A chance drive in the latest Freelander over the weekend, reminded me a) what a good car Land Rover's cheapest passenger model is and b) how a few minor tweaks in the car configuration when you're finalising your purchase can transform a great car into a so-so one, and vice versa.
Actually, my drive was less by chance and more the result of a special request to Land Rover, as I'd had an opportunity to drive the latest manual 2WD version (verdict: not bad, and certainly nothing that £800 and another pair of driven wheels couldn't fix) and I was keen to remind myself of the abilities of the automatic 4WD version.
I ran the original Freelander 2 in this spec as a long-term test car, and found it to be every inch the mini-Range Rover we hoped it would be. The reassuring thing for me and, I guess, for JLR is that I rediscovered the same warm feeling driving this one, some three years later. There's plenty of low-down torque, unlike most new cars on the market, it handles and steers very well for a car of this type, and it's a very comfortable place to spend a long journey.
The march of progress means that the sound system, separate from the colour sat-nav, looks a bit dated and has no iPod functionality, though the actual sound output is fine. Similarly, the centre console is beginning to look dated, though to my eyes it’s in a rather appealing Defender/Disco 3 way, which emphasises the car’s genuine off-road abilities.
There were two huge differences with the one I ran, however. This car really did feel superbly built, with a Golf-like solidity to the entire dashboard that was missing from the first cars off the line, and indeed still absent in some of JLR's more expensive models.
The second difference, which returns me to the original point of the blog, was the ride. Freelanders always ride exceptionally well, but the 16in wheels on my first car really gave it a magic carpet effect on rutted lanes and broken surfaces, compared with the tauter, more aggressive control of the handsome but unnecessarily large 19in ones on the latest test car.
So, the simple message : if you're buying a car, take care with the spec and remember that just because it looks better in the picture with 19s, doesn't mean that it will be on the road.