It’s a crazy world when Land Rover starts selling front-wheel drive cars and, at the other extreme, Ferrari launches a four-wheel drive estate. But these are challenging times for the motor industry.
In the past decade Land Rover has been embroiled in more sustained political lobbying than today’s public enemy number one, the banking sector. So it should come as no surprise that it’s diluting its utilitarian, all-wheel drive roots. The front-drive Freelander is part of that thinking: a realisation that trimming some kilos and removing the 4wd gubbins will save most people pounds in their pocket and carbon from the atmosphere. It’s also tacit admission that, in reality, many of Land Rover’s customers don’t require four-wheel drive day to day.
Land Rover Freelander eD4: the CAR review
So it is that we approach the front-wheel drive Freelander with interest. The claimed figures are certainly worth paying attention to: 47mpg and 158g/km of CO2 are not to be sniffed at for what remains a big, bulky family car.
It’s a strangely surreal feeling when you first experience wheelspin in the Freelander. In my two decades of driving, I’ve never felt the front wheels scrabble at a T-junction in any Land Rover I’ve driven. Traction is in fact fine, but the 2.2 TD is so gutsy that its 310lb ft will ultimately part company with the asphalt if you boot it in a tight turn.
Most of the time of course you will never even notice this Freelander is two-wheel drive. It’s a very neat application, and my abiding memory of this car is that it’s a very well sorted machine.
But isn’t it beginning to show its age now?
Yes it is, in many respects. The Freelander’s shape should be familiar because it’s been on sale for more than five years, and the interior is beginning to feel every month of its age. The switchgear is set too low, the plastics feel old-hat compared even to newer Korean rivals, the sat-nav is very much JLR v1.0 and details like the key fob holder on the dash are risible in their flimsiness. I could go on, so I will: the MP3 plug is a cheap after thought and the blanking panel where the 4wd controls would sit is a reminder you’re in a new kind of Land Rover. Mind you, at least most of the switchgear is big and Playschool chunky and a cinch to use.
But then you fire up the smooth 2.2 turbodiesel (ours is the lower powered 148bhp version) and you forget the low-rent interior. Believe me: the Freelander remains amazingly sharp to drive despite its encroaching years.
Why the Land Rover Freelander eD4 is a smart drive
First impressions are of a smooth-riding, well damped car. The Freelander is comfy across all terrain and it steers sweetly enough, though lacking the clarity of a Ford Kuga’s helm. Come to a standstill and you’ll immediately notice a stop-start system that works unobtrusively. Select neutral, the engine stops. Brush the clutch, it restarts instantly. All part and parcel of achieving that low CO2 figure.
The best bit of the Freelander package is the strong oomph on tap. Despite testing the lower-powered Freelander front-drive, this car has a pleasing elastic twang to its performance, and the six-speed manual is well judged too. It’s refined at an M-way cruise, turning over at a relaxed 1900rpm at 70mph. We were blown around a bit during this week’s windy weather, but not as much as the Nissan X-Trail we had in at the same time.
So you never really notice the lack of 4wd?
Nope. Not on road, at least. We didn’t have the chance to tackle any proper off-roading, although we suspect that the raised ride height and M&S winter rubber would in fact go some way to keeping you going across most mild brown-laning most of us are likely to encounter.
The Freelander remains a very practical car. The double sunroof floods both rows with light and my children described its raised stance and consequent views out as ‘like being on a ladder’. We dropped the rear seats down and carried an adult bike without the need to remove any wheels. One of the benefits of that 755/1670-litre boot.
You’ve probably gathered I’m keen on the two-wheel drive Freelander. It’s exactly the right sort of car for Land Rover to be producing. Will the eco tweaks actually work? We averaged 32mpg in our week with the car, which is ok but not exactly going to set the world alight.
When I stopped off at a smart market town at the weekend, I was surprised to be approached by two separate admirers. Of the car, sadly, not me. Which is interesting for a five-year-old model. And just as well, because Land Rover’s engineering might is concentrating on the replacement Range Rover and Range Sport at the moment; the Freelander must continue on sale for many years ahead.
If it weren’t for the crumby cabin and the ongoing spectre of reliability issues (our last two Range Rovers both went wrong and the worst two SUV performers in the 2010 JD Power survey were Land Rovers), I’d have no hesitation in recommending the two-wheel drive Freelander heartily. It’s very much a positive step in the right direction.