D. John Booth, Contributor
By far the best scene in that cinematographic classic that made Julia Roberts a household name revolves around the "Pretty Woman's" revenge on the haughty saleswoman who belittled her character when she was trying to shed her prostitute persona.
After the tongue-lashing from the saleswoman, Roberts runs teary-eyed to the comforting arms of Richard Gere, whose character, taking matters in hand, unsheathes a liquid-cooled credit card, and presto, chango (we're to believe), Miss Roberts is magically transformed from ugly duckling to the ultimate in trophy companion (and yes, that's a good thing).
Following her triumphant transformation, she stops by the Rodeo Drive shop where she had been shabbily treated. Reminding the saleswoman that she works on commission, Roberts notes, with uncharacteristic understatement, how that was a "Mistake. Big mistake."
Somewhere in Land Rover's hierarchy, there are executives mouthing those same words. Long ago, in some British boardroom, someone decided that there wasn't a market in North America for small, premium-brand sport-utes. The company's Freelander was subsequently designed solely for the European market with only a diesel and the small four-cylinder engines demanded by consumers paying extraordinarily high fuel prices.
Then along came Toyota's RAV4 in 1996, and the cute-ute revolution began. Honda's CR-V followed and now the baby SUV market is booming. Land Rover, meanwhile, had succeeded in making the Freelander Europe's most popular SUV, but had been caught with its pants down in North America.
Better late than never, as the adage goes. In fact, for Land Rover's sake, much better. The Freelander, due Stateside in the fall, is scheduled to arrive just as the economic miracle that is Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has gone into full hiccup mode. Land Rover's take on the mini-SUV is expected to more than double the company's sales.
The Freelander should cost about $25,000 when it arrives in showrooms and even though that's more than other mini-SUVs, it's doubtless cheaper than the competition anticipated. Land Rover deemed a V6 engine necessary for North American success, so all Freelanders get one. Beyond that, even the base version comes well equipped with luxury amenities and high-tech gadgets, including a Sportshift automanual transmission.
Base models come with power windows (including the tailgate's), power locks and mirrors (which are also heated), air conditioning, cruise control and an AM/FM/CD audio system. Upscale SE trim adds leather, power sunroof, remote audio controls, roof rails and 17-inch alloy wheels. The top-of-the-line HSE (approximately $30,000) adds yet more leather trim, a premium audio system with six-disc CD changer and a navigation system. All models get antilock brakes and front airbags. The Freelander is a typically luxurious Land Rover then, even if it is missing power seats and conspicuously absent side airbags.
Though North American interior colors and details are yet to be finalized, our Euro-spec test unit did reveal some typical Land Rover traits. The instrument cluster is housed in a raised binnacle that literally stands out from the rest of the dashboard. There's plenty of legroom fore and aft, but, as with other Land Rovers, the rear door opening is relatively small, and access to the rear seats not as easy as it should be. Also, like in other Rovers, cargo space is sparse, with 19.1 cubic feet available with the rear seats upright and only 46.6 when they're folded (a CRV will hold 67 cubic feet). Some test units were oddly colored inside, but versions bound for America will get a monochromatic cabin treatment in either black or gray.
Beyond the interior amenities, however, the Freelander is anything but a typical Land Rover. Besides containing the company's first V6 engine, the Freelander is the first Land Rover product without four-wheel drive. Instead, the Freelander uses all-wheel drive, a system that transfers 95 percent of the engine's torque to the front wheels during normal operation and only begins sending some of that power to the rear wheels when the fronts start slipping. More glaringly, for the hoary old traditionalists who consider anything more modern than a Defender heresy, the Freelander has no low-range gearing. According to off-road lore, this should place the Freelander at a distinct disadvantage when the going gets slimy.
The truth is a little murkier. The Freelander's AWD system uses a silica-gel-filled viscous coupling that Land Rover claims allows but a few degrees of wheel slippage before starting to transfer torque to the rear wheels. In addition, the Freelander incorporates a four-wheel Electronic Traction Control (4ETC) system. While the viscous coupling automatically reduces slip between the front and rear axles, the 4ETC system controls slip across each axle. If any wheel loses traction, 4ETC uses the antilock brake system to slow down the spinning wheel.
Though it's certain that there are hills that will leave the Freelander wheezing, nobody but a Camel Trophy participant is likely to notice the difference. During our test in the frozen climes of Moosonee, Ontario, Gateway to the Arctic, the Freelander took on every bit of frozen tundra and slimy hillside a Northern Canadian winter could muster and came away a winner.
The V6's 175 horsepower and the five-speed automatic's lowest gear generated enough hill-flattening torque to scamper up the steepest inclines, while the combination of all-wheel drive and Land Rover's 4ETC four-wheel traction control system defeated the mud.
Even stopping half way up a slimy hill failed to confound the Freelander's high-tech drivetrain. Applying the gas would cause the front wheels to spin momentarily and then the viscous coupling would deliver about half of the engine's power to the rear tires. If that didn't provide enough traction, the 4ETC system would chime in, applying selective braking to prevent any of the wheels from spinning and then the Freelander would scamper up the hill.
It's also worth noting that the Freelander has another bit of off-road trickery liberated from its bigger siblings. Hill Descent Control (HDC) helps replace the low-speed gears absent from the littlest Land Rover by limiting the Freelander's speed when descending steep hills. Using the ABS/4ETC hardware, HDC limits downhill speed to 5.6 mph and is activated with a single button on the dashboard. HDC's action is completely automatic, requiring no action on the driver's part to slow the Freelander, but you can accelerate using the throttle. When 30 mph is attained, however, HDC automatically switches off.
On-road comportment was a little harder to judge, seeing as there were no bare paved roads in Moosonee. But here again the Freelander breaks with Land Rover tradition and rides on a four-wheel-independent MacPherson strut suspension rather than the archaic, if more off-road worthy, beam axles underpinning other Rovers. The ride is definitely more car-like and there's little body roll during cornering. The Freelander does, however, display heavier steering than other cute-utes, feeling almost like a Mercedes in its desire to remain stable at speed. It's beneficial for highway driving, though how customers in this segment will react to its higher-than-average steering effort at low speeds remains to be seen.
The relatively smooth 2.5-liter V6 proved a willing performer. Besides its 175 horsepower, there's 177 foot-pounds of torque available at 4,000 rpm, more than enough twist to keep it ahead of its four-cylinder competition. However, the Freelander is lacking oomph when compared to V6 versions of the Ford Escape and the Mazda Tribute. Nissan is also offering a supercharged 210-horse Xterra for 2002.
Deliberating a judgment on a car is always difficult in the contrived circumstances of a manufacturer's press launch. Rendering a definitive opinion on the Freelander's success in our diverse SUV market based on its performance in the wiles of Northern Canada is premature. Nonetheless, we're guessing that Land Rover USA wishes the Freelander had arrived a long time ago.
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