In 2001, Land Rover parachuted their not-so-cute ute across the pond. The Freelander landed with a splat. Gas was cheap and XXL SUV's dominated the landscape. What's more (or less), the 174 horse Freelander was technologically quaint, reliability challenged and forgot to show up for its federal crash test. And so Land Rover has redeployed the second-generation Freelander, the forgettably-named LR2, into the American market. This time, sales of big SUVs are in the toilet, there's a burgeoning compact SUV market and Land Rover's traditional entryway, the LR3 (nee Discovery), now costs a lofty $45k+.
To lure entry level prestige SUV buyers, Landy's pen people have conjured-up a Range Rover mini me. While the LR2's exterior continues the brand's venerable it's-hip-to-be- square clamshell bonnet brief, the LR2's designers finessed corners and smoothed edges to create a rugged yet svelte look. Chunky details abound: big wheel arches, solid headlamps and those gills. And its balanced proportions avoid the on stilts persona that blights so many of today's small SUV's (e.g. Acura's RDX). The LR2 could well be the best looking SUV on the road today.
The LR2's light and airy cabin adheres to and extends the Land Rover brand's luxury-in-the-wilderness design theme. Yes, its plasticky leather seats are up market simulacra, and the fit and finish is distinctly so-so. But the LR2's interior successfully straddles the line between mountain and mall. For example, the monolithic center stack provides all the off-road functionality Landy owners will never use, complete with a “set it and forget it” terrain selector and no-brainer bread crumb sat navery. It's festooned with enough e-gizmos– activated by grippy knobs and big ass buttons– to ford streams, descend slopes and withstand the endless rigors of parking lot traffic jams.
Although the LR2 is a utility player, M, L, and XL friends consigned to the [second row] bench will not be well pleased. Unless you fold the seats forward, the LR2’s cargo hole won’t stow enough gear for a softball team, never mind a Saharan sojourn. And the reasoning behind the LR2’s gimmicktastic insert-the-fob start-stop button is lost in the mists of BMW. The sooner it’s banished to the land of Altezza lights and chrome gas caps, the better.
The LR2's 3.2-liter inline six is good for 230 horses. On paper, that's not a lot of power for a vehicle weighing two-and-a-quarter tons. But the I6 generates plenty of low down grunt (234 ft.-lbs. of torque @ 3,200 rpm), the six speed autobox is a seamless cog swapper and the engine is as smooth as the Queen's ermine robes. The LR2 builds power with such seductive ease that you don't mind hanging around waiting for 60mph to arrive (from rest, nine seconds).
Even on optional 18 inchers, the LR2's fully independent suspension dismisses impacts from nasty pavement and
giant boulders potholes. If you can cope with body roll, the LR2 will maintain reasonably tenacious grip during brisk cornering. Just as the interior’s splashed with Eau de Landy, the driving experience melds the best of the car and truck worlds. The LR2 is as easy to maneuver as a car, but still gives the driver truck-like heft and solidity. Even better, the LR2 helmsmanship imparts a premium feel, delivering the same laissez faire feel found in the rest of Rover's lineup.
The LR2 caters to more adventurous drivers with the aforementioned four-position Terrain Response™ doo-hickey, which works with various electronic controls– including a modified version of Volvo’s Haldex all-wheel drive system and Gradient Release Control (which helps the vehicle descend steep hills without driver skill/intervention). Still, determined off-roaders will cross this one off their list; the LR2 is shod with city slicks (235/60VR18 all-season tires) and doesn't have any low range gears.
Environmentally sensitive and fuel conscious buyers will also give the LR2 a pass. Like all its stable mates, the LR2 guzzles petrol punch; its official gas mileage is an egregious 16mpg in the city and 23mpg on the highway. That's slightly better than the big bro LR3's equally astounding (and not in a good way) fuel economy. But the LR3 can [almost] justify its prodigious thirst with its no-trails-barred off-road prowess. (Americans miss out on the diesel option that twists up tons of torque and gets 30+ mpg.) Reliability-oriented buyers will clock Land Rover's well-earned reputation for mechanical malfeasance and pull back their ten foot poles in horror.
Land Rover may be hemorrhaging Ford’s money (for now), but it does channel traditional British automotive spirit. The LR2 is not particularly fast, uses too much gas, cramps passengers and can’t match a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited off-road. Land Rover reliability may have improved in recent years, but it’s gone from “worst by a mile” to “worst.” The LR2 will be utterly crushed in sales by Asian, German, and even American competition. And yet it’s an utterly charming machine: a genuine Land Rover.