Pelting across the dusty Moroccan outback, we pushed our Land Rover LR2 into three figures whenever the broken tarmac allowed. This was not as risky a business as it sounds, since the landscape had something of West Texas about it, with endless horizons and black ribbons of highway disappearing into a distant shimmer of heat. We could see forever.
With the Atlas Mountains as a backdrop and massive dunes undulating to the sea's edge, this was a Land Rover-scripted launch: adventure, adversity, mystery, and an exotic, sandy locale in which to become potentially stuck. It was as sentimental a backdrop for the new LR3 as you could hope for.
The LR2 succeeds the Freelander, which arrived stateside in 2001 but whose sales peaked at only 15,000 units in 2002. As with the LR3, formerly known as the Discovery, Land Rover wanted to put some clear air between a troubled vehicle and its successor. Like the LR3, the LR2 is a new-from-the-ground-up vehicle. Which is just as well, since the LR2 will compete in the premium compact SUV market against such accomplished contenders as the BMW X3 and the Acura RDX.
Contrary to early speculation, the Freelander replacement does not look like a mini-me version of the LR3. In fact, the LR2 is more faithful to the Freelander's look than we expected, especially from the front. It is, however, tougher looking than the more gently curved, slightly effete Freelander. It's got a more planted stance, too, thanks partly to a longer wheelbase and a wider track.
The LR2 has less tumblehome--that's the inward taper of the sides as they rise to the roof--than the Freelander, and so the interior has a more spacious feel. The low dashboard also enhances the sense of space and light, and four large adults will be perfectly happy to tackle long journeys. The perceived quality and architectural execution of the dash are a big step up from the Freelander, too. We particularly like the large, chunky radial dials for heating, climate control, and the Terrain Response system (more on that later).
With competition such as the X3 in mind, Land Rover wanted the LR2 to deliver better on-road driving than its predecessor. The stats are pretty encouraging in this regard, with torsional rigidity that's 40 percent better than the Freelander's, fully independent suspension, and a reasonably quick rack-and-pinion steering setup with only 2.6 turns lock-to-lock. The LR2 has a slightly higher center of gravity than the Freelander, partly due to the bigger standard wheels, but this is compensated for by the new car's wider track.Land Rover says that the LR2 covered 5000 miles of the Nrburgring "at ten-tenths," which makes you wonder what the LR2 would do with serious power under its hood--not that it's badly served by its 3.2-liter in-line six borrowed from the new Volvo S80. The engine is compact enough to be mounted transversely, which helps interior packaging and safety performance.
The six's performance figures--230 hp at 6300 rpm and 234 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm--may sound a bit peaky, but clever cam profiling and variable induction give it the sort of grunt you expect in an SUV. The six-speed automatic transmission features manual sequential shifting and a sport mode. It's a convincing dynamic package on the road. Throttle response is strong in the lower ranges, and banging the gears sequentially allows for quite sporting progress.
The LR2 deals with high-speed corners well, without need for constant steering adjustments through the apex. Steering feedback is good, bearing in mind that this is no Porsche Cayman rival, and the LR2's body control is reasonably tight. The X3 still has the edge, but the LR2 could well be the best-handling Land Rover of all time.
But the one thing a Land Rover must always do better than the rest is to go off-road. On-road, the LR2 is effectively a front-wheel-drive vehicle, with just enough power going to the rear wheels that there isn't a driveline shunt if grip conditions suddenly demand more power to the rear. For more serious off-roading, the LR2 has Land Rover's Terrain Response, which can be set for grass, gravel, snow, or sand. This, says Land Rover, more than compensates for the lack of a low-range transfer case.
It mostly does. We took to the dunes with the LR2 and were able to stay unstuck even over some epic crests. We missed a low range only when running in wet, soft sand. With 8.3 inches of clearance under the front axle, an approach angle of 29 degrees, a departure angle of 32 degrees, and a wading depth of nearly 20 inches, the LR2 is more than capable of dealing with the sort of grief an owner is likely to inflict on a $35,000 car.
Actually, Land Rover says that the LR2 will cost just under $35,000 when it goes on sale in April. Land Rover won't be offering a cheapo, entry-level car, as it believes this lowers the overall residual values for the model. Instead, the base LR2 will be specified with equipment that Land Rover thinks most people would order anyway, so leather, a panoramic sunroof, a nine-speaker Alpine stereo, MP3 input, auto headlamps, and seven air bags will be standard.
Who'll buy it? Land Rover's guessing that LR2 buyers will be a bit older than the forty-two-year-old average for the company. It reckons those people will be trading down from larger SUVs as the requirement for kid-and-cargo carrying space in their lives declines. Interestingly, they also suspect that some people put off by the LR3's jump up the price scale might now rejoin the Land Rover family with the LR2. They won't be disappointed.