The new Freelander is the real thing

Thank goodness Land Rover still makes proper 4x4s, not fashion accessories. John Simister has no trouble defeating the fearsome Solihull test track

Price: from £20,935 On sale December
Engine: 2,179cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo-diesel; 160bhp at 4,000rpm, 295lb ft at 2,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, four-wheel drive
Performance: 112mph, 0-60mph in 10.9 seconds, 37.7mpg official average
CO2: 194g/km

Tough, but not too tough. That was the design philosophy behind Land Rover's all-new Freelander - and it's a sensible approach in today's 4x4-sceptical world.

Yes, too many people who don't need them buy SUVs. But Land Rover has only ever made 4x4s, so there's an authenticity here; this is a proper 4x4, able to tackle tough terrain without breaking.

Few Freelander 2s will be required to do that, true, but an owner can feel confident in his - or her - escape fantasies. Terrain Response TM will be the driver's off-road friend, and those in the rear "stadium seats" will have a fine view of said terrain. There's room for three standard adults here, says the information pack (am I a standard adult? Are you?), plus space for a Labrador in the boot.

Land Rover is now part of the greater Ford empire. The new car, built at Halewood, is based on Ford's "EU-CD" (European, upper-middle-size) architecture. Much is changed for the Freelander, though, to suit its taller body and off-roading purpose; the rear suspension is entirely different.

The Freelander 2 is bigger than version one, of course; new models almost always are. It's just 2in longer, but that's misleading because there's no longer an external spare wheel. The tailgate opens upwards instead of being side-hinged. And there's no three-door model.

What the new Freelander does have is much more space inside. That boosts its chances in the US, where corpulent buyers couldn't fit in the previous car. Frightening but true.

The extra width makes room for a transverse, Volvo-designed, Welsh-made, in-line six-cylinder engine in the top-level Freelanders. This 3.2-litre, 233bhp plant sounds way over the top for a compact SUV, but it's intended mainly for Americans who didn't think much of the feeble old V6. They'll like its standard six-speed automatic transmission, its 8.4-second 0-60mph time and the glitzy front grille.

Most European buyers will opt for the TD4 turbodiesel, with its plainer grille. The 160bhp, 2.2-litre engine is a Peugeot design. The cheapest Freelander has this engine and costs £20,935. However, the priciest, the 3.2 HSE, costs a breathtaking £33,990, putting it right in BMW X3 territory.

You realise the new model is posher as soon as you climb in; surfaces are softer, the design less cluttered. Avoid the ghastly fake wood option and specify the alternative brushed-aluminium look instead. There's plenty of storage space and an excellent view out.

I'm driving a TD4 HSE with a six-speed manual gearbox (a TD4 automatic will join the range later). First impression? The sound is clearly that of a diesel, but it's smooth and quiet enough, and it picks up cleanly from low speeds to deliver a surge of acceleration.

Second impression? The steering is unexpectedly quick and positive. The Freelander stays flat and composed through bends, all of which suggests that the suspension must be very stiff. But it isn't: the ride is quite firm, but not choppy. There's a clever electronic trick that gently brakes the outside wheels to widen the turn radius if it detects more body lean than the speed and steering angle should have caused - in other words, an imminent rollover.

Most of the time the Freelander behaves like a front-wheel-drive car, but the rear wheels can chip in when the fronts start to lose grip. This system is most useful on the slithery surfaces of an off-road course, where the Terrain Response (except on the base model) helps tailor the traction to the surface. There's a normal setting, plus variations for grass/gravel/snow, for mud and ruts, and for sand. There's no rock-climbing setting, nor is there a low-range gear set.

Still, the Freelander bounded around the Solihull off-road course with gusto, sustaining no more mishaps than a misplaced exhaust when I landed heavily on a rock and a detached bit of rear bumper caught on a log. All easily fixed.

It waded happily; clambered over a collapsing log bridge; trickled down close to walking pace with the clutch fully engaged; and the TD4's torque pulled it away again. Hill Descent Control, which applies the brakes automatically and individually as needed, is now augmented by a Gradient Release Control, which releases brake pressure gradually when you take your foot off the pedal when descending a very steep slope. It got confused when I was driving down steps, though.

So that's the new Freelander. We're not fans of SUVs on this newspaper, but if you must have one it should be compact, capable and credible as a 4x4. The Freelander, especially in TD4 form, is that car. And at least £85 of its price goes to Climate Care for its CO2 offset programme. There; you can even salve your conscience.

The rivals

BMW X3 2.0d: From £28,560

Facelifted to tone down the utilitarianism, but remains overpriced. Goes and handles well, but ride is choppy. For badge snobs.

Honda CR-V 2.2 i-CTDi: From £19,000ca

New CR-V has tapering side-windows, a hidden spare wheel and MPV aspirations. Diesel engine is economical and punchy.

Nissan X-Trail 2.2 dCi SE: £19,995

Least powerful engine here, but goes well and has off-road ability to match its looks. There's also a front-drive-only version.

Search for used cars