21 November 1997

LEISURE ORIENTATED, BUT

ITS STILL A 4WD TOUGHIE

The growing 4×4

leisure market has

now increased by

one as Land

Rovers Freelander

starts to make its

way into dealers

showrooms.

Geoff Ashcroft

negotiated some

slippery slopes in

the Spanish

mountains

YOU could be forgiven for detecting the unseen hand of BMW in the development of Land Rovers new Freelander. There are no rattles and no loose-fitting bits of trim. The doors shut with a purpose and on the road, thanks partly to its monocoque body construction, it handles every bit as well as a medium-sized saloon. Its looks are genuinely striking and would by themselves probably guarantee the Freelanders leisure market success.

And heres the real surprise. Contrary to everything one imagines about cars destined for the leisure market, this baby Land Rover really does have bags of off-road ability. Of course, few Freelanders will ever find their way off the tarmac – a shame, really, because the vehicle is as happy off-road as it is on the black stuff.

&#42 Off-road capability

For a start it has permanent four-wheel drive. Then theres decent wheel travel of 19cm (7in) through a MacPherson strut/wishbone suspension system. And standard on XE variants is a clever anti-lock braking system which combines two LR systems, electronic traction control (ETC) and hill descent control (HDC).

Despite the absence of a low-range transfer box, ETC and HDC give the Freelander remarkable off-road capability. Theyre safe systems, too, so the Freelander can be pushed right to the point where Newtons laws of force and motion suggest you should back off.

Both ETC and HDC operate through the vehicles four-channel ABS braking system. This allows independent management of each wheel and sensitivity and reaction times for the system are impressive. When youre on a slope, ETC first senses wheelslip through the ABS sensors. It then intervenes by applying the brake to the spinning wheel, thereby increasing torque to the driving wheel to keep the vehicle moving. For the driver, theres a distinct lack of drama; you dont need to do anything and the system stays in operation up to 31mph.

&#42 The slippery slope

So youve made it up the slippery slope and you need to come down. What now? This is where LRs hill descent control (HDC) comes in. You select it by tugging at a small collar on the gear lever, but you can only do so in first and reverse gears. If you try in any other gear, therell be the usual flashing of little lights on the dashboard to tell you the systems switched on but not functioning.

Now take your feet off the pedals. The electronics will spot that the throttle is closed and the engine on overrun (as it would be under engine braking) and gently apply the brakes to maintain a suitably sedate forward speed of 5.6mph.

All this is available on higher-spec XE versions as standard (at a starting price of £19,995 for the 5-door) or as a £1000 option on lowlier craft. Worth scraping together the extra cash for, I reckon.

It also feels a pretty stable vehicle, thanks largely to the 1.5m (5ft) wheel track, which is wider than either the Range Rover or Discovery. And though the driving position is as hedge-hoppingly high as other off-roaders, it handles more like a car than youd expect.

I drove both the 1.8-litre 120hp petrol version and the 2-litre 97hp diesel. The diesel offered far better torque for off-roading, though the petrol unit is crisp and responsive on the open road.

A nice place to be? Definitely – the cabin is light and modern with an attractive caramel-coloured dash and the same classy feel as the Discovery. Unlike Land Rovers of old, whose interiors were rivalled only by WW1 tanks for their spartanness, the Freelander is loaded with all the kit now considered essential for a happy life.

Thoughtful touches include ceiling-mounted stowage nets (handy for maps or disobedient toddlers), an under-boot cubby hole and an electric window in the rear tailgate that can be operated from the remote control. Air-conditioning isnt standard though – youll need to tap the bank manager up for another £695. And the air bag-challenged glove compartment is minuscule (arent they all now?).

Verdict: Stylish looks and capable 4wd system will give the RAV4 and CRV a run for their money. Car-like road manners make long journeys pleasurable. Leave the three-door version to hairdressers.

Cabin is a nice light place to be. Small yellow collar around gear stick switches in hill descent control system.

FREELANDER DATA

&#8226 Model: Land Rover Freelander.

&#8226 Body & trim: five-door station wagon, three-door soft back, three-door hard back. Standard and XE trims.

&#8226 Engines: 2-litre 97hp four-cylinder turbo diesel, or 1.8-litre four-cylinder 120hp petrol.

&#8226 Top speed: 102mph (petrol), 96mph (diesel)

0-60mph: 11.1secs (petrol), 14.6secs (diesel).

&#8226 Fuel consumption: manufacturers combined figure – 27.6mpg petrol, 36.6mpg diesel.

&#8226 Price: three-door from £15,995, five-door from £17,995.