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Car reviews - Land Rover - Freelander - ES V6 3-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Looks, packaging, ergonomic improvements, better engine performance
Room for improvement
Price, rear seat entry/egress, cargo space, hardback removal, steering kickback

31 Aug 2001

FUN, youthfulness, urbanity: this is the image Land Rover likes to believe its Freelander three-door conveys, as opposed to the serious intent of its five-door wagon.

And why not? They couldn't possibly be straight-faced with a retail price of close to - and in ES trim, exceeding - $40,000. Could they?

While the fitment of a more suitable engine and a spec reshuffle has increased the little Landie's appeal, bumping up the entry price no less than $10,000 from its launch offering in 1998 has put it well clear of other alluring drop-top 4WDs and created a financial barrier that even the most image-conscious buyer will find hard to accept.

There are plenty of standard features Land Rover can thrust forth under the pretence of value. A V6 engine, for starters. Steptronic automatic transmission. And at the luxury ES level, heated leather seats.

But the fact remains that other tantalising nameplates like Vitara, RAV4 and the ultimate in urban cool - Wrangler - can be bought and paraded beachside for much less.

The shame of it all is that the Brits have finally brought us the Freelander three-door many had longed for: a thoughtful, attractive, versatile little four-wheel drive with an engine strong enough to shift its ego and considerable bulk without buckling at the knees.

The big news comes in the drivetrain department, where the previous "MGF" 1.8-litre engine has been dumped in favour of a "Rover 75" 2.5-litre V6 and mated to a new five-speed automatic with Steptronic sequential manual shift. A manual transmission is no longer available on the three-door.

There's also a sizeable mechanical upgrade and a flood of additional equipment to justify the price hike.

All petrol Freelanders offer power steering, cruise control, driver's seat lumbar adjustment, (one-stage) remote locking, CD stereo, electric windows, traction control, twin airbags, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, and the noisiest air-conditioning system you're ever likely to encounter.

ES brings an uprated stereo with the aforementioned heated, leather front pews, a six-CD changer mounted under the front passenger seat and 16-inch alloy wheels.

Little has changed with the attractive three-door on the outside, save for the extended front bumper and grille altered to accommodate the V6.

Despite being based on a common platform and sharing most external dimensions with the five-door, the three-door remains instantly recognisable from the side profile with its long front doors, thick centre pillar and hinged side windows.

The hardtop model retains the twin-panel "targa roof" above the front seats and the distinctive glass-reinforced polyester hardback, while on the inside it continues with heavily sculptured door panels and exposed sheetmetal on the centre pillars.

It?s an attractive interior presentation, now with improved switchgear placement as a result of a new centre console. In particular, the electric front window switches are now located between the front seats, leaving less significant switchgear like the rear window button at the hard-to-reach position behind the gearshift.

Indeed, the only significant ergonomic blot remaining from behind the wheel is the decidedly small speedo.

Cruise control is adjusted from the steering wheel, the rotary temperature dials are easily found and large buttons for the driving lights and rear windscreen wipers are positioned high alongside the instrument binnacle.

As ever, there are lots of removable rubber trays around the driver's domain and clever storage spots top to tail. The doors miss out on bottle holders as seen in the five-door but the "canoes" fitted in this position can hold a huge amount of gear. Together with seatback pockets, deep rear bins, an overhead sunglasses console, a couple of shallow gloveboxes and a (flimsy) centre console bin, all the odds and sods are going to find a home.

Slight people should find the leather front seats comfortable and supportive, however, those with average (and above) height or weight could have difficulty getting comfortable. More specifically, the high driving position and the front seatbelts do not adjust for height, and the front seats have only a small amount of fore/aft travel.

The front seats also come without a tilt/slide function to assist with rear seat entry and egress, although the restricted front seat travel ensures there's at least some rear foot space when the tilt-only function is employed.

Once in the back, there's a generous amount of headroom, good legroom but negligible shoulder room if all seats - there's now three, each with a head restraint and lap-sash belt - across the bench are occupied. At least the omission of rear grabhandles won't be missed if all seats are occupied.

Split 60/40, the rear bench can fold and tumble neatly to liberate cargo space and provide a good barrier behind the front seats. Freelander needs such versatility because its luggage area is tiny distance from tailgate to seatback (when upright) is just 685mm.

A power outlet is provided for the rear seat compartment and child seat anchorage points are perfectly positioned on the rear seatback. The rear windows are also hinged for improved rear passenger comfort.

The "targa" roof panels on the hardback flip up and can be easily removed with the aid of a latch for each. These brittle latches are also used to help with removal of the hardback, which is a much more complex operation and requires at least two people.

There is a clever sensor that automatically lowers the rear window when the rear latches are released, however, the dismantling process hereon is all a matter of brawn AND brains. Unlike the soft-top, hardback removal must be done before the journey. And the refitting job requires even more patience and skill.

Developing 130kW at 6500rpm and 247Nm at 4000rpm, the new V6 engine is smooth and refined and does a resolute job of shifting the 1564kg unladen mass.

Yet for all the engine's willingness, and the transmission's adeptness, Freelander is still not particularly quick and asks to be worked hard if the benefits are to be fully realised.

Fuel economy suffers in the process, and the asking for premium unleaded is a constant source of pain at every fuel stop.

More important for some will be the knowledge that tackling steep inclines need not now require going at the grade with a banzai approach - or going home. There's plenty of low-down grunt to take things easy.

Freelander is still not as capable off-road as, say, the Suzuki Grand Vitara - the latter's dual-range transfer case (far superior to the HDC, or hill descent control, system), ladder frame chassis, suspension design, better ground clearance and the like make sure of that.

But it remains more competent off the beaten track than others of its ilk.

There's more underbody protection than we've come to expect in the soft-roader class, and the 186mm ground clearance and approach and departure angles of 30 and 34 degrees respectively are soon appreciated on mountain trails. A reasonable ramp-over angle also means fair-sized mounds can be tackled without fear of scraping.

For what it's worth, HDC is easily engaged and generally maintains an acceptably slow crawl downhill, though its grabby electronic operation is nowhere near as smooth as conventional low-range gearing. And be mindful that the system does NOT work in Steptronic mode - or uphill.

Where Freelander excels is off the fire trails and onto dirt roads and bitumen.

Revisions to the all-independent suspension now helps provide a supple, comfortable and well-controlled ride, while the ES clings to dirt and tar alike extremely well thanks in part to the 16-inch wheel/tyre combination and viscous-coupled full-time four-wheel drive.

Steering is direct, however kickback - severe at times - is a constant source of annoyance while driving on the bitumen and a precursor to a fair amount of rattle through the steering rack over dirt-road corrugations.

Dust sealing is excellent, though, as is the general level of refinement - particularly for a vehicle with a detachable roof - and the performance of the ABS brakes on all surfaces.

That said, a rough-terrain workout exposed the tendency of the standard rear drum brakes to fade.

Like the five-door, the V6-powered Freelander three-door is a big improvement that rectifies many of the previous model's shortcomings.

But price will continue to drastically limit its appeal.

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