Land Rover Freelander
By Mark Williams

Looking to muscle some breathing space in a cramped compact SUV marketplace, Land Rover has finally brought the Freelander to U.S. shores--and it's bet the bank on its success. With a base price of $25,800, it becomes the least-expensive Land Rover sold by more than $8000. The maker hopes the new Freelander will double total volume sales in less than a year by offering something no other manufacturer has: a premium-quality compact SUV.

Although sold in Europe for several years, this next-generation Freelander is unique for Land Rover in many ways: It has a unibody chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, no low-range gear in the transfer case, and no V-8 underhood. With that said, it does offer some unparalleled technology in the compact segment. An all-new rack-and-pinion steering setup and full-time all-wheel-drive system make this demi-SUV one of the most predictable and sure-footed vehicles on- and off-pavement of the group. In fact, each of our test drivers commented on the impressive ride and handling characteristics--typically not something we've heard about on other Land Rover products, but critical for this segment. Although a four-cylinder and diesel model are sold overseas, the only engine available in the U.S. Freelander will be a 24-valve 2.5L V-6 that produces 175 hp at 6250 rpm. While not stellar, its relatively low (high numerically) 3.47:1 first-gear ratio and 3.66:1 axle gears seem to compensate for any power deficiency and provide good jump off the line. In addition, testers were all positive about the first-for-the-class five-speed Steptronic transmission that allows for both automatic and manual operation. Also one of our favorite features, the Hill Descent Control can automatically manage engine speed and braking down steep hills in forward or reverse.

Plenty of storage holes and compartments make the interior uniquely Land Rover (dual gloveboxes, retractable cupholders, overhead netting). Like wise, a moonroof and roll-down rear window add to its versatile personality, and the in-dash navigation system/ CD/stereo option offers a spectacular array of anti-theft, routing, and sound-system custom programming. Our only complaint came from our taller testers who found seat and headroom, although still offering good line-of-sight heights, a challenge. Fully optioned, our test unit came in at $31,575.