After selling well over 13,000 Freelanders in the first 11 months of 2002, Land Rover has decided to reheat another old favorite (in Europe, anyway) for the U.S. market a two-door quasi-convertible version of the Freelander called the SE3. Like the four-door, the two-door has been on sale in Europe since 1997, which means it was engineered in the mid-1990s, and therefore, is not a new vehicle by the usual definition.
In Europe, two-door Freelanders are marketed more toward budget-minded consumers, and accordingly, come with limited standard equipment and a range of engine choices, including a gasoline-powered four-cylinder and a diesel four, as well as a V6. In the U.S., Land Rover will position the SE3 in the niche already occupied by the four-door Freelander, that of the premium compact SUV.
The SE3 gets roughly the same amount of equipment as the midlevel SE four-door model, and with a hefty base price of $26,995, in between the base S and the SE, it's clearly not an economy sport-utility. Major standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/55HR17 Michelin 4x4 Synchrone tires; front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution; air conditioning; a 240-watt, nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system with a single-CD player; steering wheel-mounted stereo controls; power windows and mirrors; keyless entry; and a prominent black brush guard fitted to the front fascia. Leather upholstery is not part of the deal (it's optional, as are seat heaters); a slick, sporty vinyl material accented with rubber nubs comes standard.
Of course, the real appeal of the SE3 is its removable top. Not a true convertible like the Jeep Wrangler, the two-door Freelander is closest in design to Isuzu's aged Rodeo Sport. If you scrutinize the photos, you'll note that the rear portion of the roof (over the backseat and the cargo bay) is a contrasting black this is the removable hardtop. During a recent press introduction near Nevada's Lake Mead, we watched carefully while two Land Rover staff members went through the motions of removing the top.
Understandably, it's easiest to take off the roof rails first, using the Torx tool that comes with the standard tool kit. It's not as technical as it might sound: the rails are screwed in at four points all you have to do is unscrew them. Once removed, they're lightweight enough for even out-of-shape adults to carry. The next thing to be done is to power down the rear window (it works just like the one on Toyota's 4Runner).
The top itself is secured by four interior latches; once they're undone, it's easy enough for two adults to lift up the top and carry it to safety. As it only weighs 40 to 50 pounds, it is possible for one adult to hoist it alone, but its cumbersome size makes it more of a two-person job. Storage is definitely something to plan for ahead of time, as the top won't fit in the cargo bay. You can reinstall the roof rails after the top is off, allowing occupants to enjoy an open-air ride (well, sort of) while carrying a surfboard. For those who don't like the idea of having to remove the somewhat bulky hardtop every time you want to feel the wind in your hair, Land Rover will offer a soft convertible top as a $1,200 dealer accessory.
In order to appease the driver and front passenger, an extra-large sunroof spans the width of the front seat. The sunroof is fully manual; you have to get out of the vehicle and remove the two pieces of glass separated by a black partition. Fortunately, Land Rover has included a large pouch in the cargo bay for storage.
With the hardtop and sunroof panels removed, we hopped into the backseat, while another journalist drove, to see how tolerable the open-air ride would be. Accessing the rear seats was not as difficult as it is in the Wrangler or Rodeo Sport. While the Rodeo Sport rides on a shortened version of the regular Rodeo's platform, the Freelander SE3 has the same 101-inch wheelbase as the four-door version and is actually almost three inches longer overall. As a result, the dimensions of its backseat and cargo bay are identical. Assisted by the easy-entry front-passenger seat, we were able to get in and out with little fuss our only complaint was that the grippy upholstery precluded sliding into the seat.
Once seated, we were appreciative of the amount of legroom and foot room in back (plenty even with two adults seated in front) and hoped that our fleece pullover and beanie would be enough to fend off the winds at highway speeds on a 60-degree afternoon in the desert. And as it turns out, it's rather pleasant in back (and likely would be more so during the summer) it's not too windy, as the permanent roof provides a sort of shield.
In all other respects, the SE3 is just like the four-door Freelanders, and that means it has a number of shortcomings, especially for the price Land Rover is asking.
It uses the same 174-horsepower 2.5-liter V6 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, which offers both sport and automanual modes. Although the company reports that this tranny offers improved shift response for the 2003 model year, our initial drive suggested that you still need to leave the selector in sport mode if you want timely downshifts. Additionally, power from the relatively small-displacement V6 remains unimpressive alongside the offerings in the Wrangler and four-door sport-utes like the Liberty, Escape and Xterra. And with the SE3's preliminary EPA rating of 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway, there's no payoff in fuel economy compared to the Escape.
A permanent all-wheel-drive system is standard; when slippage occurs, a viscous center coupling manages torque transfers between the front and rear axles. Supplementing the AWD system are a four-wheel traction control system that allows side-to-side power transfers as necessary, and a Hill Descent Control system that takes out some of the anxiety of negotiating steep, rocky slopes. Despite its unibody design, fully independent suspension, limited ground clearance and lack of a low-range transfer case, the Freelander can undertake challenging off-road work when called upon to do so. Still, serious off-roaders who want a two-door SUV are apt to prefer the master off-roader, the Wrangler, which costs less anyway.
Fortunately, the SE3 is well prepared for a life spent on pavement. It offers a composed ride and tight handling around corners. In this regard, it's definitely the best of the two-door SUVs currently on the market. But among all mini-utes, the Escape (and its twin, the Mazda Tribute) and the Subaru Forester handle just as well.
Inside, the sport-ute is solidly constructed, but neither the awkward, outdated design of the dash, front seating area and various controls nor the shiny plastics that swathe nearly every surface are in line with the high-20s price of the SE3. You'll notice that we've referred to price quite a few times, and this, along with the fact that two-door SUVs don't sell as well as four-doors, might prompt you to ask, "Who's going to buy this vehicle?"
The answer is "not many people," and even Land Rover admits that. The company hopes to sell a modest 2,000 units in 2003. We expect that image will have much to do with purchase decisions people who want a mini-ute with only two doors and a partial convertible top or people who like the look of the Wrangler but don't want to put up with its rough-and-tough handling on pavement. Either way, these buyers will need plenty of money, enough so that they won't feel regret for skipping the cheaper alternatives.