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Land Rover Freelander I (1997-’06)

by Jeff Mullins 16/10/12

Throughout the early to mid 1990’s, the definition of ‘off-roader’ as a vehicle was changing somewhat. Many manufacturers, primarily Japanese, had been developing compact off road vehicles during this time in what was to become a lucrative market segment. Indeed, if one looks at many of the vehicles on offer within the market today, for every hatchback or saloon in a manufacturer’s range there is nearly always a faux 4×4 or crossover equivalent which possibly even outsells its more traditional counterpart. Look at the success of the Nissan Qashqai for proof of this.Frellander

As far back as 1989, Land Rover were firmly entwined in the Rover Group that sired them and had the foresight to see the direction the market was taking in terms of young, trendy people seeking high riding vehicles that were not necessarily that capable off road. Having just launched the Discovery, they looked at other manufacturers such as BMW and admired their ‘three model’ range which featured the 3 Series at the bottom end for the young dynamic professional seeking a prestigious saloon, the 5 Series for when they have progressed in their career and desire to upgrade and the 7 Series for when they are a few years older and have reached the top of the ladder. Freelander

It made sense for Land Rover to create a model in the same style as the 3 Series to slot beneath the 5 Series level Discovery as well as the 7 Series level Range Rover. To do this, they engaged in significant market research and a gestation period that would not see the car arrive until the tail end of 1997; a time when both Toyota and former partner Honda had reached the market with both their RAV-4 and CR-V in 1994 and 1995 respectively (although the latter would not arrive in Europe until significantly later). Throughout the years the project changed direction numerous times and management were in two minds of whether it would be badged a ‘Rover’ or a ‘Land Rover’ (it was initially a Rover Cars development after all). Early mule prototypes were seen testing over the years disguised in Austin Maestro van bodyshells, leading many to believe today that the Freelander was in fact based on a heavily modified Maestro/Montego platform. It’s a credible assumption, as it was conceived during a shoe string era of Rover Group product development that restricted the teams to using off the shelf parts; as witnessed with the 1995 MGF which underneath used two Rover Metro subframes turned back to front!

The Land Rover Freelander arrived in time for the 1998 model year to great acclaim and initial success. The engine range mirrored the Rover passenger cars in the fact that K Series petrol and L Series diesel units were the order of the day. As is widely known today, the K Series features a design flaw which causes head gaskets to blow, possibly even multiple times. The Freelander was no exception in being affected by this issue and it was one major factor which contributed to the car’s generally poor reputation today. The L Series however is gruff and unrefined, yet robust and built on proven technology. The bodystyles available were both three and five door; the former featuring a removable rear section for a semi open-top experience. Commercial versions in both guises eventually became available in various markets.
Early Freelander’s from 1998-2000 have a reputation today of being shoddy and best avoided. The biggest issue on these cars that never fully went away was the failure of the Intermediate Reduction Drive (IRD); a system which acted as a differential between the front and rear wheels. According to a revealing inside article published in Car Magazine back in 1999, the faults on early cars consisted of failure of the Hill Descent Control, contaminated power steering pumps, ‘scraping’ noises from the front springs, cracking exhaust pipes as well as noise and vibration from the throttle cable and transmission tie bar. More seriously, another major issue reported was severe flexing of the bodyshell leading in some cases to cracked windscreens.Freelander interior

In 2001, BMW put in place an under the skin revision of the Freelander. They replaced the old L Series diesel engine with a version of their advanced M47 unit and introduced the 2.5 litre KV6 with 170bhp and a Jatco 5 speed auto gearbox at the top of the range. To put it bluntly, the BMW engine is the only unit to go for in this car and is, rather ironically, more reliable than BMW’s application of it in their own models (E46 320d’s were known for turbo failure and broken swirl flaps). The KV6 is hugely thirsty in a car like this and because its head is made up of four cams this means four separate belts. Each change interval is a major job and requires special tools that in turn are difficult to obtain.

Late 2003 saw the Freelander receive a significant update under Land Rover’s Ford ownership. This benefitted the car majorly in terms of cosmetics and many interior parts which dated back to 1980’s Austin Rover products were finally deleted. The outside received new body coloured bumpers and twin lamp head light units which afforded the car a family resemblance to the third generation Range Rover (L322). A new range of colour and trim options were also offered as well as new trim levels.Freelander

On the road, the Freelander I is far from a bad experience and features adequate steering combined with decent handling. The only black mark against it is intrusive wind noise at higher speeds. The driving position is also compromised by the fact that seating does not adjust for height. Other than that the TD4 diesel engine pulls strongly from low down and gives a decent shove. Combined with the five speed automatic gearbox (admittedly rare in this country) it is responsive and far better than the poor shifting manual.

The first generation Freelander bowed out of production in 2006 and has seen values come down in that time. Taking the advice that all other models are best avoided, around 5-6k can be budgeted for the desired TD4 model from around 2004-2005 in a nice colour and spec. It will be a risky proposition that will be minimised once the correct homework is done and the right precautions are taken.