Who really needs four-wheel-drive? Truthfully, not very many of us. Hence the rapid recent accent of the 4×2, the rugged car with the look of a 4×4 but not the hardware. Sue Baker went off-roading in a faux-by-four Land Rover.
This should not be possible. We are on the off-road course at Gaydon, at the rugged end of Jaguar-Land Rover’s proving ground facilities. Here is where the wellie-wearers of Land Rover test their products in the mud, ruts and water. Most of the time it is off-limits to outsiders, but we have been invited here to find out for ourselves how a Freelander 2 copes with negotiating a test-bed reproduction of tough terrain.
This Freelander is different from most, though. For this is the first model from the company famed for making “the best 4x4xfar” that isn’t actually a 4×4 at all. It is the two-wheel-drive model, with power delivery only to the front wheels. Yet here it is, slithering through mud, straddling ruts and pushing a bow wave through a long gulley of deepish, greasy-grey water. It is mastering a little corner of England that mimics the slithery slopes, soft ground and water troughs of road-less rural motoring to be found all over the world.
The front-wheel-drive Freelander 2 went on sale for the first time earlier this year, ending over 50 years of Land Rover tradition. As the Solihull answer to growing environmental pressures, it is the ultimate endorsement of a trend that has grown to tsunami proportions since Nissan brought out the Qashqai and invented a new breed of urban adventurer cars. With their 4×4 looks and 4×2 design, they have proved to be a significant success. What Nissan started, much of the rest of the motor industry has very enthusiastically copied.
Land Rover came late to the faux-by-four party, but its capitulation to the trend was the most significant submission of them all. When even the most famous 4×4 firm of all recognises changing times, you know that the 4×2 trend is definitely here to stay. The time is not too far off when more Freelanders of this ilk will be sold than the traditional, original 4×4 design.
Without four-wheel-drive this Freelander is 75kg lighter than its 4×4 stablemates, and there is no choice of transmission; the default fitment is a six-speed manual gearbox. With its greener leanings, it comes equipped with auto stop-start. But it does not have Land Rover’s brilliant Terrain Response system that works in harness with the 4×4 set-up of other models. Nor does it have Hill Descent Control to manage tricky descents on soft or rocky slopes.
So it really can’t cope with very much at all if driven off-road, right? Well actually, it can, and with rather more ability than you might expect. And herein lies some of the misapprehension of off-road driving. Of course you need 4×4 and clever associated kit for serious off-roading, and for ice and wet grass. But as any farmer who has spent his life driving on soft ground knows, you can still do a surprising amount of milder off-roading without those things.
Other aspects of a car’s design and equipment are crucial. Particularly important are high ground clearance, long suspension travel and tyre suitability. Any Land Rover, even a two-wheel-drive one, has all of those. The other key element is driver skill and confidence. Timidity will get you stuck on a tricky slope just as quickly as gung-ho over-confidence. What is needed to drive off-road successfully in a tall, good ground clearance 4×2, is much the same as you need when driving a 4×4: intelligent ‘reading’ of the terrain ahead and a sensible plan of attack for tackling and overcoming obstacles.
Our photographs speak for themselves. There is no trickery here, this really is a two-wheel-drive Landie tackling an off-road course that is quite a lot more demanding than most people would ever believe it to be capable of. Up hill, down dale and through the water, the front-wheel-drive Freelander surprised us with how well it is able to tackle terrain that you might reasonably expect could only be driven over in a 4×4.
So are the days of 4x4s numbered? For ultimate mud-plugging and for crossing seriously tough terrain, this Indiana Jones of the motoring world is without doubt a star turn. But it is dawning on many drivers that a milder alternative that is less expensive to buy and run might well be able to do everything they really need for life in Manchester not the Masai, or Orpington rather than the Outback.