D. John Booth, Contributor
I am sure it's a bit of a comedown, really, sort of like Prince Charles having to drink lager instead of port or the Queen darning her own socks. But Land Rover is just now learning it has to compete with the likes of, well (here is where you turn your nose up just so and whisper ever so haughtily) "those Japanese chaps."
Being the world's premium off-road brand with a couple of renowned nameplates has sustained Land Rover for quite some time some would say even through periods of undeserved success. Direct competitors were few, even when there were few SUVs played in the same price range. Discovery and Range Rover customers knew who they were and Land Rover marketers and salespeople knew what they wanted.
Then along came Freelander.
Land Rover sales staff didn't know what to make of the Freelander or, more accurately, the people who shopped in the Freelander's snack bracket. Rather than come into showrooms already convinced they wanted to buy a Land Rover, these often younger, less-affluent prospects wanted to compare can you believe it a steeped-in-tradition Land Rover with a Honda CR-V. Or a Nissan Xterra. Or a Toyota RAV4. Or a Jeep Liberty. Land Rover's poor salespeople could scarcely believe what they were hearing. The audacity comparing a fine Solihull off-roader with a "faux by faux" from Hamamatsu!
The problem was that the bosses back in England, particularly those setting the price, thought along similar lines. Last year's base Freelander S started at $25,600, equipped with cloth seats and minimal equipment. By the time one moved up to the leather-covered SE, the Freelander was $28,400, while the top-line HSE easily broke the $30,000 barrier with an MSRP of $32,200. It's hardly a surprise that many shopping for a neo-luxury sport-cute thought: "Yeah, I'm willing to pay a little extra for the Land Rover badge. But $32,000 for a mini-ute? Get a life."
Obviously, somebody was listening. For 2004, the Freelander is finally priced where it should have been two years ago when it first arrived. The base S model has been dropped completely and the '04 SE's MSRP is now $25,995, just $395 more than the previous base model. The new SE does make do with a suedelike seat material instead of leather and a single-disc CD player instead of a six-disc changer (the upgraded 240-watt Harman Kardon stereo with in-dash CD changer is optional), but the trade-off is well worth the savings.
The top-of-the-line leather-equipped HSE (also now with a standard single-disc CD player) is even more sensibly priced as well down some $3,205 from last year, at $28,995. (The low-volume two-door SE3 continues at $26,995 but gets upgraded with that six-disc CD changer as standard equipment.)
This wouldn't be nearly as impressive if Land Rover had not also made two major revisions to the Freelander. Immediately noticeable is the radically revised front end treatment. Much more aggressive, the body-colored grille and Range Rover headlights give the Freelander a more distinctive and familial look. Considering the hood and fenders remain unchanged, it's amazing how dramatically its appearance has changed with so few actual alterations. It also doesn't hurt that the new twin-pocket headlamps provide 70-percent brighter illumination. The taillights have also been given the Range Rover treatment, though the effect isn't as dramatic.
Even more welcome, though, will be the revisions to the Freelander's cabin. Easily the biggest complaint from prospective purchasers, the previous Freelander's interior was a leftover from the disco era. It didn't look too bad in monochromatic black, but introduce any alternate shade and it became plasticky and dated.
For 2004, it has been extensively updated with a new instrument pod, loosely based on the Range Rover's, and a completely new center stack. The window switches have been moved from the center console to the door where they belong and, praise be, there is even a cupholder that works and does not look like a tacked-on contraption designed by Mattel.
Land Rover also claims it has reduced air conditioning noise. Earlier models made quite a racket when gale-force cooling was called for. A few compromises remain, though. Those Mustang-style vents remain as does the dash's little cargo holder. More switchgear has been moved to the top of the center stack, but most controls are still a bit of a reach.
Nonetheless, the overall effect is much welcomed and moves the Freelander's interior up from also-ran to contender, especially since even the base model's seat material is quite sumptuous.
Although there is plenty of room for passengers, particularly in the rear, the Freelander's cargo capacity is definitely middle-of-the-road. It doesn't have the copious area of Honda's CR-V, nor are its seats fore-and-aft adjustable to allow you to tailor the rear area's size. And it won't be until the Freelander gets a complete redesign that the confounded rotary seat back adjuster that Europeans prefer will be replaced by a lever.
The rest of the Freelander is pretty much status quo, which is about average for a small SUV. Power still comes from the 174-horsepower, 2.5-liter, DOHC V6. It is certainly not the most powerful V6 in this segment and is only somewhat more powerful than the four-cylinders in the CR-V and revitalized 2004 RAV4. But it is noticeably smoother than its competition, so much so that every time I got the Freelander near a highway, the speed crept up to 90 miles per hour and beyond without me noticing.
Not that the Freelander is a sports car. It's not even the sportiest of SUVs. Still, the Freelander is plenty comfortable at speed. Even on the twisty roads around Laguna Beach, Calif., where the new model was put through its paces, the Freelander seemed plenty adept.
Off-road, of course, the Freelander lambastes its competition save, perhaps, Jeep's Liberty and Nissan's Xterra. It lacks the two-speed transfer case of either competitor or any differential locks. And its permanent all-wheel-drive system with a viscous center coupling normally transfers 95 percent of the engine's torque to the front wheels. But thanks to nifty technology such as the 4ETC all-wheel electronic traction control and Land Rover's unique Hill Descent Control, it positively shames many other sport-utes.
If Land Rover is to be criticized, it's that it wouldn't, or couldn't, properly price the Freelander when it was launched. With 2004's drastic price reduction, the company may have atoned for its sins.
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