GOOD CABIN, RIDE
AND ECONOMY, BUT
MOTOR IS PUSHED
Thinking of trading up or
down to a Freelander?
Andrew Pearce runs a rule
over the newcomer to see
how it might fit into farming
WHAT has got into Land Rover? First, after decades of studied conservatism, light loosening of the corporate stays produced the Discovery and then the remodelled Range Rover. Now Solihull seems to have abandoned corsets altogether to come up with the Freelander – a curvy 90s baby which plugs straight into the trendy SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) sector.
Company marketing men reckon three-door Freelanders in softtop and hardtop form will sell to younger, surfboard n jet-ski lifestyle buyers, while the five-door station wagon should appeal to families or to oldies wanting to trade down from bigger 4x4s. So being absolutely no fun at all, we opted for the diesel station wagon.
Right from the start Land Rover steals a march by offering a diesel variant; no other SUV maker does. Freelander quality looks refreshingly good; materials are largely classy and there arent any rough edges. And the shape is cleverly done, with echoes of Range Rover around the bonnet line, touches of Discovery here and there and a nose showing more than a hint of macho bull bar. Not so sure about rear lamps built into the bumper, though.
Alongside a Discovery, a station wagon sits 211mm (8.3in) lower, is 156mm (6.1in) shorter and 115mm (4.5in) narrower across the mirrors. Weight is around 500kg less.
* Engine, transmission,
Under the bonnet lurks an engine, Jim, but not as we know it. What looks like a little black box turns out to be a 2.0-litre Rover L-series direct injection turbodiesel, normally found in the firms saloon cars and tweaked for Freelander service.
Theres not much wrong with the way it delivers its 97hp. No lag, no steps in the power curve and a steady stream of torque from around 1200rpm. Itll spin to 4500 rpm (by which time it sounds like a wasp in a bottle and tingles your feet), but otherwise is pretty civilised, particularly in the mid-range. Higher revs apart, this is a perfectly pleasant and capable powerplant.
Only its not really in the right home. A well-specced Freelander weighs around 1500kg, and this the motor finds tough to crack. So while itll have a good go from almost any rpm the resulting pick-up is fairly languid; and towing up to the 2000kg limit is likely to need much gear lever activity.
Mind you, the cars relatively slippery shape lets it punt along at an indicated 80mph (75mph true), and itll push forward happily from there. Wind rush and tyre roar are held well down so the car is a quiet cruiser up to the legal limit; past it, engine growl starts to build. Funnily enough, a good underbody coat of the one Freelander accessory farmers get for free (mud) adds appreciable hush.
If performance is a faint disappointment – and compared to a flying Subaru Forester, it is – then economy is not. By any standard 33.9mpg is good, particularly after nearly 500 miles of thrashing.
The SUV market is judged not to need a low-ratio box (dont tell Subaru), so Freelanders get a simple five-speeder. And – wonder of wonders for a Land Rover product – the clutch is light, the shift fingertip-easy and the driveline completely devoid of slack and shunt. So conducting the car is never a fight. But after all that progress, the factory still lumber it with a right pudding of a throttle pedal. More positive operation here would perk up this driver no end.
* The inside story
The Freelanders fine modern cabin is a big attraction. Light pours in through a deep front screen and bounces off upbeat-colour plastics. A bold dash picks up Range Rover and Discovery detailing, moulding both into something fresh. Slinky green instrument dials complement anodised-look air vents, switch layout is generally clear and the radio shows whats happening on a remote display just below eye line.
Up front are twin air bags, a height-adjustable steering column, plenty of headroom and supportively comfortable seating for five. Variable lumbar support in the front chairs helps ageing backs and while theres no height adjustment, even shorties can just see the front corners. Generally youre perched higher than in a car, but not so grandly placed as in a full-sized 4×4. The rear bench is stepped (giving passengers a view of whats coming, rather than of the front headrests) and even with a 6ft 3in driver installed, they will still find good knee room.
All sorts of little shelves, two deep door bins and Discovery-style roof nets make the cab a practical proposition. And rather than going for gimmicky lifestyle stuff like picnic tables and bowls, Land Rover has stuck to a lockable box sunk into the rear load bay floor. But should you be accessory-inclined, the list runs to 100 or so add-ons.
