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Land Rover prepares Freelander for U.S.

Seeking new vistas for SUVs
The controversy over Firestone tires has placed the spotlight on the Ford Explorer. But the automaker faces challenges in other parts of its profit-rich sport-utility lineup.

The Escape, although plagued by five recalls during its launch, has been a sales success. Now it is being prepped as Ford’s first foray into production hybrid powertrain vehicles. Land Rover, meanwhile, finally gets the Freelander for the U.S. market but is launching it into a crowded segment as industry sales cool. Here are closer looks at each.

2002 Freelander

Wheelbase: 101 in.

Length: 175 in.

Width: 71.1 in.

Height: 69.2 in. (with roof rails)

Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6

Horsepower: 174 @ 6,250 rpm

Torque: 177 lbs.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm

Curb weight: 3,620 lbs.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Land Rover picked the horizon-to-horizon whiteness of the Langjokull glacier two hours east of here to demonstrate the “go-anywhere” capabilities of the U.S.-bound Freelander, the smallest and most basic vehicle in its lineup.

The slick, wind-buffeted slopes seemed an appropriate metaphor for the challenge Land Rover has set for the Freelander: to nearly double the franchise’s U.S. volume in a collapsing market already glutted with new sport-utility/sport-wagon offerings.

Land Rover hopes a base price of $25,600, including a $625 destination charge, will help draw in at least 20,000 U.S. sales a year for the Freelander. Land Rover’s U.S. sales slipped 7.6 percent last year to 27,148 units and are off 8 percent through July, to just under 14,000 units.

“We think the Freelander will redefine what Americans think about small sport-utilities,” Land Rover North America CEO Howard Mosher said at the Freelander’s press introduction here.

Nothing new

Land Rover sold more than 77,000 Freelanders worldwide last year, its third year in production, but the truck has had to wait for its U.S. debut.

“The idea’s always been there,” said Alastair Vines, Freelander project leader. “But the United States is a big-engine market. It’s an automatic transmission market. Until we got a V-6, it wasn’t a proposition.”

The North American market will get a 2.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 sourced from the former Rover engine plant in Midland, England. The aluminum-block engine generates 174 hp at 6,250 rpm, and 177 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Other parts of the world also get a 1.8-liter inline 4 and a diesel engine.

A five-speed automatic with a sport-shifting feature is standard. A descent control feature, operated by a button behind the shift gate, eases the truck downhill in first gear, nursing the brake, while the driver keeps his feet off the pedals.

Prepping the Freelander to meet U.S. emissions and safety standards took nearly two years, Vines said. The two catalytic converters had to be

replaced with bigger units, the cooling system upgraded, the primary air-intake ducting moved and the headliner beefed up.

Aside from price, the Freelander’s on-road driving performance sets it apart from its older siblings, the Discovery II and Range Rover. The Freelander has a solid but carlike ride on the highway but, like its siblings, carries its weight sluggishly.

The ground clearance of 7.2 inches under the front suspension means Freelander’s underbody will take more thumps than the Discovery II or Range Rover.

Go-everywhere marketing

To get the Freelander in front of the U.S. public before its December sale date, Land Rover is launching a Web site, www.Freelander.com, on Thursday, Aug. 30. The company also will send five groups of five Freelanders, starting from various U.S. cities, to visit every U.S. Land Rover dealership. The campaign is dubbed “Road to Adventure.”

After asking its U.S. dealers to suggest equipment for the new truck, Land Rover decided on three trim levels. The base S model includes tilt steering, driver’s lumbar support and cruise control; the SE has 17-inch alloy wheels, roof rails and tinted glass behind the B-pillar; and the HSE is equipped with a power sunroof, leather upholstery, a six-disc CD changer and an in-console navigation system.

Air conditioning is standard on all models.

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