Land Rover should be on a roll in the US now that it is finally launching the Freelander SUV in the US, three years after it went on sale in Europe, writes John Rettie.

Better late than never. Land Rover is allowing buyers to pre-order the car via a unique web site where they can configure a Freelander and have it built to their specifications for delivery in December when the vehicle goes on sale in the US and Canada.

As part of the massive pre-launch publicity for the vehicle, Land Rover invited over 50 US and Canadian journalists to Iceland last week to show off the vehicle's prowess on dirt roads and across a slippery windswept glacier.

"It's a hugely important launch for Land Rover as North America is the most important market," said Land Rover chairman and CEO Bob Dover. Iceland was chosen for the launch venue to emphasise the vehicle's strategic position bridging the link between Europe and North America.

It's certainly great news for Land Rover workers in Solihull who will see Freelander production increase by 25% to 100,000 units in 2002 just because of the 20,000 vehicles that will be sold in North America.

The Freelander joins a crowded marketplace in the land of SUVs. Although it might be going head to head against the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4, it is the first premium European sport utility, which gives it some cachet.

For starters it will only be available with a 2.5-litre petrol V6 engine, sport shift automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, hill descent control and traction control. The CRV and the RAV 4 on the other hand are offered in both 2WD and 4WD forms but come only with four-cylinder engines.

In Europe the Freelander is the top selling SUV, easily outselling these two vehicles but it's going to be impossible for Land Rover to beat them in the US, where the CR-V and RAV4 each sell four to six times the Freelander's projected volume each year.

Nevertheless, ever since the Range Rover first went on sale in the US in 1986, Land Rover has managed to maintain a strong position at the luxury SUV end of the marketplace, which will help Freelander.

The Freelander S will retail in the US for $24,975, the SE for $27,795 and $31,575 for the HSE model, a price range which is more than $5,000 above that of a comparably equipped CR-V or RAV4.

According to Land Rover, current US owners of Range Rovers have Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche as garage mates. It sees Freelander appealing to those who appreciate European vehicles and are willing to pay more for European handling and panache.

Land Rover's latest publicity coup only added to its image of toughness. A few weeks ago, a Range Rover Classic was stolen from a woman in Los Angeles and a lengthy high-speed police chase ensued.

As usual, it was captured live on the many LA area TV stations yet its finish was different from usual - the police laid down a spike strip on the freeway and the tyres were blown out. Yet the 17-year old driver managed to keep going for another 12 miles on the Range Rover's rims, stopping only when the front wheel was worn down to the hub. It amazed the police how long the Range Rover kept going.

According to Land Rover officials, the publicity generated 10 extra Range Rover sales the next day in LA as a result of the free publicity and the woman's local Land Rover retailer gave her an identical Range Rover in exchange for the damaged vehicle which was kept for publicity. In the car chase capital of the world this sort of publicity is priceless!

So the future bodes well for Land Rover North America just as it joins its fellow Brit marques in Ford's Premium Automotive Group to form Aston Martin Land Rover Jaguar in the US. It means there will be more dealerships added to the current 136 Land Rover retailers as only about 20% are currently dual-franchise outlets with Jaguar.

Dover believes that the synergies between Jaguar and Land Rover reach beyond the States, as many owners in England already own a Jaguar and a Range Rover. He points out that the newest dealer in Holland also sells Jaguar and Aston Martins.

Land Rover says that Ford has had a major impact on quality since it took over ownership and only 10% of vehicles need some fixing at the end of the production line. Officials like to point out that Jaguar's quality has improved enormously since Ford's influence began and that the same thing is already happening with Land Rover.

Even if there is a downturn in US demand for SUVs, Land Rover is convinced that its sales will be largely unaffected as its volume is relatively low and Land Rover vehicles will continue to appeal to those looking for genuine off-road vehicles. Dover says this will work as long as the company stays true to its heritage - which means no two-wheel drive SUVs like those sold by other manufacturers.

Dover reiterated that all Land Rover models will be replaced in the next five years. An all-new Range Rover is due to be launched at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2002 with a new Discovery a year or so later, followed by a new Defender and Freelander as well as an all-new fifth vehicle about which Land Rover is mum on details.

"All future products will be designed for the US from the start," says Dover.

So Americans will no longer have to wait several years for new Land Rover models after they have been introduced in Europe.

To view related research reports, please follow the links below:-

The world's car manufacturers: A financial and operating review (download)

Automotive regional report: North America (download)