Buying Guide: Freelander 1

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The benchmark for SUVs – which many manufacturers subsequently copied : credit: © JLR
Cheap but cheeerful: Freelander 1 is your passport to Land Rover ownership on a budget. Here’s how to find one good enough to put a smile on your face…

AT A GLANCE

Versatility: *****
Economy: *****
Depreciation: ****

On-road: ****
Off-road: ***
Towing: ****
Ease of servicing: ****

It seems like yesterday that the original Freelander was launched, but in fact next year it will be celebrating its 25th birthday. The very youngest are now 15 years old, yet the first-generation Freelander doesn’t look at all outdated – especially the facelifted models from 2004 onwards.

Because Freelander 1 is getting long in the tooth, values are low. At the time of its launch this was Land Rover’s most corrosion-proof model, so many have stood the test of time well. The problem vehicles, as always, are those that have been run on a shoestring, where services have been missed and repairs bodged.

Twenty years ago, a new Freelander 1 would have cost you about the same as a new Defender Td5 – just under £20,000. Today, that Freelander in average nick will probably be for sale at £1000 or less, while the Td5 Defender might fetch £8000 or more. That’s because the original Defender is now regarded as a timeless classic, and is very much in demand. Far fewer Defenders were built than Freelanders, which were Europe’s best-selling 4x4 for several years, so there are plenty to choose from. They have not yet achieved classic status, so prices are low. You can get a lot of Freelander for your money. Shop around and you will find some brilliant bargains.

Although an instant hit with the general public, Freelanders didn’t enjoy a warm reception from some enthusiasts, who doubted the Freelander’s off-road credentials. After all, here was a vehicle with independent suspension and no transfer box or diff lock. Respect was a long time coming, and grudging, but eventually Freelander was accepted as a pukka member of the Land Rover family.

G4 special edition is very collectable

Freelander’s image was helped by its starring role in the 1998 Camel Trophy – the last of the legendary events in which Land Rovers participated – and, five years later, in the first G4 Challenge, when the distinctive orange Freelanders famously negotiated an off-road course set up in downtown New York.

The reality is, Freelanders didn’t cross many deserts or blaze trails through impenetrable jungles, but they were hugely-popular as versatile family cars, ferrying kids to school and doing the shopping. They were also perfectly capable of performing light off-roading duties, if you felt so inclined. They were lifestyle vehicles and set the benchmark for SUVs (which many manufacturers subsequently copied).

It is only by luck that Freelander was a Land Rover. The vehicle was conceived in the early 1990s while British Aerospace owned both Land Rover and its parent company, Rover. The project was the brainchild of Rover engineer Dick Elsy, who worked on its development in the old Triumph factory at Canley, near Coventry – hence the vehicle’s project name of CB40 (short for Canley Building 40).

In those early days, the company couldn’t agree whether the new model should be Rover’s first 4x4 or Land Rover’s fourth. But it didn’t matter, because cash-strapped BAE couldn’t afford to put it into production anyway. It wasn’t until wealthy BMW bought the company in 1994 that the top brass in Germany saw the plans, approved them and decided it would be a Land Rover.

Still looking good after 25 years

Launched in 1997, there was a choice of two Rover engines: the 1.8 K-Series petrol or the 2.0 L-Series diesel, both derived from Rover saloons of that era. Both also had manual transmissions, which was going to be a problem in North America, where auto boxes (and more powerful petrol engines) were essential for sales success. Both came after BMW had sold Land Rover to Ford in 2000.

Now there were three engine options: the K-Series 1.8 petrol remained, but the diesel was replaced by BMW’s more refined M47 engine (badged Td4), which offered identical torque (155 lb-ft) but a welcome power boost (up from 97 bhp to 114 bhp).

The third engine was the one that solved the aforementioned American problem - the Rover KV6, which had been designed and developed by Rover at Longbridge to replace the old Honda 2.7 V6 petrol in Rover 800 series saloons, which couldn’t meet new emissions legislation. The 24-valve six-cylinder engine had four belt-driven cams and a lot of power, harnessed by a JATCO five-speed auto ’box with Steptronic manual override. It was a hit in America, but also sold in smaller numbers in the UK.

