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2003 Land Rover Freelander Preview

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LAKE LAS VEGAS, Nev.— What I see as I crest a steep rise of two-track is a view to be put in my mental 401(k) — a cloudless blue sky day bearing rouge and tangerine fruit at sunset, sandstone knobs outcroppings and canyons glowing with a common fecund vibe.

I think we’re alone here, though we’re just 30 minutes outside the vast glittering emptiness of Las Vegas. All the better. There aren’t many others to spoil what I think is off-roading at its best. And there aren't many to get in the way of evaluating the three-door Land Rover Freelander SE3, the new variation of a vehicle on sale for five years in Europe but in only its second model year in the States.

The best-selling SUV in Europe by far, the Freelander found its way to the U.S. in 2001 as a 2002 model with a price tag in the upper-$20,000 range. More expensive than others in its class but with real off-road heritage and tough stuff like Hill Descent Control (HDC), the tiniest Land Rover has been sales-challenged in the U.S. — hence the addition of the sporty three-door model.

Dirty minded

With its open-air body, rugged trim and upscale features, the Freelander SE3 is a neat fit in Land Rover’s lineup. Its size (177.7 inches length; 101 inches wheelbase) gives it nearly the same footprint as the Ford Escape and the Mazda Tribute. Starting just under $27,000, the new model combines full-time four-wheel-drive capability with sharp styling and a trimmed-out interior.

The SE3's body is apt to cause flashbacks among former Nissan Pathfinder and Isuzu Amigo owners. The newest Landie’s profile is akin to those vehicle's two-door models. The triangulation of the rear fenders is complemented here, though, by a detachable hardback. The lines are enhanced by a black composite A-frame brush bar, roof rails that trail down the back of the vehicle, and a silver underbody brush plate; plus edgy 17-inch Triple Sport Evolution alloy wheels and high-energy colors such as Borrego Yellow and Tangiers Orange.

Mechanically, the SE3 has the same powertrain as the five-door: a 174-hp, 2.5-liter DOHC V-6 engine with permanent all-wheel drive and the CommandShift five-speed automatic transmission sits under the hood. It’s matched with four-wheel electronic traction control (4ETC), anti-lock brakes (ABS), and Hill Descent Control (HDC).

On the road…and off

Not surprisingly, the new SE3 handles quite like its four-door stablemate, with responsive steering (rack-and-pinion with a 38-foot turning circle), capable brakes (power-assisted front disc and rear drums, designed for good hill-holding along with the parking brake) and an engine with ample power for its size that joins the company of V-6-powered small SUVs.

More significant, however, is the standard five-speed automatic transmission, which employs the latest in adaptive shift patterns and can recognize driving style and terrain conditions, then adjust gear selection accordingly, and also can be shifted manually through all five speeds.

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