I always think Land Rover is rather apologetic about its attractiveness to the trendy side of the market. There's never a Land Rover launch without a trip up muddy hill and down dirty dale to hammer home the fact that the cars do the business off-road, and that includes driving £50,000 Range Rovers up the side of Scottish mountains in the snow.
But with the relaunch of the Freelander, the firm has gone some way to acknowledging that the only time many of its owners will take it off Tarmac is when they hit their gravel driveways.
For the first time there is a model, the Sport, specifically built and marketed for the rigours of the ring road and aimed at the user-chooser.
Phil Popham, Land Rover UK's managing director, reckons the firm has to be more active in the corporate market, particularly because as many as three-quarters of Freelanders sold in the UK are bought with company money and many of them are selected by user-choosers.
The Freelander has always been a fantastically successful model for Land Rover and with its numerous revisions, there is no reason to see why it shouldn't continue to be so.
There is no surprise to see that the headlights have been changed to be more like the Range Rover, just as the Discovery's were last year, and the front bumpers are now more chunky than previously in a look that works. The rear bumpers have had a going over as well and are now body-coloured while the indicators have been moved from the ludicrously low position previously to a slightly higher one – ideal to see if you're following in a Lotus Elise, but still far too near the ground to be much use.
The interior has been spruced up as well, although the revisions are not universal. There is still evidence of some decidedly dodgy plastic, especially on the doors. The high offset seating position has not been changed from the old model, no doubt being too costly to re-engineer.
Dials all get chrome-effect surrounds and there are a number of chrome-look panels on the dash and the doors which lift the cabin to an extent. Add leather seats and for the first time you could actually claim the Freelander is stylish inside rather than the plasticky utilitarian affair it was before.
The Sport model is lowered by 30mm, has springs stiffened by 30%, as well as dampers firmed up and comes with larger 18-inch wheels. It is available in three and five-door models, as an automatic or a manual and with the 2.0-litre diesel or 2.5-litre V6 petrol engines. From a fleet driver's point of view, only the diesel makes any sense.
The extremely high CO2 levels of the 1.8-litre and 2.5-litre petrol at 248g/km and 298g/km respectively would put them both in the highest benefit-in-kind tax bracket of 35% from next April. The manual diesel is only 205g/km, which means 28% this year and 30% in 2004/2005.
Prices will start at £15,995 on-the-road for the 1.8E, which means it has the same entry price as previously. The Sport models start at £20,095 for the Td4, while the Sport Premium model starts at £22,595. Five- door models of all versions are roughly £2,000 more expensive than the three door cars.
This sector is massively competitive and will only get more so with the introduction of the BMW X3. If the BMW has the same effect that the X5 had on the sector above, then the revisions Land Rover has made to this car will be even more timely and essential.
Behind the wheel
It's worth getting this out of the way first: why anybody would choose either of the petrol engines is beyond me.
The diesel model is by far the best option in every sense. Take the petrol 2.5 V6. It does a 'staggering' 22mpg on the combined cycle and churns out 298g/km of CO2, which must make it one of the most thirsty and polluting engines on the market litre-for-litre.
If its performance was noteworthy, its profligacy could be forgiven, but it's not. Only available with the automatic gearbox, its straight line performance is no better than the diesel.
The 1.8 petrol manages 27.3mpg, while the diesel manages a much more respectable 37.2 and still manages to feel as fast as the V6 with its extra mid-range punch.
The driver's seat still has no height adjustment and the steering wheel does not come out far enough, which means it still has a van-like driving position.
However, there are still plenty of people who will claim the reason they like their Freelander is the seating position with its high view, so it is not too bad to be overcome.
The steering is pretty heavy at slow speed on all models, although it lightens up as the speed increases and its relatively wide turning circle doesn't help parking or turning in tight spots. On the road, there is nothing different about the standard Freelander from what went before, although it is still a top performer in its class off-road. It is still one of the better SUVs for driving about in, but that is like being the best of a bad lot. The bigger and heavier 4x4s like the Volkswagen Touareg and BMW X5 with their sophisticated adaptive suspensions are proving the better drive.
The main effort comes with the Sport model, with its stiffened suspension, lowered ride height and lower profile wheels.
These revisions should make quite a difference, but actually make less than you think as the slow-witted steering, tall body and sluggishness mask many of the improvements in driving quality.
There is undoubtedly less roll and float through bends and over crests but you still couldn't call the Freelander fun as it just doesn't have the engines for that. However, it is a big improvement over the standard model.
Whisper it quietly, but the Sports model is compromised for off-road driving, which is very rare for a Land Rover, but standard practice for most other SUVs. Land Rover claims that this is the model to have if gravel tracks are the surface, but anything muddier or hillier would leave the driver a little worried about ground clearance.
The revisions to the Freelander have been successful at giving it a good chance of remaining the user chooser's favourite. The Sport also gives company car motorists a further option, and is the best of the range for drivers doing predominately on-road work.
|Make:||Land Rover Freelander|
|Engine (cc):||1,796||1,951 TD4||2,497||Max power (bhp/rpm):||117/5,550||112/4,000||177/6,250|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||118/2,750||191/1,750||177/4,000|
|Max speed (mph):||106||102||113|
|0-62mph (sec):||11.8||13.2 (14.3 auto)||10.1|
|Comb fuel economy (mpg):||27.3||37.2 (32.8)||22.7|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||248||205 (240)||298|
|Transmission:||5-sp man,||5-sp auto|