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.