SANTA BARBARA, CA – Land Rover takes its mandate very seriously.

Part of Ford Motor Co.’s Premier Automotive Group, Land Rover is a luxury marque with an off-road pedigree.

That philosophy extends down to entry level, with the launch of the second-generation Freelander – or LR2 as it is renamed for the North American and Middle East markets.

While the Freelander 2/LR2 technically is a cross/utility vehicle, borrowing components from Ford’s global EUCD midsize car platform (Ford Mondeo, Volvo S80), the car-based Land Rover is surprisingly capable.

It also looks the part. The new LR2, which carries over nothing from the original Freelander, takes some styling cues from the larger LR3 (Discovery 3) and shows clear Land Rover genes with the clamshell hood from the Range Rover.

The front and back perhaps err on the side of caution. The CUV does not copy the asymmetrical rear window lines of the striking LR3.

And the front may be too reminiscent of the original Freelander that was available in North America from 2002 to May 2005, when it was discontinued because Land Rover lost its engine supplier with the collapse of MG Rover.

The modern LR2 returns with a narrow A-pillar for better visibility, short overhangs to tilt off-road and a wide track for on-road handling – as pavement and congestion are the hallmarks of the terrain it is most likely to traverse.

This dose of reality appears lost on Land Rover, which invested the LR2 with much more capability than most competitors in the middle-luxury CUV segment.

The LR2 attempts to follow the path of the larger LR3, which is downright goat-like in its ability to crawl over or climb up any terrain with Land Rover’s Terrain Response system that dials in the appropriate measure of traction.

The auto maker tweaked the Terrain Response system for use in the LR2, as well. The smaller CUV has four settings – the rock-crawl option is omitted as the LR2 lacks low-range gears and has less ground clearance with 8.3 ins. (21.0 cm) under the front axle and 10.5 ins. (26.5 cm) under the rear axle.

The grass/gravel/snow setting is the most aggressive of the four options (the others being mud and ruts, sand and general driving), and the LR2 eats its way through each of them on a test course here.

Maximum wading depth for this “urban” Land Rover is an impressive 19.7 ins. (50 cm), which is the top of the rims. Tested here in about 16 ins. (41 cm) of murky muddy water, the vehicle never hesitates.

It also proves solid sluicing through snow and slush on mountain roads when caught in a surprise snowstorm in the California desert.

Returning to lower altitudes, the LR2’s performance in deep sand in nearby Pismo Beach arguably exceeds that of an LR3 also frolicking in the dunes.

The LR2 is equipped with a permanent intelligent all-wheel-drive system, similar to the one in the new Volvo S80, but customized for Land Rover to jive with Terrain Response.

Whereas Volvo’s AWD system kicks in when sensors detect slippage, Terrain Response dials in the desired control in advance.

The Land Rover also has Hill Descent Control, Roll Stability Control and Gradient Release to prevent rolling backward on an incline by releasing the brake in stages.

It adds up to a lot of technology and capability for a vehicle that competes primarily with urban utilities.

Fortunately, the LR2 is not lacking on the blacktop, with a monococque structure on an independent suspension. In terms of rigidity, its engineers say only the Range Rover and Porsche Cayenne are stiffer than the LR2.

Powering this 5-passenger CUV with stadium seating is a version of the 3.2L DOHC I-6 developed with Volvo Cars and tweaked for each auto maker’s respective vehicles, recognizing the vastly different performance expectations of the LR2 and the Volvo S80 sedan.

Mounted transversely to create more front-passenger space, for Land Rover the I-6 generates 230 hp and 234 lb.-ft. (317 Nm) of torque, with the ability to tow a 3,500-lb. (1,585-kg) trailer with brakes.

The I-6 also has continuously Variable Valve timing and boasts a patented Cam Profile Switching system with two different cam profiles machined into the same camshaft; one is ideal for low-speed low-load towing, and the other is tapped for higher speeds and bigger loads.

A new 6-speed automatic transmission offers a sport mode to hold low gears longer and CommandShift for manual sequential gear changing.

The vehicle is not light, with a curb weight of 4,255 lbs. (1,930 kg), but is quite sprightly in its driving manners.

The techno-laden LR2 is nicely intuitive, with a simple press of a button to reset the odometer; 1-touch power windows on both sides; and an infotainment unit that can be easily navigated, despite being housed in a somewhat busy center console.

The CUV follows the questionable trend of a start-stop button but makes up for it with inclusion of an auxiliary jack for the ubiquitous iPod.

'08 Land Rover LR2
Vehicle type Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door cross/utility vehicle
Engine 3.2L inline DOHC 6-cyl., aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 230 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 234 lb.-ft. (317 Nm) @ 3,200 rpm
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 84 x 96
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 104.7 ins. (266 cm)
Overall length 177.1 ins. (450 cm)
Overall width 85.7 ins. (218 cm)
Overall height 68.5 ins. (174 cm)
Curb weight 4,255 lbs. (1,930 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg) 25.2 combined
Curb weight 4,255 lbs. (1,930 kg)
Market competition BMW X3, Hummer H3, Acura RDX, Mazda CX-7

Inside, leather seats are standard, and there are varied textures to the plastic trim. Fit and finish pass muster, and safety is enhanced with seven airbags, including a knee bolster.

There is decent leg room for rear passengers and a 59 cu.-ft. (1.7 cu.-m) cargo hold with the rear seats folded down.

To stand out among CUVs, Land Rover emphasizes its breadth of off-road prowess and traction expertise in a competitive on-road daily driver – a unique selling proposition for the relatively exclusive brand.

To render it for the masses, pricing for the LR2 in the U.S. will start at $34,700 – below the $36,880 BMW X3 against which it expects to compete.

The segment also includes such newcomers as the Acura RDX that begins at $32,995 and the more-affordable Mazda CX-7, neither designed for off-road.

Land Rover expects many original Freelander owners to trade in for the new generation and also tempt Discovery 2 customers who did not migrate to the Discovery3/LR3.

There already are more than 15,000 handraisers for the LR2, which goes on sale early next month.

The auto maker expects to see sales back in the 15,000 range where they peaked in 2004. Production at the Jaguar Cars’ plant in Halewood, U.K., can be increased if demand warrants.

The bet is there are enough buyers who want a vehicle that offers more than what the typical urban driver needs – but for whom the LR2 represents a true and affordable Land Rover.

apriddle@wardsauto.com