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2007 Land Rover LR2

ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO—In a country where goats climb trees, anything is possible.

ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO—In a country where goats climb trees, anything is possible.

 

Maybe that's why Land Rover picked Morocco to launch a new reputation for itself as a builder of mid-sized luxury SUVs, unveiling the LR2 to replace its dismal-selling Freelander.

 

This country, with nearly every imaginable driving surface, provides a chance to show off a go-anywhere SUV.

 

Even before you get off-road, weaving smoke-belching mopeds, wandering camels, hurtling gravel trucks, oblivious pedestrians driving livestock and sharp-crested blind hills provide a spectacular test of a vehicle's brakes and a driver's nerves.

 

But does it make sense to fly a bunch of automotive journalists to Africa when the mission is to penetrate the lucrative North American market?

 

Logic is never simple in the vehicle-marketing business, and in this case Land Rover appears to be pulling the Star Wars prequel trick, launching the LR2 after the LR3. The company undoubtedly hopes the LR2 can get a jump-start by building on the good reputation of the bigger, more upscale LR3, while burying the Freelander connection in the Moroccan desert (where, coincidentally, George Lucas filmed Star Wars).

 

No matter what Land Rover is thinking, the LR2 (with a base price of $44,900 in Canada) has to impress new buyers and erase the sins of its troubled $40,000 predecessor. The old Freelander scored a JD Power initial quality survey rating of just two out of five — a full point behind its competition from Acura, the MDX.

 

But it may say a lot about Land Rover that it can weather Freelander's problems and still roll up its best ever year — led by sales of the Range Rover Sport and LR3 in the United States. And it must be stressed that there's much more than mere marketing tricks at play in the launch of the LR2.

 

Production of the new model has moved to Ford's Halwood plant, near Liverpool, England, where the Jaguar X-type is built. This is the parent company's most flexible and lean manufacturing facility in Europe, a site where Ford has recently invested $900 million, including extensive workforce retraining.

 

It's these workers who will build the LR2, a new breed of Land Rover that makes use of inter-company partnerships.

 

For example, the LR2's i6 engine was developed by Volvo and is a proven performer in that division's S80.

 

Making 230 horsepower, this 3.2-litre engine is mounted transversely in the LR2, making it front-wheel-drive biased, an improvement over the old rear-wheel drive design.

 

The transmission is also new, a six-speed automatic with a manual-shift option called Command Shift — a wonderful safety feature for driving in Morocco, where guardrails are non-existent and the steep Atlas Mountains leave a driver trying to hold a reasonable downhill speed without applying the brakes.

 

This terrain would have been much less fun in the last — most-improved — version of the Freelander, with its five-speed tranny and 173-hp engine.

 

Another collaborative component on the new LR2 is the Ford Europe EU-CD chassis as a frame. Used (in whole or in part) by the Volvo S40/S80 and Focus/Mondeo, this chassis, from a budget standpoint, is better than anything Land Rover could have come up with on its own.

 

Safety features, a customer concern no matter which continent you're driving on, are well covered in the new LR2.

 

These include standard front seatbelt pre-tensioners and seven airbags that protect occupants from front and side impacts.

 

Full-length curtain airbags help protect front and rear occupants from head trauma and roll-over ejection. There's even an airbag that shields the driver's legs from injury on the steering column.

 

The new all-wheel-drive system is a team effort with Haldex of Sweden. It features an electronically actuated centre differential, which 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.

 

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

 

Again, compare that with the newest, most-improved Freelander, which had a smaller frame and only an automatic slip-n-grip hydraulic all-wheel-drive system.

 

If Morocco has one defining geographic characteristic it has to be rocks — small, sharp rocks, of the tire cutting variety. Yet with the Haldex system virtually eliminating wheel spin, the LR2 punctured just one tire on the whole trip. Things would almost certainly have been much different in a Freelander.

 

The new LR2 has squared up and bulked up, gaining 350 kilograms in the process. It mimics the LR3 and Range Rover in all its design cues but one, the forward slanted nose.

 

This minor nod to its Freelander past provides a way to tell the LR2 and LR3 apart at a hundred metres, not that the Moroccan kids are choosy when bounding onto the roadway in search of candy handouts.

 

Inside, the Freelander-to-LR2 changes are significant. Seating for five is now a reality rather than a cruel joke.

 

Materials, textures, fit and finish are all improved.

 

Upscale features such as power leather seating are now available. The new seats are well supported and comfortable, while the rear split bench seat has good leg room and is raised "theatre style" for better viewing by kids.

 

Over the kids' heads is one of two sunroofs, though only the front one opens. The front sunroof also shuts with a one-push auto-close feature; very handy when slobbering camels duck their heads in for a visit.

 

Dashboard, instrument pods and the centre console are very similar to the LR3 interior: elegant, understated and functional. However, Land Rover does need to work on simplifying its controls.

 

Other LR2 features include an iPod input jack, individual HVAC controls, headlight washers, backup warning sensors, keyless entry and a starter button.

 

This last one, I don't get. The key fob — there is no traditional key, but just an electronic fob — 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 fob out while the truck is still running — that's just asking for trouble.

 

On pavement, the LR2 ride is good; surprisingly good given the off-road bias I assumed Land Rover would have.

 

According to the engineers, suspension stiffness was purposely dialed back for a better on-road ride.

 

Cornering has also improved thanks to front and rear torsion bars holding the chassis flat through the turns.

 

Supporting the frame and body are large, gas-dampened independent struts and rubber mounts, both of which absorb road shock. These changes, along with better sound insulation, have virtually excluded engine vibration, ambient sound and wind noise from the cabin.

 

These initiatives indicate that Land Rover, like Hummer and Jeep, is coming around to the new off-road SUV reality: 4WD alone is not enough. Buyers want more comfort, more options, and more conveniences, in addition to the off-road capability of earlier models.

 

Morocco's 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 traction system on the new LR2 was demonstrated.

 

Driving on sand is very much like loose snow; both 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. At the other end of the powerband, when the surface required more of a Canadian response to sinking sand, it also offered a solution.

 

With the sand getting drier and finer the further we moved inland, I started looking for a "Give-'er" setting on the Terrain Response rotary dial. Not finding one, I opted instead for sand mode, which kept the engine revs up and held the transmission in second gear while pushing equal torque to all four wheels.

 

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 revs and detuning the electronic stability control.

 

But while it's essentially the same system as on the more expensive Land Rovers, it lacks two key features: the LR2 does not have a low-range setting or the height-adjustable air suspension.

 

But that didn't stop the LR2 from tackling jagged Moroccan rocks and hills terrifying enough to cause a New York-based writer to cover his face in panic with a silk scarf.

 

Despite such 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.

 

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 break-over angle.) It will handle a break-over angle of 21.5 degrees.

 

If the underside does hit, it is protected with a combination of steel and thermoplastic armour — reassuring stuff in the land of rocks.

 

Much like Morocco itself, where the sheep herder uses a cellphone, the village silversmith a debit card and the burka-clad women wear Nikes, the LR2 is what you might expect, but with surprises thrown in.

 

And while this vehicle won't make like the goats and climb trees, it will wade through a half-metre of water — and that's the least you'd expect from a Land Rover, isn't it?

 


Howard J. Elmer, a freelance journalist (powersports@sympatico.ca),

 

prepared this report based on travel provided by the automaker.

 


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