A Mini Sport-Ute for Non-Mini Wallets By Ed Hellwig The introduction of the Freelander to American shores marks the beginning of yet another new niche in the sport-utility segment — that of the premium compact sport-utility. Up until this point, most compact sport-utilities, or mini-utes, could have been characterized as practical and affordable, but never luxurious. The Ford Escape that came out on top in our last mini-SUV comparison test did so because of its powerful engine, roomy interior and fun-to-drive character. It was functional in all the ways we expected it to be, but there was certainly nothing upscale about it. With the Freelander, Land Rover is attempting to inject a little bit of its storied British heritage into a category of vehicles that didn't even exist 10 years ago. Unlike the high-dollar Discovery and Range Rover models, the Freelander falls into a price range that places it well within reach of the average buyer, although that's not exactly who Land Rover is hoping to attract. It's counting on customers who are willing to pay a little extra to get more than just your run-of-the-mill compact SUV. After driving the Freelander for the better part of a month, we're not completely convinced it deserves the premium status bestowed upon it by its maker. Although it displayed the kind of rock-solid stability and superior handling we would expect from an upscale sport-ute, the thoroughly average interior and lackluster drivetrain left us questioning whether or not the Freelander is worth the extra price of admission. With its as-tested sticker price of $30,325, we had good reason to expect a lot from our midlevel SE tester. The only other compact SUVs on the market that approach this price range are fully loaded versions of the Jeep Liberty and Nissan Xterra. A sunroof, heated seats and a Harman-Kardon audio system were the only options on our test vehicle, although all Freelanders come with an extensive list of standard features. There's only one powertrain combination offered, and unlike all other Land Rover models, there's no low-range gearing. Power flows through a permanent all-wheel-drive system that employs a viscous coupling between the axles to allow seamless on- and offroad operation. The 2.5-liter dual-overhead-cam V6 is considerably smaller than most of its competitors' V6 powerplants, but it still manages to produce 175 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a five-speed automatic (the first in a compact sport-ute) that features not only normal and sport shift programs, but also a manual shift gate for driver-selectable shifts. Our initial impressions of the drivetrain were less than favorable, and subsequent test drives only reinforced our original observations. The transmission was notoriously slow to downshift at low speeds, and the heightened level of engine refinement we expected from this "premium" vehicle was conspicuously absent. The power delivery is linear but grainy, with plenty of accompanying mechanical noise. In other words, it feels just like every other V6 mini-ute on the market. With 35 less horsepower than either the Liberty or the supercharged Xterra, the Freelander's slow acceleration times hardly came as a surprise. A 0-to-60-mph time of 10.6 seconds places the Freelander near the bottom in this category for small SUVs. Short gearing and five forward speeds compensate for the engine's lack of grunt, but even with all that help, the Freelander can't match the neck-snapping thrust of Ford's Escape or even Honda's four-cylinder CR-V. Keeping the shift lever in "sport" mode improves performance considerably — leading to the obvious question of why the standard setting even exists — but even that's not enough to make it feel quick. If you're willing to put in the effort, the manual control provided by the sportshift automatic can be helpful, especially in offroad situations, but when you consider that Hyundai offers the same technology in its considerably cheaper Santa Fe, there's nothing inherently unique or "premium" about it. With so much of Land Rover's reputation dependent on outdoor adventure, we decided to put the Freelander through its paces on a self-guided mine tour outside the mountain community of Big Bear Lake in California's San Bernardino Mountains. With its fully independent MacPherson strut suspension and stiff unibody construction, the Freelander crept and crawled its way through the various trails with confidence, its only drawback being the low-profile street tires that allow only 7.2 inches of ground clearance, more than 2 inches less than the Jeep Liberty. Leaving out low-range gearing was a major departure for Land Rover, as unparalleled off-highway capability is a cornerstone of its philosophy. In the Freelander's case, Land Rover compensated with the combination of a permanent all-wheel-drive system and electronic traction and Hill Descent control. Together these systems give the Freelander more offroad capability than most drivers are ever likely to need. Although most of our route was relatively easy, even the most difficult sections barely taxed the Rover's systems. As well as it performed in our hands, however, we can't help but question whether hard-core enthusiasts wouldn't prefer the more traditional dual-range setups maintained by the Liberty and the Xterra, as they're widely considered to be superior to electronic gadgetry. The moderate terrain