Freelander Td4_eA

The new Freelander is greener, and slightly urban

Four-wheel drives belong off-road. They don't belong in the city. People drive SUVs in an urban setting, of course. The broad-brush SUV-hater will lump them all together as Chelsea tractors, but it's unfair to think of a compact-ish, economy-optimised example in the same sequence of synaptic connections as something gross like a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Range Rover Sport. Some SUVs try hard to be green, or at least less brown. And what does urban mean, anyway?

So I'm driving a Land Rover Freelander up a steep, muddy slope, over a crest and down the other side, Hill Descent Control applying an invisible brake and keeping the wheels gripping. Then there's a bed of gravel, calling for a spirited blast of energy to keep the momentum up and stop the Freelander from bottoming on to its belly. Terrain Response set to Sand and Gravel, with a little cactus motif. That should do it.

It does. Now there are giant chimneys above, art deco cliff faces, skeletal bits of exposed girder. An urban jungle? Kind of; I'm offroading in the middle of London, in and around the derelict Battersea power station. Symbolic? Yes, deliberately so. Surreal? Completely.

The Freelander copes with it all, of course. So would most 4x4s, but not necessarily with the Land Rover's casual confidence. What, then, is special about this one? It's the Freelander Td4_e, complete with self-conscious underscore. This "e" bit is part of the e_Terrain Technologies repertoire of Land Rover's nascent energy-saving ideas, culminating with Land_e which conveniently rhymes with the taxation Band E in which this relatively low-CO2 introductory version finds itself. (The official figure is 179g/km.)

Further down the road these technologies will embrace a mild hybrid using a combined starter/assistance motor/alternator, then there will be a more serious Land_e hybrid with separate front and rear electric motors able to splice into the diesel powertrain as needed. This will have full off-road capability when powered by electricity alone, for a short time at least.

First, though, we have this Td4_e, with a starting price of £23,324, the standard version of the diesel Freelander. It's simple, really, just a Freelander with a stop-start system much like that offered by BMW on its own four-cylinder engines (although not, as yet, on the Freelander-rivalling X3).

When you come to a stop and select neutral, the engine stops. Everything else – air-conditioning, stereo, Bluetooth, if fitted – continues. The engine restarts as soon as you move the clutch pedal, and off you go again. On the official fuel economy and CO2 emissions tests, the Td4_e goes 4.5 miles further on a gallon of diesel oil than its non-stop-starting predecessor and produces 8 per cent less CO2. Land Rover's engineers claim the improvements are much greater if you're stuck in traffic – up to 20 per cent.

Simple system, big benefits. But such a system is hard work for the starter motor, so it's a heavier-duty item meshing with a reinforced ring gear on the engine's flywheel. Subtle recalibration of the 2,179cc engine's electronic "map" – the way it responds to the accelerator and copes with loadings – reduces the violence with which a diesel typically shudders to a halt and chunters into life. The glass mat battery is designed to cope with vigorous discharging and recharging. The idea is that stop-start should get in the way of normal driving as little as possible. Which, broadly, it does, and you can always switch it off if you don't like it. But why would you?

Well, the silence when waiting for the lights to change can be odd at first, with the indicator sounding unfamiliarly loud and any lulls in conversation demanding new oral input instead of being comfortably lost in the background throb. And you need to be extra-aware of the traffic-light cycle and ready with first gear for the green light, engine now running, or you might lose vital centiseconds to the taxi next to you at the front of the grid.

But those are details. Stop-start works, and works well. Before long, surely all manual-transmission cars will have it.

The Rivals

BMW X3 2.0d: from £29,715

Relatively compact BMW has the quality and the cachet, is quite effective off-road, and emits 172g/km of CO2 despite lack of stop-start.

Honda CR-V 2.2 i-CTDi: from £20,290

Also lower CO2 (173g/km). Looks like a car on top of another but is as sweet-driving an SUV as you'll find.

Lexus RX400h: from £35,680

It's a hybrid so the planet is safe. Not so; it's fast, powerful and expensive, and its 192g/km of CO2 is nothing special. No diesel version.