In Defense of the Land Rover Freelander
Small off-road hero, or unreliable zero?
When people in the U.S. think about the Land Rover Freelander, they don’t typically gaze wistfully back at a sturdy, well-rounded, off-road bargain. Instead, quintessentially British unreliability comes to mind first, followed by goofy styling with poser unibody chops underneath. But I think that’s too harsh.
The Freelander was actually the first to do a lot of what well-received unibody adventure rigs do today. Everyone and their mother seems to dig the new Ford Bronco Sport, and the motoring press confirms that it’s got decent chops in rougher stuff. The Freelander had the same basic idea as today’s Bronco Sport: offer a smaller, less-expensive, unibody SUV that shares an aesthetic and aura with tougher 4x4s. Like the Bronco Sport, the Freelander sends power to all four wheels from a transverse engine that lacks a traditional transfer case. They both also utilize ABS and traction control, rather than gear ratios and driver technique, to traverse varying grades and surfaces.
But anyway, what’s the deal with the Freelander?
When and Why
Land Rover’s evolution from making agricultural work trucks to daily drivers started with the original Range Rover, but it really started moving on mass-appeal products in the ’80s as it refined the Rangie more and started developing the Discovery. Once the Disco was competing with mainstream SUVs like the Toyota Land Cruiser, Mitsubishi Montero, Isuzu Trooper, and others, small softroaders started getting popular too.
The Toyota RAV4 and Honda CRV became hugely popular very quickly, and the people running Land Rover took notice. Not only did they want to stay relevant, but they also wanted to cash in on the adventurous-young-folk demographic that popped up in the mid-’90s. You know: people who drank Fruitopia, shopped at Eddie Bauer, and head-banged to Smashing Pumpkins at Lolla’. Or Blur at ‘Bury. Middle to higher-income younger people who might not have been able to swing a Discovery or Range Rover (or needed something that size) but still wanted a vehicle that had luxury off-roader cachet.
Land Rover’s Freelander was a hit when it debuted in 1996 as the 1997 model year. It sold in immense numbers throughout Europe during its nine-year-long run and was quickly recognized as very capable for its segment. The little entry-level rig was even the official competition car of the 1998 Camel Trophy and competed in Land Rover’s G4 Challenge. In other words, yes, the Freelander actually did impress people when it was new.
American reviewers found it to be one of the best off-roaders in its segment when it finally got to our shores in 2002, it was even a bit refreshed by then. The ‘Lander wasn’t as capable as its bigger siblings the Disco and Range Rover, but still very good compared to similarly sized Hondas and Toyotas. The Freelander also started at around $26,000 in 2002, which is not too far off from the aforementioned Ford Bronco Sport’s range of $36,000 in 2021 dollars, in the capable Badlands Edition spec.
Alas, Shortcomings Dominated Peoples’ Opinions
Despite its refinement, capability, looks, comfort, and starting price, the Freelander had a few weak spots.
Namely, its 2.5-liter KV6 Rover V6 could be a maintenance nightmare at times. When I brought the Freelander up in a writers’ meeting with my Car Bibles colleagues, Kevin Williams shook his head and gave me the scoop on why they were crap. He’s not wrong: these engines killed head gaskets and catalytic converters, as well as had variable inlet system failures and leaky cooling components.
Freelanders also had drivetrain issues. Over time, the fluid inside the Viscous Coupling Unit (VCU), which connects the rear driveshaft to send power out back, gets thick and degrades, making it harder to engage and spin, putting increased strain on the whole drivetrain. This leads to differentials, as well as the Intermediate Reduction Drive (IRD) (which was how power was sent out to the system, kinda like a transfer case) giving up the ghost.
By sheer complexity, you can see why these units were the source of many peoples’ headaches.
Like All Cars That Are Frowned Upon…
If someone were in the market to find their own cheap U.S.-spec Freelander and see what it does off-road… knowing what the troublesome components are, what to watch out for, and doing proper maintenance would be key to owning one of these without wanting to pull your hair out.
As far as solving the infamous VCU issue, there are ways to drain and refill the fluid to service the unit. Though, after some quick research, it looks like it isn’t the most straightforward or well-documented thing.
When it comes to the other, tea-and-crumpets-spec K-Series engine, the KV6, it seems like doing everything one can to keep the Freelander cool is a good first step to improving their reliability. Also, it sounds like BMW (which owned LR at the time) later revised the intake manifold issues. Then, standard stuff like following the maintenance schedule religiously, doing regular oil changes, and keeping an eye out for leaks seems like a solid strategy.
If you’re aware of more issues to watch out for, feel free to comment below!
Not Much For Aftermarket Support, But It Does Exist
As far as aftermarket modifications go, there isn’t much out there. After some quick research, it looks like lift kits are available, though they’re the spacer kind and not full-blown (er, fully gassed hehe) dampers and springs. Roof rack choices are sparse, as are other crucial overlanding bits.
Though some European retailers do offer skid plates! These would most definitely come in handy for the Freelander, since it can’t be lifted as high as the likes of the Discovery or Defender. It looks like various other slightly-upgraded parts have to be sourced from Europe.
Because the Freelander rides on either 16-inch or 17-inch wheels, good all-terrain tires are plentiful in many sizes.
Heck, Why Not?
If you’re like me, where you’re inclined to seek out and give platforms that are known for unreliability a chance, a Freelander could be a cheap and fun route to take. I bet decently taken care of first-gen examples are indeed pretty cheap, and over a decade after their introduction, they seem kind of cool. They also hold their own with capability, as there are still a lot of people in Europe who regularly take them off-roading. There even used to be (I’m not sure if it still exists) a spec-Freelander racing series in the UK, Freelander Challenge, which consists of stock, first-gen, KV6-equipped Freelanders with some safety equipment bolted in, racing against the clock. A bunch of this series’ coverage is on YouTube.
I don’t know, with the prices of older 4x4s skyrocketing, a Freelander could be a cool choice for an off-beat off-roader. If you’re really brave and ambitious, you could even track down an SE3 three-door with a removable rear roof section… they might be even rarer than NAS Defenders. Of course, you could also find yourself spending more time hunting for obscure parts than driving, and cursing my name for encouraging you to try messing around with one of these. There’s only one way to find out… Don’t look at me though, I’ve still got a bit of wrenching to do on my Disco 1!