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.
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.
2003 Land Rover Freelander
The Freelander already was the first Land Rover to be built with unitized body (monocoque) construction, which makes it both strong and lightweight, and gives it a solid — and nimble — feeling on the road. It drew another new line in the sand for Land Rover as the first model created without a low range set of four-wheel-drive gears. Instead, it has a viscous-coupling unit that splits the engine's power between the front and rear axles. While largely a front-driver on good roads (close to 90 percent of engine torque can be sent to the front), its AWD system makes fairly seamless transitions to the rear, and can split up to 40/60 for climbing steep grades and traction-compromised situations.
Also unconventional for this British marque is the Freelander's fully independent suspension (front: MacPherson struts, lower arms, coil spring, anti-sway bar; rear MacPherson struts, trapezoidal links, coil springs). Ride quality and wheel travel are greatly improved over the solid-axle arrangements that adorned Land Rovers of the past. Adding to the mix of technological win-wins is four-wheel electronic traction control, which provides go-power, even when only one wheel has traction, which was sometimes the case with the sandstone and shale tracks on the off-pavement trails near Las Vegas.
A major innovation for the lands beyond — although others such as Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus have now joined the Go Slow Down Steep Hills Club — is Land Rover's electronic Hill Descent Control (HDC). HDC, which allows a controlled descent, can be engaged by pushbutton control, when the vehicle is in either first or reverse gear. The driver steers only and adopts a unique “no-feet” style of descending a steep off-road track or icy slope, since Freelander's brakes automatically act upon the wheels with traction to maintain a speed of between 4.4 and 5.6 mph. Applying either throttle or brakes disengages the system, although it remains active until it is manually turned off.
Other features that enhance the SE3’s off-road capability are its angles of approach and departure and its ground clearance, which ranges from 7.2 inches to 8.7 inches, more than enough for our two days of backcountry driving in Nevada and for most locations.
2003 Land Rover Freelander
The standard interior seat finish is black “Technical Fabric” vinyl with heated black or beige leather seats optional; heated leather also is an option. The leather-wrapped steering wheel includes cruise control and audio system controls, and the 240-watt, nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system includes a single, in-dash CD player. A six-disc CD changer is available as a factory or dealer-installed option.
The Freelander SE3 comes with air conditioning, power front windows, cruise control, power steering, heated front windshield, side view mirrors and rear window. The interior has room for five, with supportive front bucket seats, a 60/40 split rear bench and convenient storage space throughout the cabin. With the rear seats folded, 46.6 cubic feet of cargo space is available. Carrying capacity increases — vertically, at least, when the hardback panels and twin sunroofs are removed and stowed in their specially designed storage bag included in the rear load space.
Additional cupholders, a full-size
glovebox and other storage options abound in the SE3. Keyless entry, central
locking and a vehicle security system are all standard.
Safety is attended to in the usual ways, with front airbags, three-point seatbelts for all seating positions and LATCH child seat tethers. ABS is standard, as is traction control; brakes are front disc/rear drum.
Allowing for an open-air driving experience and boasting the same powertrain as its five-door stablemate, the Freelander SE3 is capable, fun to drive, and ruggedly handsome.
2003 Land Rover Freelander SE3
Base price: $26,995
Engine: 2.5-liter 24-valve DOHC V-6, 174 hp/177 lb-ft
Transmission:Five-speed electronically controlled automatic, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 101.0 in
Length: 177.7 in
Width: 71.1 in
Height: 69.2 in
Curb weight: 3577 lb
Fuel economy: 17/20 mpg (preliminary EPA estimates)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, child safety tethers, three-point safety belts
Major standard features: Air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, steering wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, roof rails, leather-wrapped steering wheel, ABS, Hill Descent Control, traction control
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles