A recent trip around an all-terrain track in an open-top Defender reminded me just what Land Rover was all about. These were cars which could take on anything the world could throw at them, that would still be serviceable long after the cockroaches surrendered and even the Peugeot 504s had bitten the dust.
Even the highest trim Range Rover is embued with these proper go-anywhere-through-anything credentials, even though it wilfully lacks the hose-clean interior you could previously specify. It seems a shame to get mud on the axminster and horse-dung on parchment leather with green piping is not a good look.
The Freelander originally came onto the market to steal back some of the market that the Japanese had absorbed with Terranos, and, particularly, Rav 4s. It sought to give people a bit of the Land Rover magic, that feeling of unburstability and the knowledge that you were buying into the greatest name in off-roading.
It’s a shame that the original Freelander wasn’t really that good. It’s easy in hindsight to criticise things, and fashionable for people like me to do so, but the Freelander was richly infected by the ghosts of Rovers of yore. I used to own an 820 fastback of late ‘80s vintage, and in the Freelander I could recognise my old switches, lamps and mouldings. They weren’t the same, but they looked the same. To me, it all smelled a little of the parts bin. The 800 was clearly an amazing car, but it seemed over the top to still be celebrating it in the 21st century.
No such problems with the New Generation. I had the pleasure of sampling the Freelander 2.0 TD4 S. Now, in the context of Landrover nomenclature S isn’t very high on the pecking order and it isn’t afraid to remind you of this. The big hole in the dash where the sat-nav isn’t, the blank panel on the speedometer so badly missing a trip computer, S is the very starting point into Freelanderness. One could say that S is Freelander in its purest form, so I’ll go with that. It is free of embellishments that could distract me from an accurate conclusion, and of course Land Rovers are supposed to be functional. Three cheers for basic-ness.
It’s unsurprising that the Freelander should be aiming to head upmarket, it follows its Discovery sibling which has achieved a kind of market-transcending classlessness. I doubt it will make it quite that far, but it's certainly heading in the right direction. Internally, the same language that created the Range Rover sport interior has been employed to good effect, even though the quality of materials don't quite live up to the architecture.
Shiny plastics aside, it's a nice place to be, and all feels well put together. I didn't find any exposed screwheads and nothing rattled or squeaked during my less than rigorous journey to Welwyn Garden City. In reality, this is a telling legacy of the BMW days of Land Rover. The gear selector is recognisably Munich, the switches may not be made by the Bavarians but they were certainly the inspiration. It is quite heartening that Land Rover learnt so much when the Germans were at the helm.
Previously in a Freelander Diesel you had the strange sensation of driving an old Freight Rover Sherpa, so loud was the engine and lacking was the sound deadening. The new car is a world apart and I could hear every note of the slightly dubious stereo over the engine and road noise. Impressed, I found myself automatically assuming an 85mph cruise, with plenty left in reserve. The gear ratios are well chosen to make the most of the torque, and the car rarely feels underpowered. You find yourself unwittingly intimidating people out of the way, people who think a big, flash off-roader is coming through, you can see their disappointment when they realise it’s only a Freelander.
The car feels well connected to the road and the controls are communicative and direct enough to encourage a modicum of commitment to corners, again, something you couldn’t say about its predecessor, which managed to combine firmness with vagueness to fascinating effect. In fact, it really does feel like a scaled down Range Rover Sport and you start thinking about perhaps buying a house in Cheshire and buying that chandelier you’ve always wanted.
Apart from a foray across a moderately bumpy grass field (a shortcut I must remember for my daily commute) I didn’t get to try the ‘Lander in traditional Land Rover territory. The old car was fine for a bit of soft-roading, the new one promises to build on that but is probably still short of the Yukon crossing capabilities of Daddy Range Rover. There is hill-descent control without going to the full-house terrain selectivity found elsewhere in the range, but this is irrelevant anyway, the upcoming new Defender will fill that slot. A Freelander should be fine for towing a big caravan, or any of a million less hideous trailer-related lifestyle choices.
Overall, there can be no doubt that the newer car is the car the old one should have been from the start. It would be ridiculous for it not to be and the old one looks faintly embarrassing next to it. Still, improvements can be made to the interior, the driving experience which isn’t as sharp as, for example, a Ford Kuga. The much more expensive BMW X3 was always pretty disastrous, it’s replacement and X1 sibling aren't any great shakes either.
I would gladly drive a Freelander over any of those. Despite flaws, it seems to have a class that none of the competitors can quite equal. Call it breeding.