Being the world's premium off-road brand with a couple of renowned nameplates has sustained Land Rover for quite some time -- some would say even through periods of undeserved success. Direct competitors were few, even if a few SUVs played in the same price range. Discovery and Range Rover customers knew who they were and Land Rover marketers and salespeople knew what they wanted.
Then along came Freelander.
Land Rover sales staff didn't know what to make of the Freelander or, more accurately, the people who shopped in the Freelander's snack bracket. Rather than come into showrooms already convinced they wanted to buy a Land Rover, these often younger, less-affluent prospects wanted to compare -- can you believe it -- a steeped-in-tradition Land Rover with a Honda CR-V. Or a Toyota RAV4. Or a Jeep Liberty.
Land Rover's poor salespeople could scarcely believe what they were hearing. The audacity -- comparing a fine Solihull off-roader with a "faux by faux" from Hamamatsu!
The problem was that the bosses back in England, particularly those setting the price, thought the same. When it arrived in 2002, a base Freelander S started at $34,800, equipped with cloth seats and minimal equipment. By the time one moved up to the leather-covered SE, the Freelander was perilously close to $40,000, giving it a premium of almost $6,000 compared with a top-of-the-line CR-V. It's hardly a surprise that many shopping for a neo-luxury sport-cute thought: "Yeah, I'm willing to pay a little extra for the Land Rover badge and the V6. But $6,000? Get a life."
Vic Bernardini, president of Aston Martin Land Rover Jaguar Canada, listened. For 2004, the Freelander (much like the Jaguar X-Type) is finally priced where it should have been two years ago when it first arrived. So, although the Freelander's base price stays the same at $35,900, the base S model has been dropped completely. Instead, $36K buys what is essentially last year's SE version, albeit with a suede-like seat material instead of leather and a single-disc CD player instead of a six-disc changer (an upgraded 240-watt Harman/Kardon stereo with in-dash CD changer is optional).
That's a price reduction of about $3,500. The top-of-the-line, leather-equipped HSE (also with a single-disc CD player) is more sensibly priced as well; its $39,900 sticker is down some $4,500 from last year. (The low-volume, two-door SE3 continues as well, retailing for $37,900.)
This wouldn't be nearly as impressive if Land Rover had not also made two major revisions to the Freelander. Most immediately noticeable is the radically revised front end treatment. Much more aggressive, the body-coloured grille along with the Range Rover headlights give the Freelander a more distinctive and familial look. Considering the hood and fenders remain unchanged, it's amazing how dramatically its appearance has changed with so few actual alterations. It also doesn't hurt that the new twin-pocket headlamps provide 70 per cent brighter illumination. The rear tail lights have also been given the Range Rover treatment, though its effect isn't as dramatic.
Even more welcome, though, will be the revisions to the Freelander's cabin. Easily the biggest complaint from prospective purchasers, the previous Freelander's interior was a leftover from the disco era. It didn't look too bad in monochromatic black, but introduce any alternate shade and it became plasticky and dated.
For 2004, it has been extensively updated with a new instrument pod, loosely based on the Range Rover's, and a completely new centre stack. The window switches have been moved from the centre console to the door where they belong and, praise be, there is even a cup holder that works and does not look like a tacked-on contraption designed by Mattel.
Land Rover also claims it has reduced air conditioning noise. Earlier models made quite a racket when gale-force cooling was called for. A few compromises remain, though. Those Mustang-style vents remain as does the dash's little cargo holder. More switchgear has been moved to the top of the centre stack but they are still a bit of a reach. Nonetheless, the overall effect is much welcomed and moves the Freelander's interior up from also-ran to contender, especially since even the base model's seat material is quite sumptuous. It is worth noting, however, that although there is plenty of room for passengers, particularly in the rear, the Freelander's cargo capacity is definitely middle-of-the-road. It doesn't have the copious area of Honda's CR-V, nor are its seats fore-and-aft adjustable to allow you to tailor the rear area's size. And it won't be until the Freelander gets a complete redesign that the confounded rotary seat-back adjuster Europeans prefer will be replaced.
The rest of the Freelander is pretty much status quo, which means it is pretty good. Power still comes from the 174-horsepower, 2.5-litre, DOHC V6. It is certainly not the most powerful V6 in this segment and is only somewhat more powerful than the revitalized four-bangers in the CR-V and RAV4. But it is noticeably smoother than its competition, so much so that every time I got the Freelander near a highway, the speed crept up to 140 kilometres an hour and beyond without me noticing.
This also speaks volumes as to its on-road comportment. No sports car, not even the sportiest of SUVs, the Freelander is still plenty comfortable at speed. Even on the twisty roads around Laguna Beach, Calif., where the new model was put through its paces, the Freelander seemed plenty comfortable.
Off-road, of course, the Freelander lambastes its competition (save, perhaps, Jeep's Liberty). It may not have the two-speed transfer case of the Discovery or any differential locks. And its permanent all-wheel-drive system with a viscous centre coupling may normally transfer 95 per cent of the engine's torque to the front wheels. But thanks to nifty technology such as the 4ETC all-wheel electronic traction control and Land Rover's unique Hill Descent Control, it positively shames other sport-utes. The first uses the Freelander's standard ABS system to prevent the spinning of any wheel by judicious application of the appropriate brake, while Hill Descent emulates the pace of a low-range gearset by limiting speed on steep downhills to eight kilometres an hour. Hill Descent Control works both in first and reverse gears as we found out during some rigorous off-roading on California's picturesque Catalina Island. And the all-wheel traction control system certainly came in handy scaling some of the peaks around the Catalina Conservatory.
If Land Rover is to be criticized, it's that it wouldn't, or couldn't, properly price the Freelander when it was launched. Now, however, the SE is but $3,400 more than a Honda CR-V EX-L. And it boasts a V6 engine as well as that Land Rover badge.