Freelander is the entry point to the Land Rover brand. The bold font on the lip of the bonnet looming large in your rear view mirror tells you what you need to know. You move over, letting it pass, admiring it as it whooshes by. Then, years later, you drive one. Oh yes, the little SUVs – the politically correct, image conscious, urban yuppie mobiles so favoured by young executives and soccer moms – is what Land Rover is after the Freelander. Have they succeeded?
You almost expect an anti-climax. The Freelander is compact, easy to drive and has enough toys to keep you entertained. The ‘all-terrain’ tyres clearly have a tarmac bias. The four-cylinder diesel is refined and responsive. The automatic gearbox has a manual override; pull back the lever to shift down, push forward to shift up. As you cruise along the highway fiddling with all the little buttons, you begin to take in the details. The dashboard doesn’t feel special enough for a rupees half crore car. The panoramic roof is really nice though, giving the cabin an airy ambience. The Freelander is brisk on the expressway and very easy to drive in Mumbai’s crushing traffic too. Visibility is good, seating comfort is very good, the ride isn’t bad, the a/c works well, the gearbox is competent, save for a slight lurching in stop-start traffic but we’ll grant it that. The steering is light, maybe overly so at speed, but that is its only dynamic flaw. It goes around corners fairly predictably, no doubt aided by the four-wheel drive system and all the electronics, but let’s not get started on SUVs that ‘handle like a sports car’. At this point, it’s so easy to get cynical and mouth the same old spiel about it being ‘just another luxury branded soft-roader’. It’s just as easy to swing the other way with the superlatives. So far, the Freelander hasn’t done anything to impress me, but it hasn’t pissed me off either.
We hum along to the nice stereo when our photographer suggests a shoot location. It is a hill which will soon meet the same fate as its neighbours when it will be mined for its rock and overrun by urbanisation. For now though there’s a little track, frequented by foraging cattle and their herders, which leads halfway up. Time to try Land Rover’s patented Terrain Response System – a set of pre-programmed electronics which control the way the Freelander drives. We go from ‘off’ to ‘grass gravel snow’. The other options are ‘mud ruts’ and ‘sand’, but we see grass and we see gravel and although there’s no snow, we’ll stick to ‘grass gravel snow’.
Cautious of the tyres, we motor sedately along the path which is no use really because it’s so narrow. We reach the end. Our photographer, Sanjay hops off for a few shots. As I take in the clean air, I can hear the soft tinkling of a small bell some way above me. Straining my eyes in the harsh afternoon sunlight, I make out a little goat atop the summit. If I were Farmer Joe, would I leave little Billy to his fate and drive off? No, Farmer Joe wouldn’t. Freelander and I head to the rescue.
Crawling up the hill, the Freelander nonchalantly shrugs off the gradient and the rocks. Over the years, the wind and rain have moulded a sort of bund atop the hill. It’s too high even for the eight inches of clearance the Freelander promises, but it could make it if approached diagonally. Will it topple? Will it roll? Will it beach itself? None of those. The Freelander is up and over in the time it takes you to say ‘Land Rover Freelander’. Billy, however, had pranced off and the fading light and the 200 kilometre drive home meant it was time to pack up and head back.
On the way down, we tried the Hill Descent Control or the HDC. The transmission and brakes work in conjunction to provide the Freelander with a controlled descent. So, all the driver really needs to do is work the steering wheel for the best possible approach. Back on tarmac, we switched the TRS to ‘off’ and headed back to Mumbai. The shadows grew longer as we flashed slower moving traffic out of the way, L A N D R O V E R looming large in their rear view mirrors.
Mulling over the drive and the hill climbing experience, you begin to try to find perspective. At Rs 47 lakh (ex-showroom), the Freelander is a lot of money. But in this surprisingly crowded segment, it is the same money as any of its competition. Its styling is unique, in that it uses flat surfaces and right angles to deliver a taut appearance without any excessive curves, fluting, bulges or strakes. Yes, it is road biased, but it offers a true promise of off-road ability and not merely the premise of it. It isn’t a SUV body on an old saloon platform for twice the money than the original car. It does what is asked of it with sufficient allowances for modern creature comforts. However, it hasn’t lost its primary reason for being, which is to be capable off-road. You may wish for a fancier fascia and a few more gadget. The Freelander for its part, has more than enough infuriating acronyms. No, it doesn’t ‘handle like a sports car’ and it isn’t ‘more comfortable than many saloons’. What it is instead is a solidly engineered albeit stolidly styled SUV which is a welcome change from the androgynous pseudo-SUVs we’ve been getting used to. And that’s why it makes such a compelling case for itself.