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.