokee, Jeep offers two different four-wheel-drive systems for the Liberty: Command Trac and Selec Trac. Both include a dual-speed (normal and low-range) transfer case. Our test vehicle was equipped with Selec Trac, which offers a full-time mode suitable for dry-pavement use. The Freelander--surprise, surprise--is the first Land Rover ever to roll out of the Solihull, England, factory with no selectable low range. Instead, it has a permanent all-wheel-drive system similar in concept to Selec Trac (center differential with a viscous-type limited-slip) bolstered by a brake-based traction control and hill descent system. While these bits made their debut on Land Rover's Discovery Series II, the lack of a dual-speed transfer case calls into question the Freelander's bloodlines. Land Rovers are supposed to be the stuff of Camel Trophies and Great Divide Expeditions, after all.
Yet the Freelander was much more capable off-road than we expected. We didn't climb any huge Golden State boulders, but we did hit some really rough terrain. The Freelander's wheel travel--seven inches front, eight inches rear--helped the little Land Rover creep carefully over every rock, rut, and riverbed we pointed it at, occasionally spinning a rear wheel but always pulling through. The Discovery Series II (and the Mercedes-Benz M-class) have proven that brake-actuated, traction-control-based 4x4 systems work pretty well, if in a somewhat rudimentary fashion. The Discovery still has a low range to go along with Hill Descent Control, though.
Whether in four-wheel high or low, the solid-rear-axle Liberty is the real thing off-road, a true Jeep, and it demonstrated a reassuring eagerness and responsiveness as we made our way through the ponderosa pine forests. Our test car, which was equipped with the optional Off Road Group, bounded across obstacles with a familiar four-wheel-drive sensation that's entirely different from the Freelander's front-wheel-drive crawling dy-namics. Yet, although it has better minimum ground clearance than the Freelander, the Liberty's underside proved more vulnerable. We managed to engage a rock and bend the exhaust pipe that curves down, unprotected, below the driveshaft.
The Liberty is also a true Jeep on the road, which means that it's far from carlike, even with its new and quite effective independent control-arm front suspension. Still, ride and handling are seventeen years' worth of automotive development better than the Chero-kee's, and it's a lot steadier in highway corners than a Grand Cherokee. The new rack-and-pinion steering, a first for Jeep, is not quite as good as the Freelander's, but, then again, the Freelander's is really good, one of its strong points. On the paved, twisty mountain road to Lake Arrowhead, the Freelander was our favorite, with nearly ideal steering effort and streetwise suspension tuning. It feels lighter, which indeed it is. Both vehicles are saddled with rear drum brakes and somewhat mushy pedals.
On paper, the Liberty's 3.7-liter SOHC V-6, a derivation of the Grand Cherokee's 4.7-liter V-8, has a decided power advantage over the Freelander's 2.5-liter 24-valve DOHC V-6, but sometimes it's hard to detect the 35-horsepower difference between the two engines. The Land Rover, as noted above, is significantly lighter than the Liberty, so its power-to-weight ratio actually is not much worse. On paved mountain roads, the Jeep's four-speed automatic transmission cycles too often between second and third gears, whereas the Land Rover's five-speed manu-matic allows you to select your shift points. The Liberty also offers a five-speed manual, available only on the Sport 3.7 model.
On the inside, both vehicles are a far cry from their forebears, but if you're seeking a genuine Land Rover ergonomic and aesthetic experience, you'll find it inside the Freelander's cabin. This is both good and bad. First, the Freelander interior, especially with the HSE's "alpaca beige" leather upholstery and contrasting stitching, is rich and sumptuous, comfortable and unique, and its rear seat is surprisingly accommodating considering that the vehicle's overall package is fairly small. We love the heavy-duty rubber floor mats, and we appreciate the rear-seat fold-down center armrest, the little ceiling oddments nets, and the general aura of unmistakable Britishness. But in typical Land/Range Rover fashion, there's little logic to the secondary controls. Where are the window switches? Which way do you push them to, of all things, make the windows go down? The HSE's standard Harman Kardon stereo and Becker navigation system are even more inscrutable. The LED graphic depicting the earth and a rotating satellite is kind of cool, which is a good thing, because it might be the only entertainment you'll coax from this setup, so difficult is even the task of scanning for radio stations. Ah, the British.
Ah, the Americans. So sensible yet so silly. The Liberty's instrument panel is modern, pretty, and well designed, and the radio controls are a study in logic. The Limited's satin-finish interior trim is handsome and smooth to your fingers. Yet the seat bottoms are far too small for most Big Mac-fed Americans, and the leather seats, part of the pricey Customer Preferred Package 27G, are typical modern leather seats, lacking richness, character, or warmth. Might as well be vinyl.
And that front end. We're not sure if we want to see this visage coming at us down the road. A Jeep is supposed to have a certain seriousness of purpose about it; it shouldn't look like something that nail technicians drive. "Let me register my disappointment at the Liberty's toylike appearance," said west coast bureau chief Michael Jordan. "The front end practically shouts, 'Look, I'm a sport-ute for chicks!' It's not bad, really, but it just doesn't measure up against the Cherokee. It's way too cute."
In its own way, the Freelander also qualifies for cute-ute status, but that's more a result of its proportions, which are rather dainty, not only in comparison with big brother Discovery but even when compared with the Liberty. It's a handsome vehicle but in a suburban station wagon way. The Freelander could almost be accused of being too slick; we expect Land Rovers to be boxy and chunky and slightly funny-looking--that's a great part of the Discovery's appeal.
And still we're drawn to these SUVs. They're user-friendly, everyday vehicles, but they're more than that. Not only do their heritage and history set them apart from the current crop of other cute-utes, but their capabilities do so as well. We wish that the Liberty had a higher macho quotient, and we are a bit misty-eyed about the Freelander's New Age four-wheel drive, but the fact is, both vehicles took us where we wanted to go, which was farther than we'd be likely to get in many of their competitors. Overall, the Freelander does a better all-around job, but it's a mighty close verdict. The latest Jeep and Land Rover might make a few missteps as they reach out to a new generation of adventurers, but they haven't forgotten where they came from.