may not have pushed the Freelander to its limits, but it did highlight the robust construction employed — undoubtedly the one area where the Freelander does feel like it's in a class by itself. Unlike many of its competitors, where every bump seems to knock a few ticks off the ol' lifemeter, the Freelander's heavy-duty underpinnings feel as though they could take decades of punishment without failure. If you want a compact sport-ute that thrives on harsh terrain rather than just tolerating it, you'll be hard-pressed to find one with more stamina than the Freelander. As well as it does in the dirt, you might think that the Freelander would struggle when the road turns smooth, but we found the opposite to be true. The stout suspension that does so well in the rough stuff also manages to provide a tightly controlled ride on the street. There's more body roll in corners than we would like, but compared to the Liberty and Xterra, both of which are poor-handling vehicles on the street, the Freelander remains stable and controllable. The rack-and-pinion steering system provides more feedback than most competitors' setups, as well, although some might find the weighting a bit too heavy for day-to-day driving. Our seat-of-the-pants impressions were backed up by the Freelander's performance in the slalom test, as its speed of 61.2 mph through the cones is the fastest we ever clocked for a vehicle in this class. Our test driver was pleasantly surprised by the Rover's handling at the limit, remarking that once he got used to the body roll, the Freelander settled in nicely and returned much faster times than he would have ever thought it could. Brake testing was another real eye-opener, as the Freelander managed to post an outstanding 60-to-0-mph distance of 118 feet — a distance any sports car would be proud of. So we'll admit, when it comes to handling and construction, the Freelander rightfully earns the right to wear the premium badge. Unfortunately, Land Rover's engineering and design excellence somehow never made it to the cabin. Get in and you'll instantly notice the awkward driving position that makes you feel as though you're sitting on a stool. There's not a very wide range of adjustment, and despite the solid side bolstering and a nice contour to the seatback, the seat can become uncomfortable on longer treks. Minimal wind and road noise contribute to a quiet cabin on the highway, although a couple editors noticed a few squeaks and rattles invading our test vehicle. Undoubtedly the Freelander's most disappointing aspect, the interior has neither high-quality materials nor a modern design. Look down and you'll see a gauge cluster that looks as though it was added as an afterthought, complete with murky green backlighting and a featureless design that would look right at home in a subcompact hatchback. The numerous storage cubbies are neither appropriately placed nor big enough to be of any help, and the window buttons are inconveniently placed on the center console. The cupholders are next to worthless, and the door lock button resides just under the radio — not exactly the first place you look when exiting the vehicle. Granted, after driving the vehicle for a while, most of these ergonomic flaws fall by the wayside, but when you're paying a premium price, we don't think you should have to get used to anything. Cargo capacity is another one of the Freelander's disturbing weaknesses. Even with both sides of the 60/40-split rear seat folded, cargo room maxes out at a paltry 47 cubic feet. Considering that most sport-utes in this category offer between 65 and 78 cubic feet, the Freelander's ridiculously small hold makes you wonder if it deserves to be called a "utility" vehicle, let alone a premium one. Rear seat room is about average for a mini-ute, with enough space to seat two comfortably, but three is definitely a crowd. The seatbacks are a bit flat, but otherwise comfortable, and the dual cupholders in the fold-down armrest are a nice touch. The seats fold easily, but the latches' location on the backs of the seats make them inconvenient to drop from the front. Deciding whether or not the Freelander lives up to its premium billing is really a matter of priorities. If you're looking for nothing more than a high-riding station wagon for the family, one that will swallow all the kiddies and their piles of multicolored entertainment paraphernalia, the Freelander will not suit your needs well. As a pure offroad machine, this Land Rover can certainly hold its own, probably better than most, but with its limited ground clearance and lack of true slow-speed gearing, it's hard to consider it the best of the breed in this category, either. For those whose requirements fall into neither of the preceding categories, the Freelander may suit you just fine. It handles better than most, both on the road and off, has permanent all-wheel drive for hassle-free traction at all times and enough creature comforts to compete favorably with the competition. Whether you're willing to pay a few thousand dollars extra to get the name on the hood and khaki-clothed salespeople is up to you. We don't think it's worth the added cost, especially when viewed from the driver seat. In the long run, the Freelander's robust construction and reputable name might count for something, but as far as we're concerned, we'd take an Escape or Liberty and pocket the difference.