According to Land Rover sales figures, U.S. buyers have snapped up more than 20,000 Freelanders since the muscular-looking compact SUV debuted on American soil in 2002. When we heard this, we figured it was time to take a look at The Green Oval's '03 entry-level SUV. After all, we hadn't experienced seat time in the Freelander since our '02 Four Wheeler of the Year competition.
This time around, we loaded the Freelander with eight days worth of supplies and pointed it due east from our Midwest Bureau for a 4,000-mile trip through six states. As the odometer spun and the terrain changed from flat Illinois prairie to undulating Vermont mountains, then back again, we formed a bond with the littlest Land Rover. Well, it was more like an understanding.
The '03 Java Black Freelander appeared in the gravel parking lot of our office bearing full high-end HSE trim. After a quick inspection of the vehicle, we loaded the 19.3 cubic-foot cargo area with about 21.5 cubic feet of gear and hit the road. The first of many infamous Chicago area toll plazas gave us a chance to conduct our Toll Booth Acceleration Test.
Check It Out If:
You want a unique, full-time four-wheel-drive compact SUV that sports a legendary nameplate.
Avoid It If:
Your needs put a premium on low-range gearing.
This is where we found that, while not a powerhouse, the Freelander's 2.5L, 20-valve, DOHC V-6 engine does indeed generate adequate power to pull the 3,612-pound vehicle. It just requires winding the engine out to generate its 174 hp, and this will net the slightly anemic 0-60 time of more than 10 seconds. Fortunately, the Freelander features a Jatco five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that allows the driver to squeeze every ounce of power from the V-6 by manually shifting through the five forward gears.
Screaming engine notwithstanding, we were able to hold a respectable position in the Chicago Toll Booth Drags with no problem, and that's a good thing. Blazing across western Ohio at a conservative (for us) 73 mph, we attained our best fuel mileage of the trip, logging a respectable 21 mpg, and that's another good thing. Somewhere in western Pennsylvania we snapped out of our highway trance (created by the Freelander's snuggly leather seats, independent suspension and excellent power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering) when we took a big swig of superheated Coca-Cola from the top-of-dash right-in-the-sun cup holder. Not good. While in Pennsylvania and Vermont, we used the Freelander as a photo support vehicle, a job which required a fair amount of off-highway travel. The Freelander is equipped with a permanent all-wheel-drive transfer case that uses a viscous center coupling, and Hill Descent Control (HDC), which uses the ABS sensors to rapidly pulse the brakes to act in place of low-range gearing when going downhill. We quickly learned that the engine's ability to generate its maximum 177 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm is a very good thing, because that torque offsets the lack of gear reduction created by the absence of a two-speed transfer case.
On trails that present just a moderate challenge, the Freelander actually surprised us with its capability, thanks to 7.1 inches of wheel travel up front and a very respectable 9.4 inches of wheel travel in the rear. We utilized a relatively shallow, rocky river crossing a number of times during our 'wheeling, and despite a swift current that wanted to float the little SUV, it performed admirably. Also helping the Freelander maneuver over trails is its 30.5-degree approach angle and 33.9-degree departure angle. We also liked the tailgate-mounted fullsized spare tire, though fortunately we never had to use it.
As we said earlier, we came to an understanding with the Freelander. This understanding centered on accepting the Freelander for what it is, and not asking it to be something it's not. Its capabilities are limited by the lack of two-speed transfer case, but its HDC fills that void in some situations. The Freelander is fun to drive, offers beefy styling and is surprisingly capable in a variety of off-highway situations. The Freelander is definitely a massive step above other "soft-roaders" in its classification.
Vehicle Model: 2003 Land Rover Freelander
Width (in.): 71.1
Fuel Capacity (gal.): 16.9