The 113 mph V6 Freelander achieved 177 bhp @ 6250 rpm and 177 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm. This was a 50 per cent improvement on the four-cylinder petrol engine and, although rare today, is well worth seeking out if you fancy the fun of owning a Land Rover capable of leaving most modern cars for dead at the traffic lights.

2004 Facelift style to match it's LR siblings 

The Freelander 1’s original – and distinctive – 1997 design was Gerry McGovern’s first involvement with Land Rovers and, some would argue, his finest achievement. It was, after all, the best-seller that helped restore Land Rover’s fortunes and gave the company the cash and the confidence to launch a whole raft of new models.

However, McGovern’s design was starting to look a bit dated early in the new millennium, so it got a refresh in 2004 with a new face and headlight configuration that looked good and matched its Discovery and Range Rover siblings. It is sobering to reflect that even as recently as 2004 there were still only four Land Rover models: Range Rover, Defender, Discovery and Freelander. Today there are seven.

Freelander 1 came with the choice of three- and five-door configurations; the former available in Softback, Hardback or Commercial variants. The Softback was a semi-convertible, in that the rear cover was removeable, but it was a right faff to fit and replace, so wasn’t so popular. In fact the five-door station wagon outsold them all in the UK.

Because Freelander was so important to Land Rover, it is only right that collectors are now recognising it as a modern classic. Good ones may well appreciate in future years – and with values currently at rock bottom, depreciation isn’t really an issue anyway.

Unfussy but functional early Freelander interior

OWNING & DRIVING

The Freelander was the most car-like of all Land Rovers at launch – and remained so until the Range Rover family expanded from 2005 onwards with the Sport, Evoque and Velar models. Monocoque body with independent suspension means it’s great for chucking around corners on twisty roads – and the 2003 Sport special edition with ride height lowered 30 mm (and go-faster stripes) is better for this job (although the rare but rapid V6 petrol is, arguably, the best fun of all).

The majority of Freelander owners have never ventured off-road with their vehicles, which is always good news for would-be buyers. If you’re buying a bargain-basement Freelander that has been driven off-road, there’s a fair chance that it has been abused. As values fall, so does caution and the relatively low ride height can result in damage to the underside as well as driveshafts.

Hill Descent Control (HDC) allows safe negotiation of slopes

If you are thinking of driving your Freelander off-road, you’ll be surprised at its ability – especially on terrain without too many deep ruts and projecting rocks. Traction control means it’s great on mud and slippery surfaces like wet grass, making it the ideal greenlane chariot.

The lack of a low box means precision driving at very low speed in off-road situations is difficult and slipping the clutch can, of course, lead to premature clutch failure. Steep downhill descents aren’t a problem, though, as long as your vehicle is fitted with optional Hill Descent Control (HDC).

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WHAT TO LOOK FOR

Oil leaks on older vehicles are common, but not nearly so common as on Defenders of the same age, for example. Four-cylinder K-series 1.8 petrol engine wasn’t noted for its longevity, but properly serviced there’s no reason why it shouldn’t reward you with long service, but listen to it running (it shouldn’t rattle) and check the dipstick for the tell-tale signs of mayonnaise, denoting head gasket failure.

Early L-series diesels were rather lack lustre but solid workhorses. They were replaced in 2002 by the BMW Td4, which is much better. Neither should smoke unduly, although aftermarket tuning tweaks may see the odd puff of black smoke.

The commonest problem with Freelander 1s can be found in the transmission. It was the first Land Rover to get an intermediate reduction drive (IRD), which permanently drives the front wheels, while sending variable amounts of power to the rear wheels via a propshaft-mounted viscous coupling unit (VCU). Inside the VCU is a silicone-based fluid that stiffens when it detects slippage in a wheel. Unfortunately, the fluid thickens with age and, with all first-generation Freelanders now at least 15 years old, that means most VCUs have given up the ghost. Some owners have replaced them, but others have simply removed the rear propshaft and carried on in two-wheel drive – so make sure you check under any potential purchase to find out. If it’s present but on its way out, you should hear a rumbling sound from the front of the rear propshaft.

BUYING AND VALUES

With a model that dates back to 1997 it is no surprise that early examples – that is pre-2004 facelift – are now thin on the ground. It’s a shame, because cars of the 1990s were so much more colourful. Bright reds and blues, as well as a startling light green metallic were all popular choices back in the day. Let’s hope the classic collectors save a few of them, because good ones are getting hard to find.

