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.