Don't look for a sport-utility vehicle like the Land Rover Freelander SE3 semi-convertible from, say, Toyota or Honda because only Land Rover offers such a youth-oriented vehicle.
How long the Freelander SE3 will go unchallenged is anyone's guess at the moment, but rivals probably will come up with a similar model if it proves to be hot. The car and truck market is increasingly being occupied by niche vehicles designed to give an automaker a leg up on rivals.
The $26,370 SE3 is a 2-door addition to the 2003 Freelander 4-door hardtop sport-ute line, which goes from $25,370 to $31,970. The SE3 carries the upscale Land Rover nameplate, but is more free-spirited.
The SE3's 2-door design naturally gives it a sportier—but less practical—personality than the Freelander 4-door. The SE3 also has twin removable sunroof panels up front and a detachable hard top over the rear seat-cargo area. Optional is an $850 manually operated rear soft top that doesn't replace the hard top.
Removable Roof Panels
The soft top provides the sportiest setup, but the rugged looking SE3 allows a good amount of open-air driving enjoyment with just the roof panels removed. Those panels can be stored in a cargo area bag. That's not the case with the hard top, which requires extra effort to remove.
The compact Freelander 4-door was introduced to America for 2002, but would have gotten more attention if Ford-owned Land Rover had unveiled it here in 1997, when it debuted in Europe. Many new compact sport-utilities arrived during that time span, causing the Freelander to make less of a splash despite its upscale British nameplate.
Land Rover introduced the first luxury sport-utility vehicle decades ago, and owners have included members of England's royal family and highly visible show business celebrities.
Despite its late start, the Freelander has earned a reputation for being a solidly built sport-utility with nice handling and a really good ride. It's the first small premium sport-ute from Land Rover. It's also the first to have a permanent all-wheel-drive system and unitized body and chassis construction.
All Land Rover models combine an upscale image and reputation for ruggedness. The SE3 looks plenty rugged with its massive black front A-frame brush bar. That bar is just the thing for off-road driving and also comes in handy protecting the front end from sloppy parallel parkers.
Compared to the Freelander 4-door hardtop, one might expect the SE3 to be smaller because of its 2-door setup. But it's dimensionally identical to the 4-door version, with a 101-inch wheelbase and 175-inch length.
The SE3 is also mechanically identical to the Freelander 4-door. Its all-wheel-drive system doesn't have low-range gearing, but the SE3 provides traction control, all-terrain anti-lock brakes and a Hill Descent Control to limit speed down steep grades. (Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover models have low-range gearing for really serious off-road driving.)
Fairly Lively Acceleration
A smooth 2.5-liter V6 with overhead camshafts and 174-horsepower provides fairly lively acceleration, with a decent 65-75 mph passing time. The engine is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission, which is a bit slow to downshift but has an easily used manual shift feature.
The SE3 weighs a hefty 3,577 pounds, so fuel economy is a mediocre, estimated 17 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway. However, only 87-octane gasoline is called for.
Power steering is quick and is controlled by a thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a tilt feature. The all-independent suspension delivers a compliant ride. Handling is decent and helped by large 17-inch alloy wheels. The brakes work fine.
The SE3 isn't inexpensive for a compact sport-ute, but is well equipped. Standard features include air conditioning, front power windows, cruise control, keyless entry and a security system. The windshield, power outside mirrors and rear window have a heated feature.
The outside mirrors fold flat against the front side windows to protect them during off-road driving or in parking lots.
An unusual feature is the cargo door's power rear window, which can be controlled by a dashboard button or tailgate keylock.
Large Cargo Area The large cargo area can be made more spacious by flipping the entire 60-40-split rear seat forward. However, the tailgate swings toward the curb, which can make curbside loading more difficult. Storage areas include door pockets and a console bin.
Long doors and a moderately low floor make it fairly easy to get in and out. While a little narrrow, the front seats provide good side support during spirited driving. Their circular seatback controls can be tedious to work, but they allow precise adjustments.
Some new SE3 owners who don't consult the owner's manual likely will become perplexed when trying to find the hood release lever; it's inconveniently put in the right front footwell.
Four tall adults fit comfortably and sit high. The center of the back seat is too hard for comfort, but it's pretty easy to reach the rear-seat area.
The generally businesslike interior has lots of hard plastic, which doesn't contribute to an upscale look. And there's no sunshade for the transparent roof panels, which means a low sun will always be in a driver's eyes.
Gauge numbers should be larger, and good luck finding the small interior door handles in the dark without considerable groping. Some climate controls don't feel precise, although they're large. The sound system has a mix of small and large controls.
Windshield wipers are especially sturdy, but rear visibility from the driver's seat is hindered by back-seat headrests and a tailgate-mounted spare tire.
No side airbags are offered, but front and rear "crumple" zones help absorb energy in a collision.
The SE3 is fairly exclusive because Land Rover plans to annually sell only a few thousand here. Of course, in many circles, any Land Rover model is considered exclusive.