14 September 2011

Test Drive: Freelander 2

Unfortunately my Defender has been having some teething problems, and it has gone back to the supplying dealer to have the defects attended to. While it's away, the dealer has kindly lent me a Freelander 2. As a Freelander owner, I'm enjoying being able to experience at first-hand the differences between the two.

The loan car is a 2011 Freelander 2.2 Td4 XS 6-speed manual, and has a full leather interior, fully (electrically) adjustable seats, automatic stop-start (more about that later), built-in sat nav and Bluetooth mobile phone hands-free, automatic headlights, windscreen wipers and dipping rear-view mirror, parking sensors front and rear, climate control, and cruise control.

From the outside, the resemblance between the two cars is very obvious: the profile, and in particular rear windows being very similar in shape. The 2 is taller than the original, although mine has been lifted by 2" so these two are same height.

Inside the 2, the seats are comfortable and supportive, and adjustable in most directions whereas in the original the seats only have basic fore-aft and rake adjustment. The driving position is a lot more cramped than in the original: the centre console is wider, and consequently there's nowhere to put your left leg when it's not on the clutch, and your knee rests on the edge of the centre console. There's no space under the seat to fold your clutch leg out of the way either as there is a plinth that the seat sits on.

The leather-trimmed steering wheel isn't adjustable, seems a long way away and slightly on the small side. It has controls for the cruise control, mobile phone and radio as well as two slender chrome strips that are the buttons for the horn. It feels very car-like whereas the original feels more Land Rover-like - a similar change with the Ford Transit van, where the more recent models feel less van-like and more car-like. Whilst I'm sure this is intentional to make them more appealing to 'normal' people, it does mean that those of us who buy Land Rovers for their rugged, chunky nature are left feeling short-changed.

Like many other manufacturers, Land Rover have done away with the traditional ignition key and replaced it with a rectangular plastic block that doubles as the remote control for the central locking. Slotting this in to the dashboard, you push down on the clutch and press the start button - handily located behind the steering wheel to the left of the instrument panel. The same button stops the engine, and if you press it without the clutch down, it just turns on the ignition which lets you open the windows, use the sat nav etc. in the same way as turning the key to the first position. The key cannot be ejected while the engine is running, but when you've switched off, you push the key in slightly before it pops back and you can pull it out.

There are a number of automatic systems in the car:
  • Headlights
  • Windscreen wipers
  • Dipping rear-view mirror
  • Central locking
  • Stop-Start
Some of the things the car insists on doing for you cannot be overridden. For example, you will spend a lot of time unlocking doors: by default only the driver's door unlocks when you press the button on the remote - a second press is required to open the rest of the car. When you start driving, the car automatically locks all the doors again. Why? If you want to get something out of the boot when you arrive, or pick up passengers or do anything you will need to find the remote and unlock the car again, or press the unlock button on the centre console. Opening the driver's door from the inside doesn't unlock the rest of the car. If you unlock the car and don't open a door, after a few seconds the car will automatically lock itself again. There is a boot-button on the remote control, but it only releases the boot rather than opening, so isn't all that useful if you've got your hands full.

The automatic headlights don't work all that well with them turning on and off, seemingly at random, on an overcast but not particularly dull day in Peterborough. Why do we need automatic headlights? I can tell when it gets dark.

With the automatic windscreen wipers, there are three settings on the wiper stalk: automatic, on and fast. There's no intermittent setting, which I presume it replaced by the automatic setting. I have a distrust of automatic systems which stems from my experiences in a Peugeot 206 several years ago, where the automatic windscreen wipers decided to work only in the dry, and when passing a lorry that was throwing up bucket-loads of spray, they decided that wipers were not necessary - which lead to an exciting few moments as I tried to override the automatic system so I could see where I was going.

My concerns were not entirely unfounded, with erratic wipes of the screen in completely dry weather. Automatic wipers seem very like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist: As with the headlights, I can tell very easily when I need my wipers on.

The 2.2 litre diesel engine is very quiet, almost too quiet, as when you're on the open road is difficult to hear exactly what's going on. A green arrow indicator on the dashboard tells you when to change up a gear, but if you follow its direction you will find yourself in too high a gear, with the engine starting to struggle and vibrate. To be fair, the 2 isn't the only car to suffer this: the automatic gearbox in the BMW 1-Series I've driven suffers a similar issue unless you put it in sport mode.

