On the inside, both vehicles are a far cry from their forebears, but if you're seeking a genuine Land Rover ergonomic and aesthetic experience, you'll find it inside the Freelander's cabin. This is both good and bad. First, the Freelander interior, especially with the HSE's "alpaca beige" leather upholstery and contrasting stitching, is rich and sumptuous, comfortable and unique, and its rear seat is surprisingly accommodating considering that the vehicle's overall package is fairly small. We love the heavy-duty rubber floor mats, and we appreciate the rear-seat fold-down center armrest, the little ceiling oddments nets, and the general aura of unmistakable Britishness. But in typical Land/Range Rover fashion, there's little logic to the secondary controls. Where are the window switches? Which way do you push them to, of all things, make the windows go down? The HSE's standard Harman Kardon stereo and Becker navigation system are even more inscrutable. The LED graphic depicting the earth and a rotating satellite is kind of cool, which is a good thing, because it might be the only entertainment you'll coax from this setup, so difficult is even the task of scanning for radio stations. Ah, the British.
Ah, the Americans. So sensible yet so silly. The Liberty's instrument panel is modern, pretty, and well designed, and the radio controls are a study in logic. The Limited's satin-finish interior trim is handsome and smooth to your fingers. Yet the seat bottoms are far too small for most Big Mac-fed Americans, and the leather seats, part of the pricey Customer Preferred Package 27G, are typical modern leather seats, lacking richness, character, or warmth. Might as well be vinyl.
And that front end. We're not sure if we want to see this visage coming at us down the road. A Jeep is supposed to have a certain seriousness of purpose about it; it shouldn't look like something that nail technicians drive. "Let me register my disappointment at the Liberty's toylike appearance," said west coast bureau chief Michael Jordan. "The front end practically shouts, 'Look, I'm a sport-ute for chicks!' It's not bad, really, but it just doesn't measure up against the Cherokee. It's way too cute."
In its own way, the Freelander also qualifies for cute-ute status, but that's more a result of its proportions, which are rather dainty, not only in comparison with big brother Discovery but even when compared with the Liberty. It's a handsome vehicle but in a suburban station wagon way. The Freelander could almost be accused of being too slick; we expect Land Rovers to be boxy and chunky and slightly funny-looking--that's a great part of the Discovery's appeal.
And still we're drawn to these SUVs. They're user-friendly, everyday vehicles, but they're more than that. Not only do their heritage and history set them apart from the current crop of other cute-utes, but their capabilities do so as well. We wish that the Liberty had a higher macho quotient, and we are a bit misty-eyed about the Freelander's New Age four-wheel drive, but the fact is, both vehicles took us where we wanted to go, which was farther than we'd be likely to get in many of their competitors. Overall, the Freelander does a better all-around job, but it's a mighty close verdict. The latest Jeep and Land Rover might make a few missteps as they reach out to a new generation of adventurers, but they haven't forgotten where they came from.