Born Free: Freelander 1.8
The original Freelander is proof positive that size isn’t important – it’s how you use it that really matters, says Calum Brown – who spends a lot of his time off-road, whatever the car.
We can picture your face, screwed up in bewilderment, as you open this webpage to find us celebrating the Land Rover Freelander MkI. Cluttering up the roads in vast numbers, the Freelander is hardly what you would call an endangered classic, having blended into the fabric of suburbia so successfully that – just like telephone boxes and lamp posts – chances are you’ve either seen one or been near one every day of your life. You can still see them hard at work on farms, equestrian centres and construction sites, or ferrying children to school and undertaking commuter duties, supporting livelihoods and small businesses and injecting style and functionality into an otherwise dreary and largely pointless soft-roader market.
Yet, despite being Europe’s highest selling SUV for the best part of five years and proving popular in the US, the Freelander 1 is shunned even by those who claim to understand modern classics, and many within Land Rover circles bemoan its lack of ground clearance or a low range gearbox, saying that it’s not a proper 4x4. Those of a Tarmac-only persuasion, meanwhile, find the build quality and 1.8-litre K-series engine less than acceptable.
However, it’s testament to the humble Freelander I that so many have survived often harsh treatment – Jaguar Land Rover has even granted it heritage status. And before you start to wonder whether JLR has gone mad, it’s unquestionably a proper Land Rover, and the last to have been devised under Land Rover’s original parent company, Rover.
Inside, you are greeted by a variety of Rover trim, switchgear and dials, alongside a Tonka Toy-chunky steering wheel. The upright driving position immediately confirms that this is no pretend mud-plugger, offering a commanding driving position when taking on inner-city traffic or twisting country lanes.
Turning the key on Julian Lamb's pre-production petrol example yields a throaty burst of healthy revs and a guttural, animated exhaust note. It’s no performance fireball, but nor is it glacial, easily reaching 60mph from rest in 11 seconds and topping out at over 100mph – impressive for a 4x4 family wagon.
On-road handling can feel a bit rubbery if you push it hard, but the clutch and drivetrain are well-suited to the eager K-series engine. Ride comfort is impressive, though lairy behaviour can result in some lurch, all be it well after the tyres have started screaming for mercy. For an off road vehicle, the Freelander’s tarmac mannerisms are hugely impressive.
However, the Freelander impresses most off the beaten track. Like a mountain goat on steroids, it can crest almost anything you throw at it, scrambling up inclines and wading through water in a manner that shames most larger rivals. The steering – so often slightly ambiguous on the road – relays instant feedback off it to keep grip and momentum going over rough terrain. As a hybrid between a Land Rover and a road car, the Freelander I set the bar for others to better and still strikes that chord perfectly. And what is a classic if not a development trendsetter?
The Freelander I has an authoritative stance on the road – but without the intimidating, spacial-awareness busting size of a Range Rover. That virtue, along with solid feeling controls, mean it ticks all the boxes for daily driving. It provides touches of comfort where bare metal is often exposed in other Land Rovers, although the tough Landy feel remains. The clutch pedal isn’t too heavy, even during repeated use in traffic, the brakes are responsive and there’s enough power from under the bonnet to make urban cut-and-thrust a relaxed affair.
Factor in 30mpg potential and a solid frame should the worst happen, and you’ve got the perfect daily driver.
In The Service Bay
It may be plagued by a reputation for cylinder head gasket failure, but the K-series petrol engine is remarkably flexible and easy to maintain. Other engines are available, including Rover and BMW diesels and a fuel-guzzling V6 petrol, but for the genesis experience, you’ll want the original K-series 1.8. Sorting the head gasket is neither a difficult nor expensive job and replacement eliminates the problem. The engine itself is simple to work on, with plenty of room under the castellated bonnet, while servicing doesn’t require a degree in mechanics. There’s plenty of free advice available for doing it all yourself, too.
On The Show Circut
You’d be surprised at the level of activity surrounding the baby Land Rover. There are several Freelander owners’ groups on social media and there are frequent club meets. Some car snobs may turn their nose up at such a ‘common’ vehicle taking to the show circuit, but Land Rover enthusiasts clubs will welcome you with open arms. The CVC Register already caters for early examples – and, just like all other Freelander associations, it isn’t afraid to get its cars dirty – while the annual Land Rover Owner Show in Peterborough is a Mecca for all Land Rover owners.
The Long Weekend
The Freelander is hugely practical. Boot space is generous and it is aided by a novel sliding rear window, folding rear seats and a hidden compartment in the floor to stow away valuables. The cabin can easily accommodate up to five people and there are all manner of storage areas throughout the interior. Having four-wheel drive also allows you to venture off into the wilderness for camping expeditions, safe in the knowledge that there’s not much the weather can throw at you that the little Freelander can’t handle. Whether taking off for the Alps, Aldi or a local green lane, the Freelander will see you through.
The Freelander does without the low range levers and buttons found in other conventional Land Rovers and relies instead on electronic traction control. It’s astounding what it can achieve – it’s oblivious of mud and can tackle the sort of abuse that would beach a Toyota RAV 4 or Suzuki Vitara. The 1.8 petrol engine has more than enough torque to climb steep inclines, and while there’s less ground clearance, it can keep up with more hardcore off-roaders if you pick your path carefully.
The Hill Decent Control (HDC) system on the Freelander I maintains a steady 4mph down steep slopes without the driver having to brake - a system then pinched for the Freelander's big brothers.
The LRO View
The characterful Freelander I is fast becoming a modern classic, forget what the bandwagon bashers say.
It may have a few foibles, but its on-road manners are cheeky yet refined, while its off -road prowess shames more expensive big name Chelsea tractors. Practical, stylish and endearingly charming whichever engine you choose, a good one will be a companion for life.
Few cars can connect their drivers to a brotherhood, but the Freelander social life is almost as desirable as the car itself.