If only a Land Rover Freelander had been available, the characters in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" could have saved themselves days of toil over harsh terrain. A Freelander would have quickly transported Professor Hardwigg, his reluctant nephew, and guide Hans to the volcano that allowed them to follow in the footsteps of subterranean explorer Arne Saknussemm. In reality, no one, including Land Rover, has ever been to the center of the earth. At least not to our knowledge. But Land Rovers have clambered over most of the crust of this planet. For our part, we drove the new, highly capable Freelander up the side of a volcano and partially across a huge glacier. Technically, the new Land Rover Freelander doesn't match the off-road capability of the bigger Discovery or of the expensive Range Rover. In reality, though, it will go much farther into the backcountry than most anyone will want to go. Equipped with permanent all-wheel drive, traction control, Hill Descent Control, and a surprisingly capable suspension, the Freelander easily surpasses the capability of the Ford Escape, Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and other so-called cute-utes. For practical purposes, the Freelander matches the off-roadworthiness of the impressive Jeep Liberty. On the road, the Freelander drives superbly, much better than the LIberty and it's more satisfying than the other cute-utes. Crisp rack-and-pinion steering, an agile road-worthy suspension, and an extremely rigid chassis give it excellent road manners, even when driven aggressively. The Freelander is stable at high speeds both on pavement and on gravel. It has excellent brakes. It rides smoothly and it's comfortable. The sport shifter that controls the automatic transmission makes it fun to drive on winding blacktop, allowing the driver to keep the V6 engine revving in the power band. In short, the Land Rover Freelander strikes a fine balance between asphalt agility and off-road capability. Around town, it's smooth and quiet. It feels like an premium vehicle. The Freelander is, as Land Rover puts it, the first premium, small sport-utility vehicle.