Facelift interior in 2004 offered better comfort

You’ll have more luck with the facelifted models, which besides being more commonplace don’t look out of place on today’s roads. There are plenty to choose from and, if you budget to spend £2000, you will find some good ones. This sort of money will get you a tidy Td4 with some service history and an intact transmission that hasn’t been bodged to 2WD.

If your budget is tight, you can get a reasonable runner for under £1000, but check the state of the tyres. New tyres cost about £100 a corner, which is a lot of money if you’re only spending £500 on the car.

If the rear propshaft has been removed, budget £300 for a new one. After all, there’s no point in having a Land Rover that’s not four-wheel drive.

Special high-performance versions are exciting off-road

Expect to pay more for special editions, like HSE models with leather seats, Sport models, G4 Challenge editions and, of course, those powerful V6 petrols. Probably the rarest of the lot are the half-dozen V6 Freelanders that were converted to fully rally spec by M Sport to 230bhp roll-caged monsters, raced by drivers like Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz in the World Rally Championship. In the unlikely event of one coming up for sale, it will cost you a five-figure sum.

Finally – and above all else – be prepared to haggle. Remember: there's an abundance of Freelanders for sale and a shortage of buyers.

A word of warning: When inspecting a potential purchase, don’t embarrass yourself by using a magnet to test the wings for the presence of filler. Freelander 1 wings are made of plastic!

SERVICING AND MODS

Open the bonnet of a Freelander and you are greeted by an engine bay with engine surrounded by its associated components, containers, wiring and pipework. It’s reassuringly old-school and comes as a shock to younger drivers of more recent vehicles who are used to seeing nothing more than a vast black cover.

Access to most components is easy and basic servicing is straightforward and can be carried out at home. Likewise most repairs. Service items and repair parts are reasonably priced – and even cheaper if you opt for aftermarket parts from the usual companies.

Modifications are limited to what’s available. There isn’t such a huge choice of custom items as Defenders can enjoy, but there are still plenty of options open for personalisation. We’ve even seen Freelanders covered in chequer plate (which looks a lot better than it sounds).

Several companies now specialise in Freelander bolt-on bits – and it’s well worth joining the clubs and Freelander social media pages to find out more.

SECURITY

Freelanders are cheap to buy and low values mean car thieves aren’t usually interested. The standard immobiliser and alarm that comes with the vehicle is enough for most owners, but if you want to be doubly-certain it won’t get nicked, a sturdy steering lock should be enough to deter any villain. And if you’ve got nice alloy wheels, invest in locking wheel nuts.

QUICK TIPS

• Freelanders have disc brakes on the front, drums at the rear.
• Bushes are trickier to replace than on Defenders but full Polybush sets are available.
• Intercooler hoses deteriorate with age and are prone to collapse. If you suffer a mysterious drop in power, check those hoses.
• Electrics can play up on old cars. Electric windows are particular culprits and knackered motors may need replacing.
• Injectors sometimes fail, as do fuel pumps. Replacements are not prohibitively expensive.
• Many Freelander 1s have been broken for spares and secondhand parts are readily available.

Don't worry if you hear fellow Freelander owners calling them Hippos. It all dates back to a famous Land Rover ad campaign of 2002 that featured a Freelander posing with a herd of hippopotami. And yes, there is a resemblance

FREELANDER 1 TIMELINE

1997: Launched with choice of Rover’s K-series petrol or L-series diesel
2001: Sporty Rover V6 petrol version introduced
2002: Original diesel replaced with BMW Td4
2003: Sport model launched with 18 inch alloys and lower ride height
2004: Facelift
2006: Production ends

STATISTICS

• Length: 4422mm – 4445mm
• Width :1806mm – 1808mm
• Height: 1750mm – 1753mm
• Weight: 1425kg
• Towing capacity: 2000kg

ENGINES
• Petrol
K-Series 4-cyl, 1796cc, 120bhp, 122lb-ft
• Petrol V6 6-cyl, 2497cc, 177bhp, 177lb-ft
• Diesel L-Series 4-cyl, 1998cc, 97bhp, 155lb-ft
• Diesel Td4 4-cyl, 1994cc, 114bhp 155lb-ft

 

See more great Buying Guides here, including Discovery 1, P38 Range Rover and more.