The next time Land Rover officials decide to design a new vehicle from the ground up, they'll give more consideration, up front, to the preferences of North American SUV drivers.
This was what a Land Rover official acknowledged as he explained the challenge Land Rover engineers had in taking a designed-and-built-for-Europeans SUV, the Freelander, and tailoring it for U.S. drivers.
The result is, frankly, a small SUV with both the pros and cons of European tastes.
Smallish inside and out
Land Rover's 2002 Freelander became the company's third U.S. model when it started arriving in showrooms here in December 2001
But the first thing American SUV shoppers are likely to notice is how small it is. Like many European vehicles, the Freelander can fit tidily in many compact, urban parking spaces.
Inside, American-sized riders may feel cramped. The Freelander's interior is small by American standards, with headroom and shoulder room less than what you find in a Jeep Liberty, 2002 Honda CR-V and Lexus RX 300.
Tall or heavy-set riders may find it cumbersome to get inside the Freelander. I saw at least two such folks bang their heads trying to climb inside.
Don't look for a driver seat height adjustment, either. With front-seat headroom at just 38.4 inches—less than the 40.8 of the Liberty, the 40.7 of the RX 300 and 40.9 of the CR-V—there's not a lot of room for raising the seat, even if an adjustment were provided.
Cargo space behind the Freelander's rear bench seat is skimpy at just 19.3 cubic feet. It handled a few suitcases during my test drive, but there wasn't room for much more, unless I wanted to pile things upward and block the view out the back window.
Note that the Liberty, which is about the same overall length as the Freelander, offers 29 cubic feet of cargo room behind the seats.
European driving in an SUV
Still, there's a certain delight in driving the Freelander. It comes with decidedly European handling, so drives in mountain twisties are more satisfying, more stable-feeling, than you'd expect in most SUVs. Even highway cruising is a pleasure.
Simply, the Freelander's suspension provides a well-damped and cushioned, pleasant ride on pavement. I could feel how rigid the body was as I drove, and I felt confident driving the Freelander around curves at good speed.
I especially liked the good response and road feedback I got through the sizable steering wheel.
Impressively capable off-road
The Freelander has the well-respected Land Rover name on it and comes standard with permanent all-wheel drive.
Thus, the Freelander navigated off-road trails with ease during my test drive, scrambling over rocks, down dirt paths and up rugged, hilly terrain with determination.
Note the Freelander's all-wheel drive has a center viscous coupling unit and there's four-wheel, electronic traction control in all Freelanders. Both worked admirably to move the test Freelanders over challenging off-road terrain, clawing away at loose, rocky stuff and ably navigating through some muck.
Though technically a small SUV, Freelander has some of the biggest tires—16-inchers on the S and 17-inchers on the up-level SE and HSE trims.
Most of the time that you drive, nearly all the power—90 percent—goes to the Freelander's front wheels. But when extra traction is needed, the all-wheel-drive system automatically can send up to half the power to the rear.
Small vehicle that gulps fuel
Because the Freelander's fuel-efficient, small engines from Europe were deemed too disappointing in performance for American drivers, they were left behind.
The only engine offered here is a gasoline V6 that's rated at a meager 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Some bigger SUVs get better than that.
But the power is strong from this 2.5-liter double overhead cam V6; it's capable of generating 174 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Mated to a five-speed automatic, the engine seems well-suited to both on- and off-road duties.
Shifting was mostly smooth, and I noticed the engine would readily rev longer when I used the do-it-yourself-shifting of the transmission, sans clutch pedal.
Low price for base trim
Beginning pricing is noteworthy for a vehicle wearing a Land Rover badge.
A Freelander in base dress carries a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of less than $26,000. This is some $8,000 less than last year's low-priced Land Rover, the Discovery Series II base trim.
But be aware that Freelander pricing can reach more than $31,000, depending on the trim and options added in.
And about those looks: The Freelander looks more like a stocky station wagon, rather than a brutish-beast SUV that we're accustomed to seeing on this side of the pond.