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The Land Rover Freelander is classy and comfortable, but potentially pricey

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The Mk1 Land Rover Freelander was launched in 1997 and was an instant hit - it went on to become the biggest-selling four-wheel-drive model in Europe, with over 540,000 units sold over its nine-year lifespan.

The Mk2 arrived in 2006 and was acclaimed as the best off-roader in its class. To improve its eco credentials, the Freelander 2 TD4_e arrived in 2009 as the first SUV to have a start-stop system, followed in early 2011 by a two-wheel-drive version.

The Freelander has kept up with the times - it's now available as a 2WD model

As you can tell, this is a car that has not only shaken up the market, but moved with it as well. Now a front-wheel drive Land Rover might be controversial, but the brand has proved it can be popular, as sales of the Evoque prove. The rest of the Freelander range is more conventional SUV fare, offering five seats and four-wheel drive.

The Freelander proved that there was a market for a small off-roader with a big name badge and continues to sit at the forefront of it. That's quite an achievement, because with the Land Rover badge comes the expectation that it will be competent off the road as well as cosseting, quiet and composed on it. And with the caveat that while it a high-riding car, it should still be wonderfully agile.

Land Rover's one-time lengthy list of engines has been paired back to a single 2.2-litre diesel with two power outputs. A six-speed manual gearbox with start-stop as standard is fitted, although you can choose an auto and forgo the start-stop as a cost option.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Land Rover Freelander front grille

The Land Rover Freelander is a fairly neat shape, having evolved and matured during its lifetime rather than undergoing complete redesigns.

The latest round of revisions in 2011 brought a redesigned front bumper and the grille comes in different finishes depending on which engine is chosen. Other changes include a black surround for the rear lights, slightly larger door mirrors and a broader array of colours and design of alloy wheels.

The Freelander's 2011 facelift was so subtle it was hard to spot

The Land Rover badge is now rimmed in silver, rather than gold. It’s hardly noticeable. The rear lights are the most obvious features that mark out the latest Freelander. They have gained clear inner lenses and a black surround. The result looks, to our eyes at least, a touch brasher than its predecessor but nonetheless modern.

Previously, the grille sat further down the nose of the Freelander, but now it has been lifted to sit in line with the headlights, and the slightly odd incision above the number plate fills the gap that it leaves. Black B-pillars and D-pillars are traditional Freelander styling cues that have stayed for this facelift.

The design is beginning to look a little long in the tooth, although it still has huge appeal compared to the awkward looking Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Line it up next to the latest Range Rover or Evoque, however, and it's becoming increasingly clear that a new model, with a new look is needed.

INTERIOR

Land Rover Freelander dashboard

The latest facelift resulted no significant changes to the inside of the Land Rover Freelander beyond new instruments and upholstery options. Perch behind the Freelander’s wheel and there is no missing the fact that you are in a premium SUV.

What Land Rover refers to as a 'command' driving position has you sitting high up, enjoying the broad expanses of glass and upright dashboard. Narrow A-pillars, flat sides to the bodywork and a bonnet that’s visible to its end make it easier to thread the car off-road and in town. The Freelander might be 4500mm long and 1910mm wide (2180mm including mirrors), but it’s easier to park than plenty of family hatchbacks.

There is no missing the fact that you are in a premium SUV

Top-spec HSE models come laden with luxuries, and without these there's no doubt the Freelander loses some of its polish. The base architecture of the dashboard and its switchgear are beginning to feel a little aged, as are the green back-lit digital readouts, which look particularly 1980s Casio next to the colour touch screen that comes as standard on the HSE model. Even in the highest spec available, the Freelander falls shy of the sophisticated and uncluttered interiors that you'll find in the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.

Still, the high roof allows plenty of headroom in the front and rear, and although knee space is more plentiful in most other cars of this size, two normal-sized adults will be comfortable in the back. The front seats can’t be set low enough for some drivers, and our knees were frequently banging against the centre console.

Its 755 litres of boot space (measured up to the roof) is poor by class standards, though there’s enough space for general use, even with the optional full-sized spare tyre hidden beneath the floor and significant wheel arch intrusion.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Land Rover Freelander diesel engine

The TD4 diesel engine in the Freelander is as quiet at idle as any in the class, low-rev response is quick and the drivetrain is impeccably smooth. The six-speed gearbox is tight and notch-free, the pedal action progressive. The urban ride is reasonable. The light steering is very direct (just over 2.5 turns lock to lock), which makes the Land Rover a doddle to thread around town.

Up the pace and the engine and drivetrain continue to impress. The low-power version of the 2.2-litre diesel builds smoothly to a maximum of 148bhp at 4000rpm. Maximum torque is 310lb ft and, because of the good low-rev response, the TD4 has a wide powerband for a dieselThe eco-tuned eD4 doesn't lose performance, recording the same power and torque figures as the TD4.

