Land Rover says its Freelander 2, just launched in South Africa with a jaunt into the Kalahari, is only 50mm longer than the original but it certainly looks a lot bigger.

Hold on, though; the earlier model had its spare wheel tacked to the rear door so the new one scores an extra 235mm, most of which seems to have been devoted to extra boot space - 755 litres versus 546, with the rear seats in place - and some very welcome extra legroom.

And that's the story of the new Freelander all over; everywhere you look, you get more than you bargained for.

It has none of the slightly cramped "breathe in before you shut the door" feeling of its predecessor; instead, you get a reasonably compact, solid-looking SUV with a lot of presence, enormous glass area and generous seating for four. Put three well-fed boerewors bliksems in the rear, however, and I'm afraid it's back to breathing by numbers.

The styling is cleaner and simpler than before, with fewer elements and broader planes; the Freelander DNA is clearly visible, however, and so are design elements from the Discovery and the Range Rover, emphasising the Freelander's membership of the immensely capable Land Rover family.

The long nose below a too-busy plastic grille doesn't do it for me but it fits with the self-confident, "outta my way" persona the maker would like to project.

The interior is neat and uncluttered, with a wide, deep fascia, a plain, easy-to-use centre stack and a neat binnacle with three analogue dials and a liquid-crystal display that told me the 3.2-litre petrol engine was averaging 13.6 litres/100km on a mix of tar and good dirt.

There are no storage compartments in the centre console, just recesses for cellphones, drinks and the other items that clutter cars, but the glove box is generous.

The seats are high and fairly upright, placing the occupants (together with the large glass area) in a commanding position - a word Land Rover's PR people use often. The rear seat is higher than the front to give a better view of the road or rocks ahead.

The front seats (leather with fabric centre panels on the SE, leather on the HSE) are firm but pleasantly comfortable with strong side support on both backrests and squabs. They have power adjustment.

The HSE models also have front folding armrests but they get in the way of the handbrake lever and seatbelt sockets.

Bells and off-road whistles

The houses an impressive array of bells and off-road whistles, starting with the Alpine radio/CD sound system that drives six to 14 speakers depending on model; the basics, though, involve two rotary knobs and slide switches on the steering wheel.

The automatic, dual-zone air-conditioning is next - just two rotary switches to set "his and hers" temperatures and a third for the fans. We needed it up there in the Kalahari around Upington.

At the base of the stubby gearshifter is the four-position rotary control for Land Rover's terrain response system that adjusts engine, gearbox and differential mappings for tar, gravel, mud or thick sand.

The tar setting feeds most of the power to the front wheels but will tighten up the Haldex centre and rear differentials if one or more wheels begin to slip; the three off-road settings apportion torque equally between front and rear axles but change engine mappings for the various scenarios.

Maintaining momentum

In particular the sand setting, which we had cause to use often in the 7500ha Khamkirri private nature reserve, makes the throttle very sensitive, encouraging the driver to keep the revs up and maintain momentum on soft terrain.

It gives a very jerky ride on hard ground but in its intended application its light-switch response is not only very effective, it's also great fun - in really soft sand you wind up steering with the accelerator pedal rather than the wheel.

Buttons on each side of the terrain response knob control the dynamic safety control (switch it off before serious off-roading - it interferes with braking) and the hill descent control. It's adjustable, so you can hold station in convoy even on a difficult, steep, rocky descent.

There's no low range but Land Rover's new six-speed transmissions (auto for the petrol models, manual for the diesels) have a really low first but a longer top.

Better than the numbers

We published details of the Freelander 2's new engines when the car was announced in June 2006 but each is even better than the numbers suggest.

The 2.2-litre TD4 turbodiesel runs impressively smoothly and, while you can hear it's a diesel from outside the car, once the revs rise above idle all you hear is a whistle from the turbo. It pulls lustily from its torque peak at 2000rpm to maximum power at 4000. I rarely had to change down to acclerate.

The gearshift is short and precise though more heavily weighted than that of the average family sedan. The clutch is less user-friendly; it takes up suddenly and under the right (wrong?) circumstances it's easy to stall.

Land Rover has promised an automatic diesel later in 2007 - you might prefer it.

Jewel in the crown

The 3192cc straight-six petrol engine is the jewel in the Freelander's crown. It's a Welsh-built Volvo unit so compact it's installed transversely in a not-very-big engine bay and it revs to 6300rpm with 171kW to its credit but pulls like a steam locomotive above 2800rpm - and growls like a BMW when working hard.

Its 317Nm means the six-speed auto doesn't have to hunt for grunt and, recognising that it will be used under difficult conditions, Land Rover has blessed it with a sequential shift that holds the gear you find dear until you say different.

On the open (tar) road the Freelander 2 will cruise at 160km/h in silence with commendable lack of body roll but its steering is just a touch to precise and over-sensitive. All the usual electronic driving aids are present.

The Freelander 2 is available in three trim levels that vary mainly in terms of luxury and convenience; all the safety features - including seven crash bags, dynamic stability programme and traction control - are standard.

Prices:

2.2 TD4 S - R339 000.

2.2 TD4 SE - R364 000.

2.2 TD4 HSE - R419 000.

3.2 S a/t - R349 000.

3.2 SE a/t - R374 000.

3.2 HSE a/t - R429 000.