Land Rover Freelander eD4
Top speed: 112mph 0-62mph 10.9 seconds
CO2 emissions: 158g/km
Best for: Occasional eco-sensitive off-roading
Also worth considering? BMW X1, Kia Sorento, Volkswagen Tiguan
I peered through the windscreen of the Land Rover Freelander eD4 at the rough, unpaved Spanish mountain track. The loose, rock-strewn surface looked impossibly steep, but the man from Land Rover told me I could get to the top if I attacked the long slope with enough determination. I gripped the wheel, put my foot down and hoped for the best. The Freelander's engine screamed, its tyres scrabbled for grip, and its suspension had to soak up some very big bumps indeed. But within about half a minute we'd made it.
Now you might think there's nothing unusual about a Land Rover, even the Freelander, the baby of the range, being able to handle this sort of stuff, and normally you'd be right. After all, it's what these cars are made for. In fact, as headlines go, "Land Rover surmounts difficult obstacle" probably ranks for newsworthiness alongside "Pope's religious affiliation unchanged".
But this is a Land Rover with a difference. The eD4 version of the Freelander is the first mainstream car from the company that doesn't have four-wheel drive, a feature usually considered vital for good off-road performance. But four-wheel drive also adds weight and complexity, and many owners never make full use of it, so some 4x4 makers such as Kia, BMW and now Land Rover have been making their SUVs available with only two driven wheels – usually, as in the case of the Freelander eD4, the front pair. There are big gains in terms of economy and CO2 emissions.
The eD4 didn't just make it up that slope, by the way; it also managed to beat everything else Land Rover's Les Comes off-road course near Barcelona could throw at it, including deep water and some hairy downhill work. As far as Land Rover is concerned, the eD4 isn't just "one for the road"; if any car is going to carry its famous badge, it has to provide at least passable performance over the rough stuff whether it has four-wheel drive or not.
I later drove the same route in a four-wheel drive Freelander with automatic transmission. Where the eD4 struggled, the 4x4 car, with all of Land Rover's latest off-road systems, treated the course with contempt. But – and here's the interesting bit – the two-wheel drive eD4 was probably more fun. Which raises the intriguing possibility that some keen off-roading fans who really want to test their skills might not necessarily go for the four-wheel drive version in future.
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