Solihull, England When the Land Rover Freelander was launched in Europe in 1998, the boss of Land Rover North America at the time, Charlie Hughes, beheld the feeble four-cylinder engine lying in the mini-ute's chest and pronounced it a 90-pound weakling unfit for the rigors of American life. In the intervening four model years, though, a lot has changed about Land Rover in general and the Freelander in particular: Hughes is gone (to Mazda), Land Rover is under the wing of Ford, and the Freelander has grown significantly more robust, shedding the anemia of its first incarnation. In fact, 70 percent of the 2002 Freelander has little or no kinship with the SUV that Hughes first dismissed.
Of these parts, the most significant is the Freelander's new V-6 engine. This is the very solid Rover KV6, and it produces 175 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Power is delivered seamlessly, aided by a BMW Steptronic transmission. Although it's down roughly 25 horses on the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute's V-6, the refinement and flexibility of the Rover engine compensate for the power imbalance relative to its new corporate siblings.
We drove the Freelander on Land Rover's Land and Jungle course at the company's Solihull factory compound in England. The picture that emerged from this outing was of a small but indomitable SUV. Strictly speaking, the Freelander is more crossover vehicle than sport-ute--it has a unibody skeleton and a traction-control-based four-wheel-drive system--but it proved hale enough for every dale.
Land Rover's Land and Jungle course is an amazing piece of real estate. It's essentially a seventeen-acre rain forest dropped into the English midlands, complete with exotic birds and wide-leafed flora. Still, it might seem more authentic if Land Rover had sprinkled a few earnest college students around the place to paint peace signs on their faces and throw themselves in front of the test vehicles at appropriate moments.
The Land Rover forded the course's foot-deep streams and ably slithered through its jungle mud. The great longitudinal compliance built into the Freelander's suspension (its wheels' ability to move backward) helped minimize impact harshness. With its front and rear skid plates packed with mud, the baby Land Rover came off the Land and Jungle course emitting a satisfied, postcoital steam.
When we got the Freelander on pavement, the benefits of all its modifications became clear. During the brief period in which BMW owned Land Rover, the Bavarians not only added the Steptronic transmission, but they also helped with the recalibration of the Freelander's steering and suspension systems. Long wheel travel (more than seven inches in front, eight inches at the rear), stiffer low-friction struts, and a steering rack with extra-long track rods help provide accurate steering and a compliant ride both on and off the road. And, thanks to a lot of NVH work, the cabin is as silent as a Don Rickles gig at the annual meeting of the NAACP.
The Freelander's only persistent shortcoming is its underwhelming cargo/interior package. The Ford Escape, the Honda CR-V, and the Toyota RAV4 are all more than one-third larger in their posteriors than the Freelander, which stows only 46.6 cubic feet with its seats folded. Also, the Land Rover's seats are a bit too tight for a crop of corn-fed Hoosiers, calling into question the Freelander's premium positioning. For what, indeed, is more luxurious than space?
Well, at least its price is premium. The average Freelander will leave your local Land Rover Centre for about $28,000. At that price, Land Rover North America has no delusions of high-volume sales, even if the Freelander is the best-selling SUV in Europe.
Because of its size, the Freelander still seems best suited to the Continent, but it is exotic, romantic, and now capable enough to divert the American near-luxury-sedan buyer toward a small SUV. So think of the Freelander as a crumpet-sized Range Rover--a little patrician, maybe, but as unflappable and refined as a character out of Somerset Maugham.