The relationship between Rover and Land Rover was always a funny one. So much time and money was expended on keeping the troubled mass market car maker off the critical list, while the company’s specialist off-road division sailed on happily with scant investment, raking in vast profits which kept the rest of the show on the road.
From the seventies to the nineties for example, there was hardly any product development work done at Land Rover, yet the cars just sold and sold. 1970’s Range Rover was the masterstroke that underwrote LR’s success, a car that the landed gentry just couldn’t get enough of. But finally, by the mid eighties, Land Rover was beginning to twig that they could do better – and the Discovery programme was started. Trouble was, the Disco was effectively a low rent Range Rover, sharing so much under the skin that it was a Range by any other name. That meant it was still heavy, complex and expensive to make for the mass market. A real baby Land Rover was needed…
After years of separation, when British Aerospace bought Rover Group in 1988, Rover and Land Rover effectively became one and the same. So it’s no surprise that the Freelander used large amounts of Rover parts to cut costs. Initially (cringingly) codenamed ‘Lifestyle’, it was originally designed to take Rover’s 2.0 litre ‘O series’ engine, allied to the PG1 gearbox. Radically (for a Landie) it would have a monocoque chassis, which suited mass production far better, and this would come in three door and five door forms, each aimed at a distinctly different niche.
After years of thrashing the concept out, and the ownership of Rover Group changing to BMW, the CB40 (Canley Building 40) as it was originally known, took shape. Hot shot young designer Gerry McGovern, having just completed the shapely MGF, was given responsibility for the styling, and development continued apace. With a Range Rover-style clamshell bonnet and Disco-shaped rear roof elevation on the 5-door, it was distinctly Land Rover – but added a dash of Tonka Toy and Jeep too. Slightly rounded – as befitted the nineties aesthetic – and devoid of fripperies, the result was distinctive and functional.
Mechanically, the all alloy MGF 1.8 litre petrol engine was chosen, along with Rover’s decent L-Series diesel, already found in the 620. The viscous coupled four wheel drive sent most of the power to the front wheels, except when the rear needed it – this system was cheaper and lighter than the 4WD implementation in bigger Land Rovers, yet worked surprisingly well.
The car was a hit with press and buyers alike, and sold in large numbers, gaining a slightly higher spec and the option of Rover’s KV6 2.5 litre engine in 2001. A new BMW diesel, seen in the Rover 75, replaced the L-series oil burner, too. The 1.8 was underpowered but light, the diesels slow but decently cheap to run, and the 2.5 V6 – with its partnering autobox – was swift, smooth but seriously thirsty, gulping only slightly less petrol than a 4.0 manual Discovery!
On road the Freelander’s ride was better than all its small SUV rivals, being sumptuous and smooth but nicely controllable, if you could live with the body roll. Off road, and in snow or ice, it was surprisingly capable – traction control, anti-lock brakes and hill descent control making the car surprisingly easy to drive in bad conditions, and not much less effective than the Discovery, either.
All good then, except the car’s reliability. The 1.8 K-series engine didn’t lose its appetite for head gaskets in the Freelander, and the viscous coupling isn’t very robust with any of the engine options. Factor in electrical niggles, automatic transmission bugs and poor trim quality, and the first generation Freelander proved far less robust than larger Land Rovers, and all its price rivals. Once again, it’s such a shame as the car was better so much looking, smoother riding, better off road and more comfortable than all of them. These days, series one Freelanders are ten a penny, but most are at the end of their natural lives. Find a good one that’s been carefully maintained however, and it’s still a great little four by four to drive. It’s also got something that so few of its rivals, and even its successor, possesses – personality.