PART of the dream of owning an SUV is its command driving position that gives you unparalleled vision over lesser traffic. The other part is taking the kids to see the real Australia, via Birdsville.
I was contemplating the virtues of the high driving position while sitting in Land Rover's delightful Freelander 2, waiting to turn left at a T-junction. Alongside me, turning right, was another SUV. Which blocked my view so I had to wait for him to go. Commanding view? Dream on.
But that aside, this mini-Landie is an absolute gem. Everybody loved it. My family practically broke down in tears when I said it was being returned. They hadn't done that since I had to return Video-Ezy's copy of 101 Dalmatians.
It falls into the Luxury SUV category and that tells you it's not a cheapie. At $55,310, it's a big ask until you shop it against its natural rivals and will even be shopped against its cousin, the mini-Range Rover Evoque.
But it does get lots of leather, electric seats with heaters, a great sound system and a full-size spare wheel.
The Freelander 2 starts at $44,990 for the turbo-diesel TD4 version, runs through two petrol models (priced from $49,990) and tops out at $65,584 for the deluxe diesel. The Freelander 2 TD4 SE is priced almost on par with the BMW X1 2.0d at $55,580. But, spec-to-spec, the Land Rover offers more and arguably will take to the hills with more aplomb. On the downside, it doesn't have a BMW badge.
Powerful genes trickle through Land Rover's blood so there's no mistaking which family the chamfered two-box shape of the baby belongs. It works, though, because it's a very functional design that maximises cabin space while making it compact on the outside and nimble enough for congested city duties.
The cabin follows some themes from its bigger sisters. It's clean, simple and stylish. Bold switches, bright instruments, a low-mounted dashboard to maximise visibility and - like the side glass - afford an airy and light interior. It's actually a clever move because, in comparison with most rivals, this vehicle is not as spacious.
This is a constant all-wheel drive wagon driven by a enjoyable 2.2-litre turbo-diesel - which is also going into the Jaguar XF - and six-speed automatic. The clever bits include the Terrain Response system controlled by a switch set on the console.
Depending on where you switch it - sand, mud, bitumen or rocks - it changes the Haldex drive system coupling and modifies accelerator response and gear shift points. Despite the Freelander's lack of a low-range gearbox, this system gives the wagon remarkable off-road ability.
The diesel comes as a 110kW or 140kW (marked as TD4 or SD4). Torque remains at a strong 420Nm for both and is the key for the Freelander's brisk manners and ease of driving character.
Like its predecessor the mini-Landie gets a five-star crash rating, six airbags and all the aids including electronic stability control, ABS on four disc brakes, cornering control and even hill descent. Interesting that a mate uses hill descent on his Discovery 4 to ensure a safe trip down his home's steep concrete driveway in the wet, so the device isn't only for off-road excursions.
SUVs tend to look like they drive - top-heavy and cumbersome. The Freelander has none of that. It's quick, responsive, quiet and comfortable and feels more like a small car.
The cabin is quite compact - though seats four adults with plenty of room - which perfectly suits small families or couples, as does the miserly fuel consumption.
The 2.2-litre engine sounds small but really delivers. There is some low-end softness under the accelerator but you have the option of flicking the steering wheel paddle shifters to find a lower gear, or being patient.
Mid-range deliver is all torque and smoothness and feels like it could pull like that forever. Close to perfect.
I love the suspension that soaks up road irregularities as much as softening the bumps on dirt trails. It's a very good compromise.
In the dirt the Haldex diff sends power to various axles. It's a heavy car and feels a bit uncomfortable on dry beach sand but lowering the tyre pressure provides traction.
It is better on gravel and firmer sand trails where the all-wheel drive and quick steering rack give it confidence and stability at speed.
This is one of the best SUVs - in all classes - on the market. It does everything right. But despite its Luxury SUV category, shoppers can go outside this framework and pick up similarly-equipped SUVs for a lot less money. Take the Mazda CX-7, for example or even the Toyota Kluger.
Yes, the Freelander is probably the most competent "soft roader" in the SUV class but figure out if you're going to use its capability rather than just use it for its driveway appeal - a tragic finale for many BMWs. Slide down the Freelander model list and you'll notice the SD4 has a more powerful 140kW engine compared with the TD4's 110kW.
Given fuel consumption is identical but performance is substantially better, pay the extra $1500 and get the SD4. Also, the auto is excellent so forget the manual transmission because it won't attract many buyers when you sell the car.
LAND ROVER FREELANDER TD4 SE
Warranty: 3 years, 100,000km, roadside assist
Service interval: 15,000km or 12 months
Economy: 7.0 l/100km; 185g/km CO2
Safety equipment: nine airbags, ESC, ABS, EBD, EBA, TC.
Crash rating: 5 star
Engine: 110kW/420Nm 2.2-litre turbo-diesel
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Body: 5-door, 5 seats
Dimensions: 4500 (L); 2195mm (W); 1740mm (H); 2660mm (WB)
Tyres: size 235/65R17, full-size spare.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
BMW X1 2.0d
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 130kW/350Nm
Transmission: 6-spd auto, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 6.2L/100km, CO2 164g/km
"Surprisingly competent on dirt and road but cabin space is limited"
MAZDA CX-7 Sports
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2.2-litre, 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 136kW/400Nm
Transmission: 6-spd manual, AWD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 7.6L/100km, CO2 183g/km
"Great allrounder but manual-only transmission dampens enthusiasm"
MITSUBISHI CHALLENGER XLS
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2.5-litre, 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 131kW/350Nm
Transmission: 5-spd auto, 2-spd transfer, 4WD
Body: 5-door wagon
Thirst: 9.8L/100km, CO2 259g/km
"Spacious 4WD that's brilliant offroad but noisy and firm riding on the road"