2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Howard Elmer

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Essaouira, Morocco – In a country where goats climb trees, I suppose anything is possible – including taking a dismal sales failure like the Land Rover Freelander and re-launching it as a viable new SUV. Now called the LR2, this truck’s mission is penetration of the lucrative North American mid-size luxury SUV segment. And in Canada this campaign starts with a base price of $44,900.

That’s Land Rover’s message here in Morocco. But events in the car business are rarely as simple as that. To start with Land Rover has had to pull a George Lucas (Star Wars movie creator) prequel trick – launching the LR2 after already building an LR3 – hoping to focus attention on the popular model and bury the Freelander connection.

But that still leaves the LR2 with the twin tasks of having to impress new buyers and erase the sins of its poorly performing $40,000 predecessor – a legacy that has also left Land Rover with a JD Power initial quality survey rating of just two out of five. That’s a full point lower than the Acura MDX; a LR2 competitor. Oddly, this poor score also mocks the fact that Land Rover is rolling up its best year ever – led by sales of Range Rover Sport and LR3 in the United States.

2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

But there are more than marketing tricks here. The LR2’s production has moved to Ford’s Halwood plant, near Liverpool, England, where the Jaguar X-type is built. This is Ford’s most flexible, lean manufacturing facility in Europe; a site in which it has invested more than 400 million pounds (one billion dollars) and a million hours of workforce training. These are the workers who’ll be building the LR2 which is also a new breed of Land Rover; one that uses inter-company build partners. For instance, the LR2’s inline six-cylinder engine was developed by Volvo and is a proven performer in its S80. Making 230 horsepower this 3.2-litre engine is mounted transversely in the LR2 making it front-wheel-drive biased, preferable to the old rear-wheel drive design. The transmission is also a new six-speed automatic with a manual-shift option called Command Shift, an off-road benefit.

Another collaborative advantage is the use of the Ford Europe EU-CD chassis as a frame. Also used (in whole or part) by the Volvo S40 and Focus/Mondeo this chassis is better than anything Land Rover could have come up with on its own (from a budget standpoint).

Safety features, always a customer concern, are well covered in the new LR2. These include standard front seat belt pre-tensioners and seven airbags that provide protection from front and side impacts. Full-length curtain airbags help protect front and rear occupants from head trauma and roll-over ejection. There is even an airbag that shields the driver’s leg from injury on the steering column.

2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

The new all-wheel-drive system is another team effort with Haldex of Sweden. It features an electronically actuated centre differential that eliminates the wheel spin that typically activates a hydraulically operated system. Land Rover wanted this feature so that the rear differential could pre-engage when the transmission was put in Drive. While underway, Haldex can detect traction loss (at just 15 degrees of slip) and lock up before the wheels dig the truck into trouble. This is in addition to the Land Rover Terrain Response 4WD system that is now standard on the LR2.

Compare just these features to the last (improved) version of the Freelander that offered a smaller frame – 173 horsepower engine, five-speed tranny and an automatic slip-n-grip hydraulic all-wheel drive system only.

Design-wise, the LR2 has squared up, gotten larger (gaining 350 kg in the process) and mimics the LR3 and Range Rover in all its design cues but one – the forward slanted nose. This feature has been kept as the lynch-pin between the old Freelander and the new LR2. It’s not really much of a nod to the past – instead it will be the way you tell an LR2 and LR3 apart at a hundred metres. That’s on the outside.

The new size has more of an impact inside where seating for five is now a reality rather than a cruel joke. Interior materials, textures, fit and finish are all improved and upscale features like powered leather seating is now available. These new seats are well supported and comfortable; while the rear split bench seat has good legroom and is raised in a “theatre style” for better viewing by kids. Over their heads is a sunroof – one of two – though only the front one opens. Dashboard, instrument pods and the ski-jump centre console are very similar to the LR3 interior: elegant, understated and functional – though Land Rover does need to work on simplifying its controls. Other features include, i-pod input jack, individual HVAC controls, head light washers, backup warning sensors, keyless entry and a starter button.

2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

It’s this last one that I don’t get. The keyfob has to be inserted into a slot, then you start and stop the engine with a button. Why add a step to an already simple process? Furthermore you can pop the key out while the truck is running – that’s asking for trouble.

December is planting month in this part of Morocco and the fields are full of families ploughing and seeding – everything being done by hand. Positively Biblical, I thought. That is until the man throwing seeds behind his team of donkeys answered a call on his cell phone. Turned out cell service throughout the country is excellent – far superior to Northern Ontario.

On pavement, the LR2’s ride quality is good; surprising actually given the off-road bias I assumed a manufacturer like Land Rover would have. According to its engineers, suspension stiffness was purposely dialled back for a better on-road ride. Cornering has also improved due to front and rear torsion bars holding the chassis flat through the turns, while supporting the frame and body are large gas-dampened independent struts and rubber mounts; both of which absorb road shock. These design changes (and better sound insulation) have dampened noise transmission as well. Engine vibration, ambient sound and wind noise are now virtually excluded from the cabin.

2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

These ride and comfort initiatives by Land Rover demonstrate that they, like Hummer and Jeep, are coming around to the new off-road SUV reality – 4WD alone is not enough. Buyers today want more comfort, more options, and more conveniences, in addition to all the same off-road ability of earlier models.

Moroccan Atlantic beaches are hundreds of kilometres long, often giving way to huge inland tracts of sand dunes, all unfenced and virtually deserted. This is where the Haldex system on the new LR2 was demonstrated – in sand (which is very much like driving in loose snow). Both mediums require a low-torque start and gentle accelerator modulation – keeping the truck moving in a straight line without spinning the tires. That’s what this 4WD system does electronically. But at the other end of the powerband – when the terrain required more of a Canadian response to sinking sand – it also offered a solution. With the sand getting dryer and finer the further we moved inland I started looking for a “Giv’er” setting on the Terrain Response rotary dial – not finding one I opted instead for sand mode. The setting kept the engine revs up and held the transmission in second gear while pushing equal torque to all four wheels.

2008 Land Rover LR2
2008 Land Rover LR2. Click image to enlarge

Essentially this is the same system found on the LR3 and Range Rover – Terrain Response manages several vehicle functions at once, such as holding lower gears longer, managing the rpms and detuning the Electronic Stability Control. While I said it’s essentially the same system as the more expensive Land Rover’s use it does lack two key features. One: the LR2 does not have a low-range setting. Two: the height-adjustable air suspension is not offered either. But, that didn’t stop the LR2 from tackling terrain terrifying enough to cause a New York writer to cover his face in panic with a silk scarf.

Despite these price concessions all the other necessary elements of a serious off-roader are in the package, including a grown-up 2,000 kg tow limit. LR2’s front axle clearance is 21 cm while the rear lifts to 26.5 cm. The new design also allows for an approach angle of 29 degrees and the angle of departure is 32 degrees. (Compare that to the Toyota FJ Cruiser at 34 degree approach and 30 degrees departure and a 27.4 degree breakover angle). It will handle a breakover angle of 21.5 degrees and if it does hit the underside is protected with a combination of steel and thermoplastic armour. It will also wade through a half metre of water. And that’s the least you’d expect from a Land Rover isn’t it?

At a glance: 2008 Land Rover LR2

  • Base Price: $44,900
  • Engine: 3.2-litre inline six-cylinder
  • Fuel consumption: combined 9.8 litres per 100 kilometres
  • Power: 230 horsepower; 234 lb-ft torque
  • Competition: Acura RDX; BMW X3; Hummer H3

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