Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 11: “Intermission”


In following the “fun car” progression I skipped a bit ahead.  While the sports car revolving door was spinning, there was some turnover on the practical front as well.  At BMW lease end we came to the conclusion that, if we were going to go the “practical car, fun car” route, and the fun car was going to be as wild as the NSX, the practical car should be more practical than a compact German sport sedan.  I’ve never really been into anything other than sports cars and sport sedans, and SUVs definitely fall way outside of my sphere of attraction, but i could definitely appreciate their utility.  Also it seems that SUV’s have the power of keeping the dreaded minivan (shudder) at bay and, for that, they have my absolute respect.  With my wife doing more of the driving of our practical car, it seemed fair that she should really take the lead in determining what the vehicle would be.  At the time, BMW had recently sold Land Rover to Ford, but the current models were still sporting the BMW design and engineering influence.  My wife took a look at the Freelander baby SUV and fell in love with it.  At the time money was getting cheap (this was the buildup to the credit bust), and Ford was offering 5 years 0% for dealer inventory Freelanders.  Five years of free money sounded great, so in short order we took delivery of our first SUV:

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Not the actual car, but close enough!

She was a 2003 SE, really well equipped with all of the nice SUV gadgets: rock guards for the front and rear lights, roof rack, and a nice tire cover depicting lions on the African savannah. At $30,000 this seemed like a good deal for an AWD vehicle from a premium marque like Land Rover.  All in all I found that the truck category definitely had the potential to grow on me!  But what was this thing actually like to drive?  First lets talk about how it was put together…

Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics

The build quality and interior design of the Freelander was definitely more truck than car.  All of the surfaces were plastic and vinyl, and had the appearance of being built more for durability than luxury.  That made sense to me in a utility vehicle and I found that I actually quite liked it.  The steering wheel had a nice heft, and all of the switch gear felt decent and worked well, and it all looked like it would wear well (and I learned that over time it did).  It certainly wasn’t going to win any design awards, but it was simple and functional.  Most of the controls were analog (knobs and switches), and creature comforts were kept to a minimum (power windows, sunroof, mirrors and locks, a radio and a reasonable climate control system), but that it was by no means bare bones.  The seats were comfortable and supportive and the seating position provided great visibility with room for 4 adults and a nice amount of cargo space in the back.  Outside, I thought the combination of high impact plastic cladding and painted metal surfaces worked really well and provided a great balance of style and durability.  The design was modern while still providing classic Land Rover cues and the assembly quality was good.  The paint was decent enough and the silver held its luster and wore well over time despite getting year round abuse (as befits a truck).

Driving Impressions

On the road the bay Rover was well mannered and stable.  It was no performance vehicle, and you had to adjust your driving style accordingly, but once moving it was a pleasant enough highway cruiser.  Of course stopping distances were longer as well and a tall vehicle with an SUV suspension isn’t something you throw into the twisties, but most of this is common sense and as a unibody design (rather than body on frame like the bigger trucks), the Freelander did feel more like a slower, less agile and taller car than it did like a tiny version of a full sized truck.  On the snow however, which is really what she was made for, the Freelander was absolutely brilliant.  Shoveling the driveway became a luxury and on more than one occasion, faced with an overnight snowstorm and no time to shovel anything other than the sidewalk at 7am on a work day, I simply powered my way through 6+ inches of snow.  This left me grinning like a kid and I found myself pretty hooked on trucks at that point.  I’m picky though.  I tend to only like “real trucks”.  The vehicles that at least appear purpose built.  The mall cruiser SUVs, and the ones that attempt to be lifted cars, I tend to not like at all (the MDX, the BMW X, the Cayenne, etc).  When the crossover appeared on the scene, I found those interesting, but it would be a while before I found one that I could truly say I loved (usual spoiler – that will be one of the last entries!)

Issues

Unfortunately, the Freelander marks the first time since the old catastrophic Buick that this section gets a serious entry.  We had a serious enough issue with the Freelander that it caused us to swear off Land Rover altogether (a vow we recently broke, and actually quite happily, but that’s another story).  In it’s 4th year of ownership, the fuel pump just gave up the ghost on the Staten Island Expressway.  This was particularly horrible as it left us stranded on the side of one of New Yorks more hostile roads with the kid in the back.  Fortunately no one was hurt, and we got the car flat bedded out of there and repaired, but shortly after we sold her.  With the exception of the fuel pump failure, we had been steadily humming along with just basic maintenance including oil, tires and brakes and the pricing at the dealer had been reasonable.

One interesting to note is that the Freelander also marked my return to modding.  Since the Corvette I hadn’t really sunk anything into modifying my vehicles, but for some reason the bug bit me again with the truck.  I ended up having a lift kit installed which raised her about 2 inches and gave both better ground clearance and a more imposing stance.

Conclusion

In conclusion I really loved the Freelander, but hate that it crapped out the way it did.  Stuff happens though, and no machine is perfect.  Land Rover is a brand with a long and proud history, but a tumultuous modern one.  It is now in the hands of Tata which is a bit of a stinging irony, and it will be interesting to see how that switch will impact them.  As my hinting above suggests, these days I have a vested interest in hoping Tata takes Land Rover to new heights, but as it was back in 2007, we dropped the Freelander after the fuel pump debacle fully expecting to never return.

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