The best compact SUV you can buy?
Understatement is usually the British way, so when the British start using hyperbole, you know they think something is particularly good.
Taken at face value, Land Rover’s famous and supremely confident slogan, “The Best 4x4 by Far,” looks like another piece of car marketing exaggeration; like Cadillac’s continued use of “the standard of excellence” slogan when for many years its cars were assuredly not standard-setters for anything except pampered luxury and feather-pillow ride quality.
But it’s the fact that Land Rover is British and the British are noted for their modesty and stiff upper lip taciturnity that makes you think again about the Best 4x4 by Far claim.
And in terms of what its products can do off-road, the slogan could probably be seen as more a statement of fact than blatant marketing hyperbole.
Land Rovers have long fallen short in other areas – poor ergonomics on the Defender and the original Discovery, some woeful build quality.
And poor reliability on old model Discoverys and on the original Freelander, which had faults-per-vehicle figures well into the 30s.
But through all that, there generally shines owners’ unshakable loyalty to the breed no matter how many frustrations the vehicles might throw at them.
Usually Land River owners will forgive their charges almost anything – like the woman at my night class who had to call a tow truck to take her broken down Discovery to the repair shop yet again.
“Just part of owning a Discovery,” she said, evincing no intention of getting rid of it. She seemed to view it more as if it were a somewhat unruly eccentric uncle rather than a chronically unreliable machine.
Land Rover has worked hard to address those problems with the current Range Rover, Discovery 3 and Freelander 2 which all bear the brand’s new trademark styling.
The Disco (Land Rover junkie’s talk for a Discovery) and Freelander have grown much bigger than their predecessors. The Disco is near Range Rover size and the Freelander is sort of like a scaled-down Rangie (more Land Rover jargon).
They’re all likable vehicles, and the Freelander 2 is a standard-setter among compact SUVs, with Defender-like off-road abilities wrapped up in the kind of high-class bodywork few owners would be willing to risk on boulder-strewn riverbeds or muddy, tree-lined bush tracks.
But if they do, the Freelander will get the job done with the same efficiency and dogged determination as its bigger stablemates.
It’s loaded with tools to take it literally anywhere. There’s Land Rover’s legendary permanent four-wheel drive; and Terrain Response System which adapts power delivery, transmission and 4x4 traction to suit the terrain the vehicle is traversing.
The driver can select among four Terrain Response programs using a rotary dial: General Driving for on-road and light off-road use; Grass, Gravel and Snow for slippery conditions; Mud and Ruts for slushy fields and rural tracks; Sand for beaches and dunes.
The Freelander has Hill Descent Control to keep the Freelander on-track in what is one of the trickiest of off-road driving situations –steep descents where a slight deviation from the straight-ahead can turn into a slide and end in a rollover.
Other dynamic helpers include traction control, dynamic stability control and a roll stability control system.
It all adds up to provide a comprehensive safety net and a vehicle of great on- and off-road ability.
Ground clearance of 210mm helps off-road, and the approach, ramp over and departure angles are 31 degrees, 23 degrees and 34 degrees,
The Freelander’s engine is a 2.2-litre turbocharged common-rail injection four-cylinder diesel developing 118kW of maximum power and a solid 400Nm of peak torque.
It’s not obtrusively noisy and the torque delivery is seamless, making for minimal shifting of the smooth six-speed automatic gearbox.
On-road behaviour is excellent, with high levels of roadholding and good chassis grip. Body roll is minimal and the car turns-in to corners well.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is well weighted at speed and light enough in town, and its quick 2.7 turns lock-to-lock help make the Freelander highly manoeuvrable in tight spots. The turning circle is a relatively compact 11.4 metres.
The basic handling trait is mild understeer, and though the Freelander 2 doesn’t have sports car responses on winding country roads, it can be driven very briskly, the chassis’ competence giving the driver real confidence.
It’s an outstanding loose surface performer, offering vice-free handling and good grip even with the Terrain Response system left in the General Driving setting.
The suspension – independent front and rear, using struts and coil springs – deals disdainfully with gravel road corrugations and with minor sealed road bumps, and the ride quality is excellent.
The brakes – ventilated discs on all four wheels – are strong and proved fade-free even in hard driving, and are backed by an ABS anti-lock system with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Emergency Brake Assist which increases pedal pressure to give maximum deceleration in panic stops.
The Freelander 2 is a fairly big vehicle, at 4500mm long and 2180mm wide (mirror to mirror) but the high seating position (Command Driving Position in Land Rover-speak) and generous glass areas make it easy to position, even in tight spots like carpark buildings.
To help you with reversing there’s a warning system that beeps as you get closer to an object behind the car, the beeps merging into a continuous note when it’s time to stop.
Comfort is good, with plenty of leg- and headroom front and rear, and a dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning system that can cope with conditions ranging from 95 percent humidity to desert heat and extreme cold. The six-speaker, six-disc CD sound system delivers top-notch sound.
There are power-operated exterior mirrors and side windows (tinted privacy glass on side windows), remote-control central-door locking with deadlock, front side and head protection airbags for front seat occupants and head protection airbags for rear seat passengers.
There’s leather upholstery, black veneer trim accents in the SE model (dark laurel veneer in the HSE), electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, trip computer, cruise control, front foglights, auto on-off headlights, windscreen wipers that switch on automatically when they sense rain.
Prices start at $59,990 for the TD4 SE and $69,990 for the HSE, but Land Rover offers a long list of, mostly desirable, added-cost options which can boost those prices by thousands of dollars.
The Freelander 2 offers high levels of comfort and refinement, strong performance (175km/h top speed) bags of off-road ability, superb loose surface handling and very good on-road manners. And if you can resist the temptation to load it up with optional goodies, you can buy it for a very competitive price.
Though you might be stretching things a little to say that it’s the “best 4x4 by far” in its class, the Freelander 2 does make a strong claim to be the best compact SUV available in New Zealand.
To see Land Rover Freelanders for sale on Auto Trader, click here.