Land Rover's compact Freelander has been a sales hit in several world markets since '98 and is heading our way late this year as a 2002 model. It has been substantially remodeled and upgraded to satisfy American tastes and in keeping with Land Rover's upscale sport/utility image here.
At 175 in. long atop a 101-in. wheelbase, the Freelander covers virtually the same footprint as the Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute. It's the first Land Rover model to employ a robust unibody instead of the traditional trucklike ladder frame. An all-new 2.5L/175-hp DOHC V-6 is backed by a five-speed Steptronic automatic transmission. All U.S.-spec Freelanders feature all-wheel drive; no low-range transfer case or 2WD models will be offered; but Hill Descent Control, traction control, and all-terrain ABS are standard offerings.
We initially were concerned over the smallish engine and horsepower rating, but the powertrain works exceptionally well, especially the five-speed auto. The Freelander handles nicely, rides well, and is reasonably quiet too. All the electronics make for outstanding traction in slippery conditions, although with no low range, it's not going to walk the tallest rocks. The interior is pleasant enough, but suffers from a few Land Rover-ish ergonomic quirks.
The Freelander's trump card is its price, which should start just below $26,000, with fully loaded, leather-lined models coming in at roughly $30,000 -- handily putting Land Rover into the higher-volume lower-priced SUV segment where it's never before been able to play.