First Drive: 2008 Land Rover LR2

2008 Land Rover LR2 First Drive

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2008 Land Rover LR2 SUV

(3.2L 6-cyl. AWD 6-speed Automatic)

Land Rover's marketing boffins would like you to think of the all-new 2008 Land Rover LR2 — debuting at the Los Angeles Auto Show — as a true Land Rover in a concentrated package. Smaller, lighter and more affordable than the LR3, the LR2 appeals to drivers who are downsizing from traditional sport-utility vehicles into the crossover segment of carlike compact-utility vehicles.

This new Land Rover won't go on sale in the United States until May 2007, but we recently had an opportunity to drive the European version. Its price in the U.S. is expected to begin at about $33,000, although the details won't be announced until the vehicle's official unveiling at the LA auto show. We think the LR2 will fall into a segment of compact yet high-style European utilities defined by the BMW X3 and the forthcoming Volvo XC50.

You might remember the Freelander, the previous (and largely unloved) Land Rover entry in this category, but Land Rover is hoping that you won't. The LR2 nameplate is meant to give this all-new vehicle a fresh start in the U.S. and persuade people that it's a luxurious full-size Land Rover made small, and not a little Land Rover with a full-size price.

Tough, but not that tough
The LR2's bodywork is an interesting patchwork of Land Rover's design language. The slab-sided doors and unusual D-post are pinched from the LR3, while the black frame around the rear window comes from the Range Rover. The clamshell-style hood and stepped roof line were inspired by the original Freelander, and we think the vehicle's aggressive stance recalls the Range Rover Sport.

Anyone used to the boxy, utilitarian aesthetic of the LR3 will find the LR2's softer curves something of a culture shock. Overall, the LR2 makes a different kind of statement. "We wanted the LR2 to be tough — but not that tough," says Geoff Upex, the guru of Land Rover design. "It is important to reassure people who might be trading up from a conventional premium car."

Upex and his team have done a good job of getting their message across. In a front three-quarter view, the LR2 looks strikingly muscular, and there is some nice detailing around the headlights. The LR2 doesn't quite have the same fresh impact of the LR3, but it's impressively neat and coherent.

It's also notably smaller than an LR3. Available only in a four-door configuration, the LR2 measures 177.2 inches from tip to tail, some 13.2 inches shorter than an LR3 and even 2.7 inches shorter than a BMW X3.

A high-style, carlike cabin
The carlike design themes of the LR2's exterior are carried through into the interior. The bluff, utilitarian feel of the LR3's dash has given way to a softer design that combines the look of an SUV with that of a traditional sedan. The quality of the presentation is a huge step forward from the Freelander, but the wood trim doesn't look right and there were some squeaks and rattles in the interior of the preproduction vehicles we drove.

For the U.S., the LR2 will come in only one, fully optioned model, with such things as leather upholstery and a massive twin-element sunroof as standard equipment. Also standard will be full-time all-wheel drive with Land Rover's unique, electrically controlled Terrain Response, which allows you to choose among different combinations of ride height, throttle response, transmission setting, traction control and Land Rover's Hill Descent according to driving conditions. Many typical Land Rover features will be on the LR2's options list, including DVD-based satellite navigation.

The LR2 is far more spacious than the old Freelander, yet you're never left in doubt that this is a compact-utility vehicle. We discovered that four 6-foot adults could find room inside, but a BMW X3 feels more commodious. Land Rover tells us that there are 59 cubic feet of cargo volume when the rear seat is folded flat, but the 26.5 cubic feet of volume when the second seat is fully upright seemed only adequate to us.

One engine fits all
A DOHC 3.2.-liter inline-6 is mounted transversely under the LR2's hood. Derived from the latest version of the inline-6 recently introduced by the forthcoming Volvo S80, this engine has been adapted to all-terrain use with a high-mounted air intake, presumably so the LR2 can ford those tropical rivers Land Rover drivers always seem to be encountering in television commercials.

The LR2's six-cylinder develops 230 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 234 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm, and it's designed to deliver a broad power band thanks to variable valve timing, plus a unique Land Rover technology that permits the engine to switch between two different profiles for the intake camshaft. Land Rover says this is enough to propel the LR2 from zero to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds and then on to 124 mph. An Aisin-Warner-built six-speed automatic transmission is standard, and has a sport mode that lets you manually shift through the gears.

The new engine is impressively smooth and proves an ideal foil for the transmission. Our only significant criticism concerns the engine's lack of torque low in the rpm range. The LR2 weighs 4,255 pounds, so this inline-6 needs to be worked hard to deliver its best, which will inevitably compromise the fuel consumption.

The dynamics
The days are long gone when Land Rover customers were willing to sacrifice on-road comfort in favor of mud-plugging ability. Today's Land Rover owners demand both carlike on-road performance and class-leading off-road ability.

To achieve this end, Land Rover's engineers set about designing a chassis that's exceptionally stiff and solid. They claim that only the Range Rover and the Porsche Cayenne offer more torsional rigidity in the sport-utility segment. As you'd expect, this is a carlike unit-body chassis, and it features an independent front suspension with MacPherson struts and a rear suspension with an independent four-link setup. The all-wheel-drive system is calibrated for good on-road fuel economy, while Ford's high-tech electronic stability control with its special roll-sensing feature is standard equipment.

All this technology blends into a convincing whole. The LR2 handles more like a sport compact car than a utility vehicle. Big tires furnish lots of cornering grip, the chassis doesn't roll too much and understeer is under control. When you brake hard, the Land Rover feels stable. If you step out of a BMW X3 and into an LR2, you won't feel cheated.

The flaws
But the LR2 isn't perfect. The steering has just 2.6 turns from lock-to-lock, and it feels too quick for such a heavy vehicle with long-travel suspension. In addition, steering geometry that's meant to insulate you from off-road thumps doesn't offer much feedback on the asphalt, so you find yourself making constant corrections on the highway, which is both frustrating and tiring. On back roads, the substantial suspension travel lets the LR2 rock a bit from side to side, a constant reminder that this is a utility vehicle, and not a sport compact car after all.

As expected, the LR2 is amazingly capable when you're driving in the dirt, although the transmission doesn't have the low-range feature found in the LR3 and Range Rover. All you do is dial the console-mounted knob for Land Rover's Terrain Response to a setting appropriate for what you see out of the windows, then let the LR2's sophisticated electronic stability control take care of the rest. The LR2 displays an impressive repertoire of off-road skills that few owners will ever appreciate.

Forget all you ever knew about the old Freelander. The all-new 2008 Land Rover LR2 really does distill the luxury and all-terrain capability that you expect from Land Rover into a compact package that's a lot friendlier to drive around town than a full-size utility vehicle. All this goodness comes at a cost, though, as this premium vehicle will carry a relatively premium price. As rapidly as the market for compact utilities is expanding, it'll be interesting to see if people are ready for so much luxury — and so much cost — in a compact, practical package.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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