Revitalized entry into the Land Rover lifestyle
Photography by Scott Mead & the author
Land Rover has come a long way from its agrarian and military roots in the late 1940s, when the original Land Rover was available only as an open utility vehicle. Today, you can still find classic Land Rovers crawling through England's highlands, and the Defender line carries on the proud traditions. But Stateside, the current model range is far removed from the simple workhorse origins. For the 21st century, luxury has replaced simplicity, though the core qualities of durability and off-road excellence continue. And instead of one model, three are offered in the United States for 2004: Top-line Range Rover, mid-level Discovery, and the subject of our test, the compact Freelander.
Hitting our shores in 2002 after a successful six-year tenure in Europe, the full-time, all-wheel-drive Freelander was met with luke-warm reviews, due in part to lackluster performance and interior materials and design that did not meet expectations. To raise the Freelander's appeal, Land Rover turned to the highly successful, BMW-engineered Range Rover, to borrow style elements, just as was done with the revitalized Discovery.
For 2004, the Freelander's exterior features a freshened, more upscale look that includes a redesigned front bumper (now in body color), grille, and twin-pod headlamps a la Range Rover. The rear bumper is also body color, and the taillamps are set higher in the bumper to increase visibility.
Inside, the new interior materials are marginally better than those in the previous iteration. The rubber-ized "Technical Fabric" seat material makes for easy cleanup after a day of dusty soft roading. However, the skirt-catching, cat-tongue-like-grip is overkill for an SUV that will see more pavement than dirt, plus the Velcro-like fabric makes entering and exiting a difficult proposition. For a luxury-branded vehicle, we find the acres of hard plastic and the sensory overload of different textures that surround the Freelander's occupants a hard sell, even for a sub-30-grand vehicle. Frankly, we're seeing better on lower cost, mainstream vehicles.
The front heated seats provide generous levels of thigh lateral and lumbar support, with the latter featuring manual adjustment. Long-legged individuals will quickly become irritated with the passenger footwall-mounted fan blower, and those in the over-six-foot crowd will curse the high-mounted seats and low roofline that's a noggin thumper.
We like the new gauges, switchgear, and secondary radio/cruise controls mounted on the wheel, but with the exception of stalk-mounted functions, nearly every switch/knob/button requires a significant reach while underway. The standard-issue 240-watt AM/FM/6-disc in-dash CD Harman Kardon audio system is the interior's most redeeming feature, offering crisp highs and thunderous lows that made teens take notice during petrol fill-ups.
Thanks to minimal tilt front seats, the rear bench is only for those with a slender body or preferably gymnasts. With the removable aft roof in place, the back seat is somewhat claustrophobic and boomy. That's easily remedied by removing the roof, but it's not an easy feat: Release the four couplings, lift the roof about an inch (another quarter-inch and you'll hit the full-length roof rails), and slide it underneath said roof rails (watch those fingers). Two people can take off the 70-lb crown, but we found it easier with three people juggling corners as the top came off.
One area where Land Rover has retained its farm truck roots is with the 2.5-liter/174-horsepower V-6 - it's as noisy as a worn John Deere. Coupled to a five-speed automatic transmission with the "CommandShift" manumatic mode and full-time all-wheel-drive, cog spacing is rather tight, enabling brisk take-offs, but requiring quicker shifting under moderate or aggressive acceleration. Our timed runs netted a 0-60-mph sprint in 10.8 seconds, and the quarter-mile dash in 17.8 seconds @ 77.4 mph. During our trials we found that, as the tach swings north, the DOHC powerplant becomes easily winded in the mid-to-upper range, and noisy in the process. At 60 mph in high gear, the V-6 turns a moderate 2500 rpm, and at "normal" highway speeds, turning 3500 rpm makes for a buzzy cabin.
Our testing staff was impressed with the Freelander's front-disc/rear-drum-ABS-assisted brakes that pulled a nose-standing 60-mph to zip in 122 feet. There's moderate pedal travel, and initial feel is a bit mushy, but the ABS is quite refined with minimal pedal pulse.
The four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension with coil springs is set up for off-roading in mind, with 7.1 inches of travel front, and 9.4 inches rear. The soft suspension tuning provides a compliant ride on-road and easily quells the rough stuff in the dirt. The downside is a rather wallowy performance on curvy roads and potential excitement if you have to change lanes quickly. After our emergency lane change exercise, Senior Road Test Editor Chris Walton penned, "Only one other SUV spooked me as much as the Freelander does - the Jeep Wrangler. But where the Jeep just slides on its off-road tires, the Freelander digs in and lifts one (or more) wheels off the ground."
Pulling off the pavement, we found the Freelander to be a natural on soft road and sand, where its viscous-coupled, all-wheel drive easily distributed power to the wheels with grip. It also was a master on the frame-twister course -- the Freelander's structure is amazingly strong, allowing us to open and close every door with opposing corner wheels at full droop. Half way through the sluice box, we wished Land Rover had equipped the Freelander with a low-range transfer case - trying to climb miniature boulders with lots of throttle input is only good for generating a hot transmission and migraine headaches.
Steep ascents are also troublesome for the Freelander: it ran out of steam less than 50 yards into our standard 35-degree ascent. Thankfully, we had activated Land Rover's Hill Descent Control, which utilizing the vehicle's ABS system, walked us back down the hillside with little fanfare. Motoring around the back side of our "mountain," we entertained a group of wide-eyed motocrossers as HDC walked the Freelander down under full ABS control. Cool.
If tackling honey-do projects is your thing, we humbly suggest you befriend a neighbor with a pickup. With maximum cargo volume hovering at 42.2 cubic feet (46.6 in the five-door), you'll be hard pressed to get a month's worth of Costco sundries in the back. The rear seats further hamper load carrying as they do not fold flat, leaving nasty humps to deal with. Even its lower-priced competition cleans the Freelander's capacity clock (Jeep's Liberty holds 69 cu-ft, Nissan's Xterra accepts 66 cu-ft, and the Ford Escape holds 65 cu-ft).
Land Rover sees the Freelander as the gateway to future Range Rover owners, especially those who prefer an active lifestyle. However, this is not a Serengeti-bred machine, rather, one that's Starbucks-weaned. Yes, the Freelander is a decent vehicle, tailored to those who want an entre into the Land Rover lifestyle. For those want to live the adventures may want to consider Jeep's Liberty or Nissan's Xterra; both will get you farther into the back woods, without the need for a trailer to pull all your gear and offer more vehicle for the money. Anglophiles may also consider bucking up to a pre-owned Discovery, as this two-door SUV is nibbling at the more premium machine's bumper in price.
2004 Land Rover Freelander E3
Base Price $26,330
Price as Tested $27,995
Vehicle Layout Front engine, AWD, 2-door, 5-pass
Engine 2.5L/175-hp V-6, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
0-60 mph, sec 10.8
1/4-mile, sec @ mpg, ft 17.8 @ 77.4
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 122
Skidpad, g 0.73
600-ft slalom, mph 58.9
On sale in U.S. Currently