OCEANO, Calif. -- Mountainous dunes whipped by strong Pacific winds ripple like waves along the California shore at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which serves as our playground to test the tire-claw traction on a new compact-class wagon from Britain's classy coachmaker, Land Rover.
Labeled LR2, the new model amounts to a larger and more powerful successor to Freelander, Land Rover's previous small-class SUV. Marked by a boxy profile with the roof seemingly floating above a wrap of windows, new LR2 borrows some styling cues from the fancy Range Rover flagship SUV.
It packs a forceful six-in-line engine designed by Volvo of Sweden and channels all of the plant's muscle through an always-engaged all-wheel-drive (AWD) system from Haldex, the Swedish AWD pioneer, to deliver sure-footed tire traction on rain-slick pavement as well as off-road trails or even huge sand dunes suited for Lawrence of Arabia.
And the five-seat passenger compartment in LR2 is a luxurious space laced with a standard two-part panoramic sunroof and lots of safety gear, including seven air bags and a smorgasbord of sophisticated vehicle controls like four-wheel electronic traction control (4ETC), all-terrain dynamic stability control (DSC), roll stability control (RSC) to reduce the risk of roll-over and hill descent control (HDC), which keeps the wagon's wheels firmly planted on a steep grade.
The architecture of LR2 amounts to a five-door monocoque structure, which compares to a front-wheel-drive (FWD) car rather than the conventional SUV's rear-wheel-drive (RWD) body-on-frame platform
That integral body-frame structure makes the LR2 a crossover utility vehicle (CUV), although it has a high stance (with 10.5-inch clearance below the rear axle) so it can ride over off-road obstacles or plunge through a stream of water more than 19 inches deep.
This is a bigger package compared to Freelander, with the wheelbase increasing about five inches and the overall length a couple of inches longer. That extra length creates more room for passengers in the cabin and the longer wheelbase enhances the smooth-ride stability of the vehicle when underway at highway speeds.
There's a MacPherson strut design up front with lower control arm and anti-roll bar, and in the rear the strut assembly uses lateral and longitudinal links plus the anti-roll bar. Rubber-mounted sub-frames in front and rear isolate the road-bump action.
Cabin layout consists of a pair of bucket seats on the front row and a second row bench broad enough for three with an asymmetrically split design and a higher stance in stepped-up arrangement like stadium seats.
The rear seat double-folds forward to fashion a flat floor for an expansion of the rear cargo bay -- which amounts to 58.9 cubic feet of room. Firm front buckets, trimmed in leather hides, adjust in multiple directions through electric power controls. The driver's seat moves six ways and the front passenger's seat adjusts in four directions.
LR2 also contains armaments to chart a safe course through urban traffic as well as the wilderness. Curtain-style side air bags for both rows of seats are on-board, as are side-impact air bags for the front buckets.
And the driver gets the protection of an inflatable knee bolster. The six-cylinder engine motivating LR2, although designed by Volvo of Sweden and assembled in Wales, was revamped by Land Rover for the rigors of off-road work with enhanced protection against sand, water and mud.
The 3.2-liter straight-six, with dual-cam configuration and transverse mounting, generates 230 hp at 6300 rpm and 234 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm. It translates the torque through an electronically controlled automatic transmission with six forward gears. The shifter stick with H-gate shift pattern adds Land Rover's CommandShift mode for sequential gear changes.
Also, there's a tab for sport mode, which quickens the shift points for keener performance. On the road LR2 feels strong and swift -- it charges from zero to 60 mph in a tad over eight seconds and runs to a top speed of 124 mph.
The intelligent AWD system on LR2 -- with engine power split between front and rear wheels through an electronically controlled center coupling -- varies the front-rear torque split constantly to suit changing conditions. When driving on dry pavement only a bit of torque goes to the rear wheels, yet in a tough off-road situation the device could feed almost all of the torque to the rear wheels.
Ahead of the console shift lever is a rotary dial for selecting four different terrain settings using Land Rover's patented terrain response system (TRS) which matches various electronic and mechanical controls to the type of terrain covered.
The settings include one for pavement cruising, another for slick surfaces like grass/gravel/snow, a third one for wallowing in mud and ruts, and a fourth strictly for sand.
It sets up the vehicle in optimum manner for the type of terrain traversed through modulation of powertrain response, transmission gear selections, and electronic controls like the 4ETC and DSC. On a flat beach at Oceana, we twirl the TRS dial.
Switching to Grass/Gravel/Snow, we feel less power in the throttle because strong torque only spins wheels on slippery surfaces. Switching to Sand, we feel a power surge in the pedal as you need lots of torque to keep the wheels rolling through tire-sucking sand.
Land Rover lines the LR2 with a substantial content of luxury items like dual-zone automatic air conditioning, a keyless starter button, one-touch power controls for windows, auto headlamps and rain-sensing wipers.
Three optional equipment packages list as the Technology Package (DVD-based navigation system and Dolby Pro Logic II Surround Sound kit), the Lighting Package (bi-xenon lamps and adaptive front lighting system), and the Cold Climate Package.
Entry point MSRP for LR2 is $33,985.