If you were a Japanese maker of fashion-heavy 4x4s, you will have been dreading this moment. People who like your cars probably like the idea of a Land Rover, but the real thing is too big or too expensive, so they buy a toy version instead. Trouble is, writes John Simister, Land Rover has now come up with a toy version of its own.

The Land Rover Freelander is compact, car-like in its driving feel, more thoroughly engineered than any Land Rover before it, and it proudly displays that famous badge on nose and tail. Land Rover, maker of the original, copies the copies and makes it better. Result? Full circle, and a new original.

Unlike former Land Rovers, but like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, the Freelander has a car-like combined body/chassis structure instead of a separate chassis. This makes it lighter, lower, easier to assemble accurately and better able to cushion its occupants in a crash. That might surprise some people, who think a solid chassis frame is safer, but the important thing is to slow the occupants' deceleration on impact as much as possible. Otherwise you'll have an unsquashed car containing squashed people. So, that's one myth exploded. Another is that off-roaders will always have a bumpy ride and vague steering, because the Freelander has neither. It's the most car-like of current off-roaders, smooth, quiet and with excellent handling thanks to proper independent suspension. The 1.8-litre K-series petrol engine is the livelier of the two power units on offer, but the 2.0-litre L-series turbodiesel is a better bet for lugging loads over slippery surfaces off-road, and is likely to be more popular.

Off-road, it's a Land Rover, so it had better be good. And it is. Peer underneath the Freelander, and you will see thick, tough suspension arms and plenty of protection for vital components. Power goes to all four wheels as required; the front wheels do most of the work most of the time, but as they lose their grip the power is diverted rearwards via a viscous coupling.

What it does not have is an extra set of low-gear ratios for steep slopes and cautious picking of ways. Too confusing, reckons Land Rover, for the hordes of people who will be forsaking their conventional cars and heading for a new Freelander. Instead of the low ratios the Freelander has a Hill Descent Control, which causes the anti-lock brakes to be applied automatically and keep the speed below 5.6mph (or 4.4mph if the track is bumpy or bendy). That way, you won't toboggan away out of control.

You activate the HDC by pushing down on a yellow collar just below the gear-lever knob, and you'll hear many clickings and whirrings as it does its stuff. What it can't do, though, is compensate for the difficulty the Freelander has in going slowly up a hill, because neither engine has enough pull at very low revs. Instead, you have to hurl the Land Rover at the gradient, and hope for the best. Still, I doubt if many owners will get to the stage where they rue this failing.

This smallest Land Rover comes in two body shapes: a five-door estate car and a three-door which looks shorter, but isn't. Both have bash-proof plastic front wings, and the three-door has novel sloping rear pillars between which can fit either a soft convertible top, or a solid roof. Neat details abound, such as a high-level brake-light mounted on a stalk and shaped as a Land Rover badge, and rear lights held on with chunky screws like those on Farmer Giles's Defender. As you might expect, there's a big range of Freelander accessories of what you might call a lifestyle nature.

The Freelander is not perfect: it gets stuffy without the optional air conditioning, there's no seat-height adjustment, the horn is feeble and the dashboard looks dated. But no rival 4x4 is as solid or as civilised, whether in looks or demeanour. Why it has taken so long is hard to fathom, but if you want a compact off-roader you won't find a better one than this.

Freelander Station Wagon di


Price: pounds 18,995. Engine: 1,998cc turbodiesel, four cylinders, eight valves, 97bhp at 4,200rpm. Five-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive. Top speed 96mph, 0-60 in 14.6sec. Fuel consumption: 32-37mpg.


Honda CR-V, pounds 17,020: Car-like driving qualities, but lacks substance. No diesel.

Jeep Cherokee 2.5 TD Sport, pounds 19,495: Square-cut and dated.

Subaru Forester, pounds 16,400: Not as capable off-road but surprisingly sporty.

Suzuki Vitara 2.0 V6 5-door, pounds 16,200: Refined engine but conceptually crude.

Toyota RAV4 GX five-door, pounds 17,463: Lively performance but lacks substance.

Vauxhall Frontera 2.8 TD Estate, pounds 20,640: Big diesel engine, but slower and much cruder than Freelander.