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Freelander attempts to find a niche in the U.S.

March 06, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

It might be a little tough to pin down the reworked 2004 Freelander, but you can't accuse this smallest and least-expensive Land Rover sport-utility vehicle of being boring.

As part of Aston Martin Jaguar Land Rover in Irvine, Calif., manufactured in Solihull, England, and with its worldwide operations wholly owned by Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich., the Freelander couldn't be blamed if it's a touch confused about what (or where) it's supposed to be.

Six years after it debuted in Europe to critical acclaim - and after substantial adaptation and revision - the Freelander is still trying to find its place in a sea of North American competitors.

Reworked, refreshed and restyled for 2004, the Freelander wants to be a sport-ute that's worthy of your consideration.

The big news is that the family resemblance trickles down from the top-tier Range Rover. Freelander has body-colored front and rear bumpers, new taillamps and a new grille. The front fenders are still made from thermoplastic so that they can shrug off minor dings. There are also brighter and more stylish headlamps that are similar to those found on the larger Discovery and Range Rover models.

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Inside, the Freelander has been restyled to improve comfort and provide more upscale appeal.

The dash, instrument layout, door panels and front seats have been remade with higher-quality materials (including shiny metal pieces) that exude a sense of luxury, while the switchgear is easier to operate. With its sights squarely set on being competitive with established European brands, the ergonomics are better than in previous models.

Land Rover also figured if its unitized-construction (instead of the usual body-on-frame method) Freelander was going to fit in here, some model simplification was needed.

Gone is the base S, which leaves the SE and HSE to fill in the blanks. That means the "new" base SE takes a price dip to help fill the void and adds more standard gear, including leather seats (something even the larger and more lavish Discovery doesn't offer as standard), 17-inch wheels and a six-disc CD changer. Returning for 2004 is the two-door SE3 that features a removable aft roof section.

Although the Freelander will seldom see the wilderness it is intended to traverse, it offers an abundance of technology to keep you on the straight and narrow if you do decide to head off the beaten path.

Even if it doesn't offer a low-range transfer case, all models are propelled by a full-time four-wheel-drive system with traction control and Land Rover's exclusive Hill Descent Control, which, when engaged on a steep slope, limits the vehicle's speed to less than 6 mph. It's all driven through a five-speed, BMW-built automatic transmission that is pushed by a double-overhead-cam, all-aluminum 2.5-liter V-6.

If you're looking for nothing more than a station wagon to bring home the groceries, the Freelander is probably overkill. There are other rides that are more practical, more user-friendly and cheaper.

However, if that wagon needs to go just about anywhere at the drop of a hat, the Freelander almost assures you of getting back in once piece.

The rest of the world knows it and has gobbled up the Freelander like it's hot schnitzel or steak-and-kidney pie. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before they're snapped up like hotcakes in North America.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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