Unlike most carmakers, Land Rover tends to insist that journalists get its vehicles dirty on press drives. That was certainly the case during the muddy media launch of the revamped 2013 LR2 near Montreal, Quebec. So it was fitting that, when it was time for us to relinquish possession of our LR2, it wore a cape of salty grime accented by flecks of dirt.
Up to the off-road challenges
The trails and obstacles on the expansive Land Rover Experience grounds near Montebello were a swell place to show off the entry-level Land Rover's off-road chops, especially considering the rainy, cold conditions that left trails, two-tracks, and dirt roads soupy, sloppy, and slippery.
Although it's not at all surprising that the LR2 successfully traversed the prescribed course, the things the little ute achieved were nonetheless quite impressive -- climbing steep, muddy hills; crawling over tall, wheel-lifting, body-twisting mounds; swimming through ice-cold water slightly deeper than the floorboards; dropping confidently down roller-coaster-like grades at the brim of a sand/gravel pit (thanks, Hill Descent Control); and blasting down saturated dirt roads.
A breath of boosted air
The 2012 LR2 could do all of the same things, but it wouldn't have looked or sounded quite the same. The 2013 edition is still built on the variable EUCD platform that underpins Volvo's larger cars and SUVs and some global Ford products, but the LR2 ditches the 3.2-liter in-line six that's still used in those Volvos and had powered the small Land Rover since its debut back in 2006. Now the LR2 shares its engine with the popular and stylish Evoque, which hit U.S. dealers in October 2011, is loosely based on the LR2, and is built at the same Halewood, England, factory. That engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder supplied by Ford, which calls the engine EcoBoost. Land Rover calls it a big improvement over the old six-cylinder. The raspy four-banger produces 240 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque -- 10 more horsepower and 16 more lb-ft than the six-cylinder. EPA fuel economy figures improve by 2 mpg both in the city and on the highway (now 17/24 mpg city/highway). The quoted 0-to-60-mph time improves incrementally (8.2 versus 8.4 seconds) but still lags far behind the 177-pound-lighter Evoque's 7.1-second sprint. The new four-cylinder also weighs 88 pounds less than the 3.2-liter.
On real roads
Skip Pavlik, Land Rover North America product manager, claims that the weight reduction and additional stiffness in the front end (thanks to a new structural skidplate) improves the car's handling. It's been a while since we last tested an LR2, but we've always been fond of its on-road driving dynamics. Piloting the LR2 on a wide variety of roads in la belle province was a pleasant reminder of the little LR's adeptness. It's no sportier than competitors such as the Audi Q5, the BMW X3, and the Mercedes-Benz GLK -- in other words, it's clearly no sports car -- but it follows twisty corners well, exhibiting good body control and nice steering feel and weight. Continental winter tires helped maintain a solid contact patch on the pavement, which Quebec road crews had heavily dusted with deicing sand and salt, limiting us to pushing the small SUV to only six- or seven-tenths. Not that many LR2 owners (the oldest age group of Land Rover owners, by the way) will ever drive as hard as we did.
Customers are more likely to be annoyed by the SUV's reluctant throttle response and moderate turbo lag. These made us wish for a "sport" transmission mode like what you get with the angular Evoque (and which we have found to be very helpful in making our Four Seasons Evoque more obedient). Surely such a mode would have made the LR2 easier to drive more smoothly at low speeds and around town. Both vehicles use the same Aisin six-speed automatic transmission, although the Evoque is destined to receive an eight-speed sometime in the near future. Ride quality was good but not great over paved surfaces and rutted, potholed dirt roads alike. More suspension noise infiltrates the cabin than it should, but that's part of what you're giving up when you buy the least expensive Land Rover rather than splurging for the uplevel models.
One of Automobile Magazine's previous complaints about the LR2 was that it lacked the special feeling you get when you drive one of its larger siblings. Styling updates have addressed this quite a bit. Head- and taillamps with LEDs in interlocking-circle designs are the most noticeable component of the exterior face-lift. More attention went to the interior, now modernized with push-button starting and an electronic parking brake that frees up room around the shifter (which still isn't of the levitating type found in other Land Rovers because many Freelanders -- as the LR2 is known elsewhere -- are sold with manual transmissions). The much more welcoming center stack now has fewer buttons and a standard seven-inch color touchscreen, and it more closely mimics that of the Range Rover Sport, including the addition of a classy analog clock. Still-standard dual glass roof panels (the forward of which opens) and tall side windows contribute to the feeling of airiness that greets LR2 occupants.
Chris Marchand, executive VP of operations for Jaguar Land Rover North America, says that 90 percent of Evoque buyers are conquest customers (pulled away from other brands), so the LR2 hasn't been hurt very much by the presence of that swoopier, more eye-catching SUV with similar specs. Traditional Land Rover customers, he says, generally prefer the more upright, mini-LR4 design of the LR2.
The first 2013 Land Rover LR2s are now reaching dealers in the U.S. -- just ahead of the brand-new (and more important) 2013 Range Rover flagship. The base-model LR2 starts at $38,100, the midlevel HSE costs $40,600, and the top-of-the-line HSE LUX goes for $43,200. The similarly sized Evoque, by comparison, starts at $42,845 and goes up to $53,945, but it's been outselling the conservative-looking LR2 at a rate of almost three to one. In fact, Land Rover tends to sell about twice as many top-dog, often-six-figures Range Rovers. However, the LR2's place in the U.S. lineup isn't that of volume leader but of price leader. Fortunately, this role player now fits in a lot better among its rivals -- whether they're siblings or class competitors.
On sale: Now
Price: $38,100/$40,600/$43,200 (LR2/HSE/LUX)
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 240 hp, 250 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 17/24 mpg city/highway