A load bay blind snaps back to reveal a modest luggage area. The rear seat split-folds, then folds again to open out a load platform which would be bigger still if the seat ended up flat. The rear door carries the spare wheel and shows practical thinking; holding a key fob button drops the tailgate glass, letting stuff be loaded even when the back door cant be opened.
Cabin gripes are few, with some more irritating than others. Instrument binnacle reflections are a sunny-day pain which have no place in a modern car. Seats are set well in so getting on board is a stretch; getting out again is likely to deposit mud on trouser legs or stockings, according to your preference. A spare wheel, the brake light pod and centre headrest thoroughly clutter up the rear mirror; and while ventilation is good, heater output is so-so.
* Corners and such
Goodbye beam axles. Hello independent suspension, McPherson struts and rack and pinion steering: All firsts on a Land Rover, and what a welcome difference they make. No more wandering, juddering and mighty body roll; this one corners relatively flat, stays on line and steers as straight as you like. And it really grips, thanks to good suspension geometry, a viscous centre diff and electronic traction control. In normal driving, even on slippery roads, you cant unstick it. All the dynamics are a big step forward from the Discovery, and like the cabin are calculated to make the transition from car to off-roader as painless as possible.
Much the same goes for the ride. Soft but not wallowy, damped but not bouncy, with only a bit too much vertical movement for saloon-class comfort, its a pretty good compromise that wont upset anyone.
Land Rover had a little circle-squaring to do here, balancing the need to make life easy for the newcomer in a car whose main habitat is Tarmac, while still giving the Freelander positive ability on the rough.
The result is lowish first and reverse gears but no two-ratio box (so only one gearstick); a viscous centre diff (no lock to fret about); electronic traction control (using the ABS system to brake wheels as they spin, passing drive across the axle the wheel with grip) and Hill Descent Control, which bears a little explaining.
Invoked by a sliding gearstick collar, this cunningly takes control away from the driver on a slippery drop and gives it to the brakes. Electronics spot a feet-off-the-pedals condition and try to peg descent speed to 5.6mph (9kph) maximum. HDC operates only in first and reverse, irrespective of whether the car is coming down forwards or backwards.
Road tyres and frost just coming out of chalk turf gave all this trickery its chance to shine. Underbody clearance on 15in wheels is OK, though the low sump guard planes in tractor ruts and the suspension is seldom quiet. Wheel travel isnt spectacular either, but traction control brushes off these limits to let the Freelander get about in places where it wouldnt otherwise have moved. One downside shows as you fail a slippery cambered climb; with both front wheels spinning, the nose can track sideways pretty smartly.
Given the relatively high first and reverse ratios (and so limited help from engine braking), HDC is a real boon. Without it, coming down backwards on icy chalk gets hairy. With it switched in, everything is much more orderly. HDC might be a system born of necessity, but its a true help.
Less useful is the motor. Just strong enough with revs on the clock, it wont come back once those revs have dropped. This, plus the narrow ratio spread, limits how cavalier you can be in attacking climbs or shutting off to find grip.
* And the verdict?
A fine cabin, good ride, fairly low noise, cheeky looks and excellent economy are enough to offset a willing but overburdened motor, and so put the diesel Freelander high in the SUV tree. Theres just one snag: While Land Rover have engineered plenty into this car, they seem to have engineered out most of the fun. And thats a pity.
Clean design – the Freelander dash shows the rest how to do it.
Yellow gearstick knob engages Hill Descent Control, an electronic wheeze for overcoming the limits of a
single-range gearbox. It works, too.
Right: Front doors feature generous bins and a drinks can holder that at a pinch, takes a
Left: A smaller 4×4 with plenty of thought behind it – the £17,995 diesel Freelander.
"Just check the oil on the dipstick, sir, and our technicians will look after the rest…" Freelanders
L-series 2.0-litre diesel hides its light under a smooth black cover.
Left: Its that flask again, this time scaling the lockable rear underfloor compartment. Compare load space with the seat up…
Below: …to whats generated by folding the back seats. Platform is then as long as its wide, neatly demonstrated by the rolled-up blind. Rear door has extra storage, plus a clever glass arrangement.