RUTHERFORD, Calif. -- Land Rover executives admit that the company's lowest-price SUV, the Freelander, turns off U.S. buyers.
When the Freelander debuted in Europe in 1997, the vehicle was never intended to be sold in the United States. When it was re-engineered in 2001 for the United States, it lacked the refinement expected by U.S. buyers
But Land Rover will attempt to eliminate those shortcomings in the redesigned Freelander, which is scheduled to arrive here in 2007.
"It will be optimized for North America," said Geoff Upex, Land Rover's design director. There are more SUVs offered in North America than in Europe, he said, "so the competition in this market is tougher. You really have to optimize it for that level of competition," as well as new SUV competitors.
Matthew Taylor, Land Rover's managing director, says he expects small SUVs from Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
"So I think there is going to be a very burgeoning, growing segment," Taylor said.
A Mercedes-Benz source has acknowledged the existence of a compact sport wagon prototype but said no decision has been made on whether it will be produced.
The redesigned Freelander will be developed on a stretched version of Ford Motor Co.'s European C1 platform, called EUCD. Additionally, the automaker's next-generation, mid-sized luxury vehicles developed in Europe will be created on the EUCD platform.
Since the Freelander went on sale here in 2001, critics have pointed to the current model's underpowered V-6; an all-wheel-drive system that lacks a low gear; and a lack of certain luxury amenities, such as power seats. U.S. sales slipped to 5,430 units in 2004, down 43.0 percent from 2003.
"We are going to address the major concerns as to why people are not flocking in to buy Freelanders," Taylor said.
The next Freelander will have a more powerful V-6, greater off-road capability and safety features such as side-curtain airbags and stability control.
Taylor and Upex were interviewed April 7 at a Land Rover event near Napa, Calif.
While the next-generation Freelander will be about the same size as the 2005 model, "the package is significantly better," Upex said.
Upgrades will include more luggage capacity and seating tweaks, including power and easier ingress and egress.
Taylor said the automaker will deliver on what he calls the Land Rover promise -- instantly recognizable and best-in-segment off-road performance.
"But at the same time it has to be composed right," Taylor said. "People can't feel that they are having to sacrifice on-road comfort for the sake of driving an SUV."
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