They’re interesting vehicles, Land Rovers.
Not just because of their virtually unrivalled off-road abilities or the awesome technology that is packed into current Discoverys and Range Rovers, but also because of the near-fanatical loyalty and affection their owners have for them – often in the face of severe bouts of mechanical unreliability.
Owners may get frustrated but they seldom abandon their Rovers, and many replace their spottily-reliable steeds with another mount from the same stable.
Land Rover unreliability tales are legend, especially affecting the old model Discovery and the first generation Freelander.
But people shrug off the bad times. Take the case of the woman at the night school class I attended last year.
I’d spotted her arriving in her Discovery the first couple of weeks and then on the third I arrived late to find her Rover being winched on to a flatbed tow truck.
She was almost blasé about it. Just part of owning a Discovery, she said. There were often times like this but the car’s virtues far outweighed the occasional glitch, and she felt good – and safe – driving the Disco with its command-seating position that gave a panoramic view over surrounding traffic.
The only person I know who really got salty about his Rover was a colleague with a next-to-last generation Range Rover.
He wasn’t really a Rover kind of guy, was talked into buying it when he mentioned he’d like to replace his Mercedes-Benz coupe with an SUV.
He was never really happy with the big 4x4 which gave a few minor problems before committing the sin that saw him trade it in – the leather upholstery split on the lower seat, running from the cushion down towards the cabin floor.
That was the last straw and he swapped the Rover for a Nissan Patrol, a car with just as much character – though decidedly more rugged and rough around the edges – and the bonus of legendary, virtually bullet-proof reliability.
Not a Rover man, unlike the bloke I got into conversation with at a party.
We swapped stories about the decline of the British car industry and the unreliability issues that afflicted Discoverys and Freelanders – and then he stopped me in my tracks by saying he owned one of each, and was very keen to know about the new Freelander. Had I driven one and what did I think of it?
Well that was a few weeks before this month’s Freelander 2 launch so all I could say was “no, but I’ll let you know” while scouring my mind to try to remember what insults I’d been heaping on his two beloved SUVs.
We drove the Freelander 2 on a superb media launch drive programme using highways and tortuous gravel roads between Christchurch and Nelson.
It was a challenging route for car and driver, though the Rover was never really challenged which is more than can be said for this driver at least.
There are two models in the Freelander 2 range in New Zealand, both kitted out to the upmarket HSE specification, and mirror-priced at $69,990 each.
Both the 2.2-litre turbodiesel and the 3.2-litre petrol inline six-powered Freelanders come with six-speed automatic gearboxes, and both were impressive, though ultimately we think we’d opt for the oil-burner.
Which is the way Land Rover NZ chief executive Wal Dumper sees it as well. He figures the diesel will outsell the petrol at a ratio of 75 to 25, though initially his supply from the factory is 50 percent diesel, 50 percent petrol.
There were the usual reliability jokes as we assembled at the back of Christchurch’s Crowne Plaza hotel to start the launch drive.
Was Wal bringing along some spare cars to replace the ones that would doubtless break down along the way north, through Murchison, to Nelson?
Well none did, and neither of the cars I drove even developed a trim rattle despite bouncing along some rough, narrow, bumpy and slippery gravel tracks, and generally being pushed quite hard indeed.
Initially driving partner Colin Smith and I sampled a petrol-engined car. Its 3.2-litre compact inline six develops 171kW and peak torque of 320Nm, both strong improvements over the old model’s 130kW and 240Nm from a V6.
Land Rover quotes a 0-100km/h time of 8.9 seconds, a top speed of 200km/h and combined cycle fuel economy of 11.2 litres/100km.
The initial impression was of smoothness and quietness as we headed along the highway towards the first section of gravel.
The steering was accurate, the command-driving position offered an excellent view, the suspension soaked up the bumps. There was some of the rocking motion – a result of the higher centre of gravity – common to most SUVs driving briskly on tarmac, but body roll was nicely controlled. Gearshifts were smooth and all but imperceptible.
The first section of gravel was moderately challenging and I had a few challenging moments, one caused by the low winter’s morning sun and wipe marks on the inside of the windscreen.
The narrowness of the road and the proximity of moderate drops made a quick flurry with a handkerchief to clear the screen an undesirable solution.
The only real problem came when the sun and the smear combined to rob me of forward vision. I figured the road turned left, so I turned left hard – and made the right choice.
Also I’d left the gearbox in Drive which in retrospect was the wrong thing to do on this sort of road.
Though the torque is available from quite low revs – 256Nm at 1400rpm – there was quite a flat spot accelerating away from slow hairpin corners in Drive.
Smith showed me the right way to go when he took over and used the manual override on the gearbox. There was good bite off the slowest corners and Smith used his rally-honed skills – he’s a top NZ co-driver and tutors at Dale Perry’s rally school – to good effect as we climbed to the top of the mountain ridge and more so as we swept downhill.
The Freelander that had stuck like glue to our tail as we climbed the grades had vanished from the mirrors by the time we hit tarmac again.
Wal had said the petrol and diesel Freelanders were like two entirely different driving experiences – and he was right.
The diesel had a different steering feel – initially it almost seemed remote and lacking in feel. It may have had something to do with the difference in weight over the front wheels. Whatever the cause, the difference in feel was soon adjusted to and became nothing more than a memory.
The common-rail diesel engine has real lugging power, developing 118kW (the old diesel model had a meagre 82) and a strong 400Nm of torque which peaks at 2000rpm (260Nm on the older diesel model).
Land Rover says that translates into 11.7 seconds to 100km/h and combined cycle fuel economy of 7.5 litres/100km. We’re soon back on the gravel – route plotter John Coker is an old rally hand – and it’s tight and twisty again, climbing and falling through heavily-bushed tracks that are occasionally narrowed by tree roots and are peppered with water fords.
This time I use the gearbox manually, and that combined with the engine’s low-down torque – 200Nm is on tap from 1000rpm – makes short work of some challenging terrain.
There’s one unnerving moment when we hit a slushy patch of tree-lined road and the Freelander momentarily sledges before regaining grip and turning-in to a tight left-hand hairpin on the edge of a drop.
It takes a few minutes to regain full composure but once we leave the tight stuff for the final loose-surfaced run into Murchison, I have my rhythm back.
The Freelander is in its element here, the steering accurate and responsive, the car flowing between the sweeping, fast corners, the engine offering braking when I lift off the throttle to settle the car.
It’s an exhilarating run and shows the Freelander 2 to have excellent handling chops whether the going be tight and twisting or open and flowing. Smith later has a ball on a forest-like gravel road before me regain the tarmac for the run into Nelson City.
On first acquaintance, the Freelander 2 is simply superb, a compact SUV of the first order, and a viable alternative to a regular luxury car. Wal Dumper is unashamedly pitching the Freelander 2 at the high-spec luxury end of the market. He wants it to be a niche player, a goal for compact SUV buyers to aspire to. Hence the shade under $70,000 pricetag and the high level of spec.
There are leather interiors on both models, electrically-adjustable seats, seven airbags, six-disc, nine-speaker CD player, socket for iPods or MP3 players, dual automatic climate-control air-conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob.
The four-wheel drive is fulltime, the wheels are 18-inch alloys, a Terrain response system maximises traction in slippery going and there’s cruise control and rain-sensing windscreen wipers. And the styling is every inch Land Rover, the Freelander 2 looking like a mini Range Rover.
Very impressive indeed, though the final judgement will await driving on familiar roads and in Auckland City traffic, the latter the real stamping ground for luxury SUVs, no matter how good they may be on gravel of off-road.
Land Rover looks like it’s got a surefire winner on its hands.