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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.
While hurtling around fjords at speed on Iceland's smooth two-lane roads it occurred to us that the Freelander was much more than an off-road truck. Smooth and stable at 80 mph and above, with crisp handling and sharp steering, the Freelander quickly became an extension of my being. It went precisely where I wanted it to go and it had no trouble with maneuvers normally associated with sports sedans. It's easy to drive this Land Rover quickly, something that cannot be said for the Discovery.
Yet it'll go nearly anywhere. Stepping off smooth pavement, onto rocky, rutted trails covered with volcanic rock, we discovered that the Freelander rides smoothly and comfortably on rough roads. It soaks up potholes well. Handling is controlled and very sporty, allowing a driver who is so inclined to blast down unpaved roads at speed. Its transient response and predictable behavior instill confidence in slow and fast corners.
Putting it to a more strenuous test, we drove the Freelander across a glacier. It should go without saying that glaciers are slippery, a giant river of ice covered in places with snow. Nor are they smooth. Rivers of melting ice are everywhere, cutting deep trenches with slippery banks. Deep chasms create a constant hazard. Traction is limited.
The Freelander had little trouble with this hostile terrain. Its all-wheel drive system and a four-wheel electronic traction control (4ETC) kept us moving forward with surprisingly little difficulty. Freelander's impressive suspension articulation, with seven inches of wheel travel in front, and a full eight inches in the rear, allowed it to clamber over the deep rivulets of melting ice. Even when one or more wheels comes off the ground, an extreme situation, the all-wheel drive and traction control push and pull it through. Short front and rear overhangs afford good approach and departure angles, so the bumpers don't drag. The permanent all-wheel-drive system uses a viscous coupling unit that works with the traction control to transfer power to the tires with the best grip.
Land Rover's Hill Descent Control works great when going down steep, slippery slopes. (It's used on the Discovery, Range Rover, and in the BMW X5.) Pull it down into first on the automatic side and press the HDC button for steep descents; take your feet off the pedals and steer. Hill Descent Control uses the anti-lock brake system to keep the Freelander at a slow pace, below 5.6 mph. Brake if you need to, but that shouldn't be necessary in most conditions. (There is no low range available.)
Departing from Land Rover tradition, the Freelander is built on a unitized body and chassis, or monocoque, instead of a body on a frame. Unitized construction gives the Freelander strength and durability without excess weight. Substantial box-section rails run the length of the underbody and are tied together with integral crossmembers, a design inspired by the Defender's ladder-frame construction. The Freelander's rigid structure allows the suspension to do its job. Land Rover's chassis engineers were able to start with the proverbial clean sheet of paper when they designed the Freelander. A four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension with coil springs was chosen to provide generous amounts of wheel travel for off-road use with sufficient compliance and control for a comfortable ride and excellent handling.
The Land Rover Freelander's rack-and-pinion steering is sharp, very precise. The power assist is tuned to offer easy maneuvering when parking with European steering feel at high speeds. The steering system is mounted on the firewall to keep it out of harm's way in rugged terrain.
Unlike the Discovery, the Freelander has excellent brakes, effective and easy to modulate. It uses ventilated disc brakes in front, with drums in the rear. The ABS is designed to designed to work in all types of terrain.
The 2.5-liter V6 delivers good performance. The 2.5-liter, 24-valve, double overhead-camshaft
The Land Rover Freelander is the most interesting of all the small sport-utility vehicles. It brings luxury and panache to this class. SE and HSE models are swathed in leather. All come with a V6 engine and a suspension that handles well on the road. Off road, the Freelander will drive away all of the other SUVs in this class with the exception of the Jeep Liberty, which does not deliver the on-road poise of the Freelander.