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First drive: Freelander fights for value

Getting a handle: The Freelander Sport is a capable handler, even though enjoyment levels are dulled somewhat by the lifeless steering.

Land Rover aims to beat the overprice tag with a better value upgraded Freelander

29 Sep 2003

By GAUTAM SHARMA in ENGLAND

THE Freelander is a bit of an anomaly. Although similar in size to a horde of other compact four-wheel drives, the square-jawed Brit competes on price against much larger rivals.

Land Rover’s official line is that the Freelander is a “premium compact SUV”, a category it supposedly invented. But the fact is there was nothing really premium about the original Freelander – except, perhaps, its Land Rover badge.

Land Rover managing director Matthew Taylor concedes the Freelander is overpriced and hints that the updated model, launched to the international motoring media last week, will offer better value.

“We struggled to get the Freelander into Australia at a competitive price,” he said. “We need to find a premium price proposition that is acceptable. We also needed to get product issues sorted, which we’ve done with this update. It’s now a much better value proposition.” Be that as it may, the existing Freelander has sold quite strongly in certain markets. Land Rover sold 15,000 examples in the US last year and is on track to shift 24,000 in the UK this year. The launch of the updated model should keep this momentum going.

The revamped Freelander makes its Australian debut next January and will be offered with diesel power only, unlike the current model, which can also be had with a 2.5-litre petrol V6. As is the case now, three and five-door versions will be available.

But the big news is the addition of a Sport model that is claimed to be “the sportiest Land Rover ever built”.

“It’s a natural option for those who prioritise on-road handling,” Mr Taylor said.

The Sport rides on a smart set of 18-inch alloy wheels and it uses lowered and firmer suspension to offer sharper, flatter cornering characteristics. Land Rover says the Sport performs better on tarmac and gravel roads and only loses out to its siblings on deep-rutted tracks, owing to its reduced ground clearance of 165mm.

In fact, the Freelander Sport’s reduced ground clearance poses a slight problem for Land Rover Australia as it prevents the vehicle from being imported with the lower tariff applicable to four-wheel drives. Clearance of at least 180mm is a necessary pre-condition to qualify under this rule. Company officials are working on a solution to this problem.

Mechanically, the updated Freelander is much the same as the outgoing model. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine generates 82kW at 4000rpm and 260Nm at a low 1750rpm. Land Rover opted against persisting with the V6 model as it says this engine’s high-revving characteristics make it less suitable to Australian conditions.

Transmission choices comprise a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with CommandShift, which enables the driver to effect sequential shifts with a simple nudge of the lever.

As before, suspension is by independent MacPherson struts at all four corners and stopping power comes from ventilated disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear – moderated by Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD).

The 59-litre fuel tank endows the diesel Freelander with a touring range of around 700km, according to Land Rover.

Although its mechanicals are much the same, the updated Freelander has benefited appreciably in the aesthetics department. The revised face features a mesh grille and re-profiled front bumper – now body-coloured – with integrated fog lights.

The new “twin-pocket” headlights are clearly influenced by the Range Rover and this is by no means a bad thing. Apart from looking better, the lights are also claimed to provide 70 per cent greater intensity.

The rear bumper is also body-coloured and the tail-lights are positioned higher, which Land Rover says improves their visibility and reduces the likelihood of them being obscured by mud or dust.

Inside, the Freelander benefits from better trim materials – including leather and metallic finishes – and the switchgear, instrumentation, centre console and fascia have also been redesigned.

The Freelander’s off-road credentials are compromised by its lack of low-range gearing, but it does come with Hill Descent Control (HDC), Electronic Traction Control (ETC) and, of course, full-time four-wheel drive. Most underbody components are tucked out of the way and its suspension components appear more robust than those of its typical opposition.

Exact local specifications have yet to be announced, but expect all models to come with air-conditioning, dual airbags, central locking, a CD stereo and power windows and mirrors.

The current ES model will be dropped, leaving the base model and SE and HSE variants. The new line-up will also include the Sport model, provided Land Rover Australia is able to find a way to bring it in at the right price.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE Freelander is a competent all-rounder, as far as compact four-wheel drives go, but until now it has offered few reasons to justify its price premium. The appeal of the updated model will depend largely on it being a “much better value proposition”, as promised by Land Rover MD Matthew Taylor.

As mentioned earlier, the revamped Freelander is a winner in the looks department. The cosmetic upgrades have worked a treat and the baby Landy effectively incorporates Range Rover styling cues.

Its interior ambiance is also improved, thanks to its revised layout and better trim materials.

But a few gripes remain. The driver’s seat is still not adjustable for height and the steering wheel is not reach adjustable, so a comfortable driving position can be elusive. Tall drivers may find the dials are partially obscured by the steering wheel.

What’s more, the seats lack sufficient lumbar support, which can be a pain (literally) on long trips.

On the road, the Freelander performs competently, with the 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine providing a respectable amount of oomph off the mark. It runs out of puff high in the rev range, but few drivers are likely to feel the need to wring the Landy’s neck that hard.

The five-speed manual gearbox is a slick unit and the CommandShift auto is also beyond reproach.

GoAuto had the opportunity to traverse a tricky man-made obstacle course in the Freelander Sport and it was equal to all the challenges presented, including a section that had diagonally opposite wheels dangling helplessly in mid-air.

A subsequent fang across twisty backroads near Manchester, England, revealed the Freelander Sport is a capable handler, even though enjoyment levels are dulled somewhat by the lifeless steering.

Overall, the new Freelander is a sharp looker and it feels well built, but it’s debatable whether it has improved enough to significantly boost its appeal.

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