In what I assume is a attempt at emission reduction, the 2 has an automatic stop-start system: come to a halt, put the gear lever in to neutral, lift the clutch and the engine stops. A green 'Eco' light lights up on the dashboard to let you know it's stopped. When you're ready to go, push down the clutch and before your foot reaches the floor, the engine's running again and off you go. While stopped, all the other systems in the car keep running. If you stop for too long, the engine will start again of its own accord; presumably to prevent the various systems running down the battery. The stop-start system can be turned off by a button on the centre console, but it will be reactivated again next time you start the car.

At Motorway speeds, the cabin remains quiet with little engine, wind or tyre noise. Steering is light and responsive, possibly a little too light and responsive for a vehicle of that size - a little more weight would stop the steering being quite so flighty at speed, especially on faster turns such as open roundabouts or on fast, twisty cross-country roads.

The radio has a CD player as well as an Aux socket to plug in your iPod, and the speakers give a good performance. There's even a sub-woofer hidden somewhere in the car - which was turned up to the max when I picked up the car, which made Radio 2 sound a little odd. There's also a built-in Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone system, which works very well and accounts for many of the buttons on the centre console.

A large touch-screen at the top of the dashboard contains the built-in satellite navigation system. The user interface is not particularly user-friendly, and it took a lot of fumbling around and back-tracking before realising that the "Destination" label at the bottom of the screen was actually a button. On the road, the announcements are clear and easy to hear over the car's speakers, but the timing of the announcements is very poor. Approaching a turn, your first warning is at just 400 yards: if you're not in the inside lane at the time, forget it - you're going to miss your turn. Bizarrely, on Motorways (and only on Motorways, not dual carriageways) it extends the warning to one mile.

The second announcement is at 200 yards, almost before the first announcement has finished. The map set on board has similar errors to other navigation systems, leading to vague and confusing instructions; especially in towns where there are lots of junctions and roads in a small area where it strings instructions together for multiple turns.

Yes, you can look at the screen, but the maps are very diagrammatic and don't reflect the actual arrangement on the road. Also the location and dimness of the screen means you cannot easily see what it's showing. As a very expensive (£1530) option on the Freelander 2, it's a big disappointment and I certainly wouldn't be choosing it over my my much cheaper, more accurate and clearer Garmin.

Interestingly, the satellite navigation has a number of Points of Interest (PoIs) in it's database, including a list of franchise dealers - but the dealer who lent me the car is not included.

There is a trend in some cars for soft-touch indicators that don't stay tipped in the appropriate direction, like the aforementioned BMW. The stalks in the 2 behave as indicators should, staying cocked until cancelled either automatically by turning the wheel, or moving the lever back by hand.

At the back of the car, the 2 has a lift-up boot instead of the side-opening one on the original. It's a big, fairly heavy door, held up on gas rams. A shorter person might struggle getting it closed as it's a bit of reach up when fully open. The boot space is much greater than on the original, although the floor starts much higher up to allow space for the spare wheel. Which isn't there.

Lifting up the boot floor, which has a handy hanging hook to keep it up, reveals a large, mostly circular space where the spare wheel would go if one were supplied. Instead, in a neatly shaped box in the centre of the space there's a bottle of tyre sealant and a pump, which also acts as a support for the centre of the boot floor. Whilst I'm sure these kits work fine for a simple puncture, any other wheel or tyre problem will leave you stranded and I doubt that a recovery company will be all that keen to collect you and the car from a remote field or byway should you damage a tyre.

Unfortunately I haven't had the opportunity to try the 2 off road, but having driven its bigger brother, Discovery 4, and experiencing the Terrain Response system I am sure that it'll be just as capable, if not more so, than the original. Next time I visit the Land Rover Experience I will be putting the Freelander 2 to the test.

Would I buy one? Maybe. There are too many automatic systems on it for my taste that cannot be turned off or easily worked around (why would you want the the doors to lock automatically? In an accident, I want people to be able to get me out!). On the other hand it drives very nicely, is quiet, comfortable and while I've had it the average fuel consumption has been around 36mpg. It just needs to feel a bit chunkier and more like a Land Rover.

With thanks to Hammond Land Rover, Halesworth, Suffolk, for lending me the Freelander 2 while repairing my Defender.