On paper, the Freelander eD4 loses nothing in terms of performance, to the four-wheel-drive model

The high-power version offers up 187bhp, with identical torque to the other 2.2. It's pacier, but the powertrain isn’t exactly quiet, though; BMW’s equivalent X3, the SD4’s rival on price and performance, would be a bit more refined through the rev range. Once you’re up to speed, though, the Freelander’s engine fades into the background; it’s a decent motorway cruiser.

Manual variants are fitted with start-stop and revisions in 2011 resulted in the the start-up time improving by 30 percent to 700ms. The system will now work in temperatures as low as freezing. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Land Rover Freelander cornering

This is one of the Land Rover Freelander’s strong points, provided you are looking for sedate, cushioned progress and not deft, hatchback-like handling such as you can expect in this vehicle’s most obvious rivals. The ride quality is a particularly impressive achievement on the Land Rover, in that it manages to deliver a good blend of soft, absorbent springs without the excessive body movement that often comes with it.

There is a noticeable amount of roll in hard cornering, but when cornering forces are not involved the body stays flat while the springs soak up the road’s surface blemishes. It’s particularly effective at low speeds and over smaller intrusions in the tarmac. Larger bumps and undulations, meanwhile, can cause the body to wallow or rock.

The ride quality is a particularly impressive achievement

It is a long-standing and endearing Land Rover characteristic, but even when driven hard the Freelander retains slightly ponderous responses - not in a bad way, given that this results in a car that encourages smooth and unhassled driving. Good as the chassis is, though, the Freelander feels out of its comfort zone when you try to find its limits. Turn-in is sharp, but vague steering removes much of the feedback and, with so much weight moving between each corner, it can feel unbalanced if you need to adjust the line mid-corner.

Carry too much speed into a damp corner and you will notice the difference between the two- and four-wheel-drive Freelander, because the front-wheel-drive version will understeer quite dramatically until you lift off the throttle. The all-wheel-drive model is not free of understeer, but the laws of physics make it clear that if you’re short of grip, having four driven wheels is better than two. Even so, 99 percent of the time on everyday British roads, the Freelander eD4 makes sense.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Land Rover Freelander

By covering such a broad price range, Land Rover has widened the Freelander’s target audience but also ended up taking on a huge variety of rivals, from vehicles such as a high spec Skoda Yeti and Kia Sportage right up to the BMW X3.

Against these rivals the equivalent Freelander's financial figures generally stack up, without delivering any outstanding reasons to buy it. Its running costs are reasonable and the residuals are strong - but they are never class leading.

Depreciation is good, but not as good as the X3

If you stuck for which model to choose, we'd recommend the TD4 GS, which, if you can live with the relatively dour cabin, gets good equipment levels and still undercuts the equivalent BMW X3. Although it is slightly embarrassed by the BMW X3’s figures, the Freelander has respectable running costs for company car drivers.

The front-wheel drive Freelander makes a sound financial case for itself, but it has a fight on its hands to be an entirely logical purchase. A Volkswagen Tiguan at the same price eclipses the Freelander is most financial measurements.

If you want an automatic Freelander, you can have it as standard on the 187bhp version, or pay extra to have it on the 148bhp four-wheel-drive model.

Depreciation is good, but even here the Freelander fails to match the BMW X3.

VERDICT

3.5 star Land Rover Freelander

What Land Rover calls breadth of ability is the Freelander’s trump card. Although its off-road ability is the only objective area in which it is truly class leading, the Land Rover is at least competitive in most other areas, including its on-road manners.

For that reason, many buyers will still opt for the four-wheel drive models, and there's little doubt that the Freelander makes most sense in this guise, delivering a  more cogent reason to buy it than many of its rivals.

Off-road ability is the only objective area in which the Freelander is truly class leading

The two-wheel drive Freelander eD4 looks, in isolation, to be a tempting combination of affordable running costs in a premium SUV body. And in many ways it is. If you want a two-wheel-drive soft-roader, this is one of the better options - particularly if you want the general driving sensations of a conventional 4x4. It also has an excellent ride, decent engine and desirable image. But it falls short of the class best in some key areas, and it does little that non-premium brands don’t do equally well for less, or that the BMW X3 doesn't simply do better.

There's little doubt, either, that the Freelander is feeling its age. Style-wise, it has seen better days, while ergonomics and quality are a let down when compared with rivals. And while interior space will be enough for some, it’s nowhere near as spacious as other premium SUVs. However, that square shape and 'Comand'‚ driving position pay dividends when driving the car - it’s an easy car to place on the road.

There’s no doubting that the Freelander is a pleasant and useful car. Perhaps with more persuasive running costs, the verdict would be different, but for a relatively small premium and figures only slightly less appealing, our money would go on a VW Tiguan or BMW X3.

Land Rover Freelander 2003-2014 First drives