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Best 4x2 by Far?

The Nurburgring 24 Hours presents several challenges for DSC as we attempt to provide comprehensive coverage of one of the most intense events of the year:

Firstly there's team selection, this year we had our biggest ever with Messrs Lord, Howson and Goodwin travelling alongside Dan Bathie with Stephen Kilbey and Soren Herweg joining us 'Ringside and Jake Yorath on site for his Marc VDS day job.

Secondly there's getting there. Driving to the Nurburgring is no problem (though in truth the endless motorway/ autoroute/ autobahn dirge is hardly an inspiration! ) But the car needs to be big enough to accommodate four guys and all of the tons of kit that the snappers insist is 'essential'.

Then there's the challenge for the photographers when the cars are on track.  With such an enormous circuit you have the option of sticking to the GP circuit (what's the point?), restricting your options to a few nearby corners of the Nordshiefe (together with around 150,000 close friends), or finding your way around to some of the more distant parts of this fantastic place.

The third option is by far the most preferable of course but it requires both local know how and off road ability.

The first is provided by the ever helpful Soren 'Zorro' Herweg, always generous with his time and knowledge the race organisers should award him a medal for his efforts to enable out of towners to get to grips with this place.

Then there's the second challenge.

The DSC Ed's daily driver is a 4x4, more precisely an Audi A6 Quattro, but the thought of entrusting my pride and joy to the Snapper Pack to go off roading in the Nurburgring woods is something of a non-starter.

With the days ticking rapidly by, most of our regular loan car providers wee unable to assist but then I remembered that ex-Aston Martin Racing PR Kim Palmer had swapped his immaculately tailored Gulf liveried team gear for a flat cap, Barbour jacket, plus fours and green wellies* when he took up his new post at Land Rover

(Almost certainly untrue but it's the mental image we now have of him!)

One swift call later and there was good and asto is hong news in equal measure:

"I can help (that's the good bit) but all I have available is a Freelander and it's only two wheel drive."

A Land Rover, without four wheel drive! I genuinely had no clue that such a beast existed.

A rapid Google session later confirmed that it did and confirmed too that the lack of a pair of driven rear wheels might not be the complete disaster you might think.

"I think you'll be very pleasantly surprised by what it can do", said Kim as we sorted out the paperwork. We'll see!

The car was delivered to Dave Lord's Midlands chateau and a quick call from him confirmed that we had a handsome little, or rather not so little, beast on our hands.

My only previous experience with a Freelander was with the early three door car owned by a close friend and I hated it - rattly, poverty spec and rubber matting in gimp suit quantities (so I hear!).  Fast forward several generations and this car was to prove a revelation.

I rendezvoused with the DSC away team at Ashford International Station after a rapid run from London.  Rather bizarrely just moments before the car appeared another early Freelander passed by, smaller, much, much more basic, the market has moved on very substantially indeed.

First impressions - Photographers pack the boot of a car as efficiently as a baboon assembles a pocket watch - a couple of minutes of reorganising some bits and pieces though and we had luggage for four, plus the cameras and wet weather gear, stowed easily - Impressive!

Then it was time for a short hop to the Channel Tunnel terminal, my first time in the front of the car, again impressive in the top HSE spec on our car, great fit and finish, not a rubberised surface in sight but instead hard wearing and, as it would turn out, easy to clean carpets.

The Sat Nav seemed simple and so too did the operation of what is surely the current must have 'toy' in any car - DAB digital radio.

Inside there was plenty of room for four of us plus the inevitable long journey clutter of jackets, day packs and snacks.

Parked next to a previous generation Range Rover at the terminal it was clear that the Freelander was smaller, but not by that much!

It was clear too that the car has had more than a once over in the evolutionary styling stakes, a very shiny front end including some jewel like LED lighting has brought the car right along with the current family look.

So large enough then, and comfortable too, there are few, very, very few, cars that I have stepped out of after 5-6 hours and felt as comfortable as I did all week with the Freelander, and that applied almost equally to the front and rear seats (Some found them even more comfortable than I did!).

As soon as we exited the Terminal at Calais we hit (not literally) the back of an accident induced tailback and with time short opted to try to bypass the problem. The standard fit Sat Nav did an excellent job, but whilst the car was quick enough to exploit the empty country lanes, and the ride was superb, soaking up the bumps, potholes and everything else that rural France could chuck at it, the age old problem of a relatively high and fully loaded car on twisty roads was somewhat exposed, the Freelander may be, as our American cousins say, a Sports Utility Vehicle, what it isn't is a Sports Car.

That said it was more than up to the task of putting miles under the wheels as we navigated around the problem, 10 minutes around the villages and we were back on track.

Next surprise was that the car was surprisingly economical too, though the turbocharged 4 pot diesel boasted 'only' 150bhp it was seldom, if ever, found wanting for sensible autoroute pace and returned an excellent 42-45mpg on the motorway in doing it too, aided by a very good 6 spped manual 'box and aided off the autoroute too by one of the least intrusive stop/ start systems I've yet encountered.

Put a tow bar on the back of this car and my guess is that you'd have a very good tow car, when torque and economy are more important than outright pace.

After arriving at the Nurburgring it was time to hand the keys back to Dave Lord for the second part of Project Freelander, could the 2 wheel drive car cope with the notoriously boggy lanes around the Nordschleife?

The answer was yes, though the boys reported that the car's fairly impressive off road ability would have been aided very considerably by a different tyre choice.

Muddy lanes, boggy tracks and standing water are standard fare for the 'Ring campers and the Freelander was keen to join them with its ground clearance and adjustable traction control helping somewhat too.

The weather all weekend was mixed, moving to appalling on race day and by the time I staggered back to the car on Monday afternoon the previously pristine silver flanks of the car were caked in mud - I have to say it looked fantastic! A badge of pride for any Landy, and one that was entirely unexpected for what some would consider a school run special.

But if this car can carry the load it does, in as much comfort as it does, on as little fuel as it does, is that altogether a bad thing?

Pictures by Soren Herweg, Dan Bathie & David Lord

GG