Originally published November 2, 1997
I don’t suppose it is ever much fun being German, but this week it must have been particularly galling. Their only decent driver in the history of motor sport failed to take the world championship and, at the same time, showed the world what a mean-spirited little twerp he can be sometimes.
A great many followers of Formula One had come to like the ramrod-backed Hun in the past few months as he manhandled the decidedly inferior Ferrari to within sight of the ultimate goal. But when he turned in on Villeneuve we all remembered what it was that made us hate him in the first place. He is a German.
However, do not expect this week’s column to be a tirade of abuse at the Germans, because for once they have done us a couple of favours.
First of all, there is Rolls-Royce, which, left to its own devices, would have withered and died within 10 years. Now the future is rosy thanks to BMW and its billions.
And second, there is the Land Rover Freelander, which, without BMW’s help, would not have been made at all. And even if by some miracle it had, it would have broken down shortly thereafter.
At the motor show I caught up with the Rover boss, a man called Hasslekofmeister or something, who seemed to be very agreeable. Conversation turned quickly to the problems of Land Rover build quality — something his boss, another German called Peter Burnt Fishtrousers, once said was “disgraceful”.
I explained that I was thinking of buying a Freelander but before doing so I had just one simple question. “If I do, and it breaks down, can I set fire to your house?”
1997: the year in cars
John Prescott is Transport Minister in the new Labour Government and creates the M4 bus lane. Tony Blair tries to scrap it after seeing the tailbacks it causes car drivers.
Mercedes has to rework its revolutionary A-class after it fails the ‘elk test’ and rolls over.
He said I could, which I feared might have been a bit of PR puff, so I ploughed on. “If I bought a Range Rover and it broke down, could I set fire to your house?” The answer was sudden. “No,” he said.
So the man was genuine. He really does believe that in just two years BMW production techniques have helped to cure a 40-year history of botching. Later, I was chatting to one of the old-guard Rover people about this conversation and he was just as forthright, describing BMW quality control as “stupid. They just won’t tolerate any mistakes at all.”
Now we have all seen pictures of the Freelander and the consensus is that it looks great. But now it is time for the pricing, which is even better. The range starts at a little under £16,000 for a sporty three-door convertible, rising to £20,000 for a luxuriously appointed five-door estate.
Couple all this to the promise of reliability and it seems Land Rover can’t go wrong. But there is just one more hurdle — what is it like to drive?
I actually think I am not supposed to tell you until next week because of some stupid embargo, but what the hell — it is absolutely bloody fantastic.
I drove a petrol version, which is ushered along by exactly the same 1800cc engine as they fit in the MGF. It does not have much grunt or oomph, but for pottering about it is fine and capable of returning nearly 30mpg.
The handling is way better than that of a Range Rover in that you can wiggle the wheel from side to side at 90 without running the risk of going home wearing the car as a hat.
Sure, the Japanese competitors are more car-like and would probably be a better bet for everyday use. They are cheaper, too, and more economical. But they have as much style as a broken nose.
And they are nowhere near as good off road. This Freelander is still a Land Rover, and in a day of messing about on the Marquess of Blandford’s estate we did not get stuck once. Not even slightly. Not even with him driving.
I could bore you with all sorts of technical jiggery-pokery at this point but I will tell you about just one feature — the hill-hold foreskin.
When you are coming down a steep slope, you slide a jacket down the gearlever and the antilock braking kicks in and out hundreds of times a second to ensure you never exceed 5mph. You just sit there with your feet off the pedals, marvelling. And then when you climb the hill on the other side, the system kicks in again, only this time it acts as traction control.
So, the Freelander is good on the road, superb off it, well made and well priced, and on top of all that you sit high in the handsome brute, feeling good. It is even sensible inside, with chunky fixtures, big map pockets, plenty of toys and easily enough space for five. My only tiny, tiny gripe is the driver’s seat, which is too small and hurt my leg.