The missus and I spend a weekend at a very swanky hotel recently, just to treat ourselves for all the hard work we've been putting in lately. On one particular evening we were dressing for dinner, as you do, when I realised someone had forgotten to pack my best shirt. "Ah for feck's sake, Denise," I whinged, "I wanted to look like all the rich people for one fecking night. You're all dolled up and I look like an earthquake survivor."
"I thought you told me that you could always tell the really wealthy people because they couldn't be bothered trying to look rich," came the rebuttal. Damn it, she was right of course; I did say that. But there's a difference between looking effortlessly casual in LV and struggling not to look poor in M&S.
The Land Rover Freelander and Honda CR-V are both brand new to the Irish market and I'd expect to see a lot of these in car park of our posh hotel down the line. These are the top two SUVs for the chattering classes, big, expensive, flashy and imposing by car standards (but not so big they're single-handedly warming the globe), they reflect the aspirational element of many of Ireland's nouveau minted. Like a token Yves Saint Lauren bag or Hilfiger jacket, they tell the world that you've got a few bob but you're not done climbing yet, baby.
Despite the butch looks, neither has too much in the way off off-road capability, nor do they make any attempt to compete with the Hyundai Santa Fe or Mitsubishi Outlander as seven seat buses. The CR-V and Freelander are rung-one luxury cars, transportation for those who haven't arrived just yet. Immediately that gives the Land Rover an advantage because it's got the label. 'What do you drive?' 'A Land Rover.' Ah, that right there is worth the price of admission for the blindly pretentious. Meanwhile the Honda driver would have to answer 'A CR-V' to properly communicate just how well they've been doing the last couple of years and it just doesn't drop into conversation quite so satisfyingly.
Having said that, park the two alongside one another and the Land Rover buyer won't be feeling quite so smug. Basic models ride on 16-inch wheels and lack the visual sparkle of the basic CR-V which has 17-inch wheels as standard and an extremely high level of specification compared to the Freelander. All CR-Vs look identical, too, so there's no sense of having scraped yourself into the base model that you would get with an entry-level Freelander, whereas when you get to the top-of-the line models the difference is even more pronounced.
Inside the Freelander there is (literally) a large hole where the sat nav should be and equipment levels are adequate rather than impressive, with 17-inch alloys, cruise control, leather trim and climate control as standard. The CR-V, on the other hand, is dripping in toys, including a Bluetooth phone kit, touch-screen satellite navigation, voice operated controls, HID headlamps, leather trim with electrically operated memory seats, active cruise control and a panoramic sunroof. Load up a Freelander to the same specification levels and you're looking at a €70,000 car. At that point you're not getting enough value for your aspirational dollars.
There's also the issue of build quality and finish - while the Honda is beautifully made from good-looking but rather hard and unyielding plastics, the Freelander is an orgy of tactility that's not quite so well designed or solidly nailed together. The CR-V's cabin looks classy and upmarket while the Landie looks deliberately de-contented to get it down to a price. Size-wise, there's nothing between the two cars, however. Both offer fine 5-seat accommodation and large boots though access is a little easier in the Honda thanks its minutely lower sills and larger doors.
To drive, the two cars are astonishingly similar. Both are powered by excellent 2.2-litre engines that feel gutsy and willing, and while the Honda's engine isn't as powerful as the Land Rover's, the vehicle is some 160kg lighter and has better gearing so it's actually quicker to 100km/h, faster all out, more economical on the combined run and cleaner, too. Both cars have fine six-speed manual transmission and light, fluid clutches, too, but what really impresses about these cars is how car-like they are to drive. Their steering systems are sharp and precise, with the Honda's being a tad more responsive but the Freelander's offering a smidge more feel, while body roll and understeer and impressively controlled in both vehicles, too. They even ride well, which is a surprise given how enthusiastically they corner, although the Freelander is a bit quieter on the motorway and chugs along with more determination on inclines or when overtaking.
Off road, the difference between the two cars is marked. The Freelander might not have a low-ratio gearbox but it's still got sophisticated traction software to help it go where no soft-roader has gone before. Its approach and departure angles, its ground clearance, its wheel articulation and turning circle all help it to effectively trounce the CR-V in the sticky stuff. The CR-V has AWD but that's about it in terms of off-road ruggedness. It feels brittle and out of place when the going gets rough, whereas the Freelander shines and makes the Honda look a bit girly as it tries to tiptoe through the mud. We even noticed that the CR-V's chassis flexed so much while going through our wheel articulation tests that opening and closing the door caused it to clatter against is now slightly misaligned latch. Still, it's highly unlikely many, if any, owners will be taking their SUVs across the mountains as we've done, rendering the Freelander's victory in this respect a little hollow. After all, we can't muddy up those new Gucci loafers before we've shown them off to absolutely everyone we know, now can we, nor can our new off-road look anything less than brand new on the freshly bricked driveway.
As machines, then, the Honda CR-V and the Land Rover Freelander is about as close a pair of rivals as you're likely to get, a fine match for one another in terms of packaging, layout and overall concept. But while the Freelander has that all-important brand cache, the Honda's the slightly better car of the two by merit of its outstanding equipment levels, upmarket finish and marginally superior on-road performance. If you like the idea of a weekend away in a four-star hotel with himself taking in a quick round before lunch while herself enjoys a relaxing spa treatment, then the CR-V is for you. But if you'd rather splash out on a five-star weekend and forego the frills in favour of rubbing shoulders with the over classes then the Freelander is definitely the way to do. Just make sure you pack the right shirt. You're not rich or important enough to go to dinner without a collar just yet, baby.
Verdict: We like the Freelander an awful lot but the CR-V has a slight edge in terms of performance, finish and value. The Landie's more prestigious but the Honda's a better buy.