Land Rover is gearing up for the launch of the all-new Freelander in the U.K. next month, with the rollout of the cross/utility vehicle to continue throughout Europe in first-quarter 2007 and the rest of the world, including the U.S., in the second quarter.

The rollout order reflects the fact the Freelander – to be called the LR2 in North America and the Middle East – is launching with a diesel engine first, says Phil Popham, Land Rover managing director.

Americans will get their first look at the LR2 at this week’s LA Auto Show.

Popham, who assumed his new post in April after 18 years with Land Rover, including sales, marketing and financial stints in the U.S. and South Africa and experience running U.K. operations for Jaguar and Land Rover, says there are no plans to offer a diesel-powered LR2 in the U.S. until it becomes more apparent there is a sufficient market.

“We will look at diesel trends in the U.S., but a niche manufacturer can’t be the leader in this,” he tells Ward’s in a recent interview.

Popham is encouraged by the trend in the U.S. to market fuel efficiency, noting the massive move to diesels in Europe was driven by regulations, gas prices and the proliferation of service stations offering diesel fuel.

The current-generation Freelander had annual sales of about 75,000 units globally.

“We’ve got the capacity for similar numbers,” Popham says of the second-generation compact CUV.

The Freelander began production in October at Jaguar Cars’ Halewood, U.K., plant alongside the Jaguar X-Type. The two vehicles, from different platforms, have separate body shops but share a paint and final trim line.

With the second generation, Land Rover hopes to re-attain leadership in many markets.

The original Freelander, introduced in 1997, was a segment volume leader for the first five years in Europe, Popham says, and led U.K. sales every year until 2005.

The sector has changed considerably in the last nine years, with many key auto makers now offering entries in that space, extending the price range in the compact 4X4 market.

“I don’t think it’s realistic for us to have the goal of being segment-volume leader in every market, but I think we will be the benchmark in terms of capability,” Popham says.

But the Freelander/LR2 will be Land Rover’s volume vehicle next year, he says.

The LR2 is a product of Ford Motor Co.’s EUCD architecture, a cousin to the proliferating C1 compact car platform. EUCD underpins a number of C/D segment-sized vehicles within the Ford family of brands.

The Freelander is the only application for Land Rover, Popham says, designed from the outset as a Land Rover by brand engineers, but with quality and cost-efficiency benefits from the common architecture.

The most expensive aspect it borrows is the electrical architecture, Popham says.

The powertrain is Volvo’s 3.2L I-6, mounted transversely, adapted for the rigors of a Land Rover and capable of 230 hp. The diesel for Europe is a 2.2L 4-cyl.

Also unique is the chassis, with an independent suspension under its monocoque structure. All-wheel drive is standard, as is a 6-speed automatic transmission.

The entry model is a 5-door for Europe and the U.S.; other markets have a 3-door.

Pricing in the U.K. will range from £22,000 to £30,000 ($41,090-$50,031), a marginal increase from the outgoing model. Popham says about 60% of U.K. sales have been above the entry-level pricepoint.

A single trim level, fairly loaded, will be available in North America. Pricing has not been released.

“We are growing very rapidly in the U.S., with LR3, Range Rover Sport and now with LR2,” Popham says. “We have designed products with the U.S. market in mind and are happy that those products are far more appropriate for the U.S. market than previously.”

Land Rover sales are up 8.2% in the U.S. through October, according to Ward’s data.

This year, Land Rover sales in the U.S. could surpass those in the U.K. for the first time, Popham says.

“There is a great battle between the two: North America and the U.K.,” he says. “That will be quite an achievement for the U.S. to outsell the home market. It’s been very strong (in the U.K.) the last 50 years.”

Additionally, Popham says Land Rover is profitable and able to give back to Ford, which is “important because Ford invested millions of dollars in delivering what we’ve got (in the lineup) today.”

apriddle@wardsauto.com