In 2013, Mike Humble opened his own personal floodgates on a subject that continues to irritate him to this day – his experience of owning a Land Rover Freelander. The car should have been great, and it was brilliant in theory, but in actuality, it was spoilt by shoddy build quality and poor engineering. Try not to weep as you read this…
Part of me feels guilty for writing this article on the Freelander, Land Rover’s baby 4×4. This is, after all, a site in which we cherish our fading British car companies and celebrate some of the great names that once pounded the highways and by-ways of England.
But, there again, we all differ in opinion and, whereas some consider the Allegro to be a disgusting swine of a car that reflects everything that was wrong with BLMC during the 1970s, others consider it to be a sweet little tool which today brings a smile to the face upon spotting such whining along the road.
Following the launch of the Range Rover in 1970, it seemed Land Rover could not put a foot (or rib and lug tyre) wrong with such models including the V8-powered station Wagon or Discovery coming on line. I will confess to owning a 2001 TD5 Discovery 2 which looked stunning in Java Black, falling head over heels with the Disco – a model which perfectly complimented the range. A car that was able like a Defender (tyre equipment permitting) yet offering creature comforts of a luxury saloon at a fraction of the cost of a Range Rover – the Discovery, and rightly so, deserved its success and continues to do so.
After much fuss and hubbub, the Freelander was revealed to the public in a blaze of glory in 1998. It was a British-built and designed mini 4×4 aimed mainly at the leisure market with pretty styling. Permanent all-wheel drive and a model to suit all pockets and seemingly showcased the abilities of the Rover Group – it was bound to be a hit and it was. Brand-conscious buyers almost fell over each other to get behind the wheel of this award-winning car and features such as the hill decent control (HDC) were revolutionary, as well as brilliant to use.
Powered by K-, KV6- and L-Series engines, it was a pure British design which looked cute, able and stylish. So where did it all go wrong? I shall explain: following the historic events of 2000 when BMW sold off Land Rover to Ford, in my opinion, quality took a dramatic nosedive. Tales of the 1.8 K-Series engine exploding like a firework had become legendary; and the punchy 2.5-litre KV6 drank fuel like it was going out of fashion. But none of these faults seemed to have any impact on sales. For me, it was the disgraceful drop in build standards that shocked me like no other car once Land Rover became part of Ford.
Our Disco TD5 was part-exchanged for a 2005 Freelander HSE which looked stunning in its shade of Alveston Red. Starfish alloys, a smart black leather interior and Becker sat-nav with Harmon-Kardon audio gave it all the eye candy it needed for us to fall hook line and sinker. I never wanted to get rid of the Disco – it was manly, imposing and slightly intimidating in stance but, on the flip side, was a sod to park, took half a day to clean and was cumbersome to pilot in heavy, congested traffic. We did the deal on the Freelander and a cracking deal we gained, but it marked a time where my patience (of which I am far from being blessed with) was tested to the limit.
Soon after taking delivery, the intercooler pipe split, covering everything in the engine bay in a fine oily mist, the indicator/side lamp lenses constantly filled with water, the handbrake was awful and stiff in action, requiring two hands to hold the damn car on a severe gradient. The gearchange was akin to an LDV van and, staying on the subject of gears, the lovely stitched-leather knob was ruined with the nastiest vinyl gaiter I have ever seen this side of an FSO. The neat, dual-action tailgate window leaked water when washed, the centre console creaked like an old barn door if you glanced it with your knee and the plastics of the console and upper dash felt horrid to the touch and very sub-standard.
Around two months later, the intercooler pipe split once again and back to the dealer she went to be repaired. I spoke to the Service Deptartment and played merry hell to be told that a suitable modification would be applied. After picking the car up, they had simply stuck a foam pad where the intercooler pipe rubbed against the head of a locating screw on the inlet manifold.
After a few weeks, the aforementioned foam pad fell off and I applied my own mod by means of removing the screw and using a cable tie which gave the 10mm clearance needed for the pipe not to touch – job done. Other faults included a heater cable which came adrift once the warranty expired requiring a monumental number of screws, clips and fastenings to be undone along with a healthy appetite for sidelight bulbs.
Not entirely the car’s fault, but the dealer could have tried harder, too. I remember ‘er indoors calling me at work on the morning she dropped off the Disco and collected the Freelander almost in tears. It transpired something had gone wrong behind the scenes and the salesman we dealt with was not present to do the handover.
So my missus went through the handover process with the Business Manager in seemingly breakneck speed and was, literally, thrown the keys to the new car. No ‘ask me and I’ll explain’, no form of demonstration of features and barely a thank you for our repeat business. So overall, our Freelander was spoilt by either shabby build quality or shabby customer service – though the salesman did get in touch to apologise after I went wild.
On the plus side, the ride and handling was nothing short of superb, the BMW-sourced M47-Series diesel effortlessly cruised at motorway speeds, fuel consumption seemed reasonable too, even if lacking in bottom end grunt. The car was practical, good looking and spacious.
What made me angry was the plethora of squeaks, rattles, the downright penny pinching feel to the otherwise good-looking interior and that horrible loose-feeling gearshift quality. The build quality of the post-2003, facelifted Freelander felt comparable to a Lada Niva, but when the Lada costs the equivalent of a packet of sweets, you can forgive the Niva for feeling a little bit gimcrack. With the Freelander, it’s a different matter – Land Rover’s meant to be a premium brand, something to aspire to if you like.
Tales of woe included dud viscous couplings in the propshaft and IRD (intermediate reduction drive) units attached to the gearbox that were as hard wearing as custard shoes. It’s such a problematic item that you can buy a kit to bypass and turn your car into front two-wheel drive!
Occasional minor worries such as rampant corrosion in the chassis members, faulty window regulator cables and snapping tailgate door handles and hill descent control devices that fail without warning all add to some of the misery that Landie owners have to endure. Add on crippling repair costs from some main dealers, who seem unable to offer value for money or aftermarket care, and the end experience is very sad. Quite why the original Freelander remained so popular and still does on the used circuits continues to baffle as well as amaze me.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, it’s a pretty looking thing, had bags of standard kit in the right spec including a basic, but not too bad, sat-nav and the seats are comfy. The ride comfort around town or at speed seems to be placid, the headlights are powerful and the heater (once the engine is warmed if diesel) keeps you toasty warm or ice cold thanks to an excellent air con unit.
There is plenty of oddment storage, the off-road capability (tyre equipment permitting) makes for some good fun and its chassis and external structure feels strong and rugged – as you would expect of the Land Rover brand. It just seems like a raft of cost-cutting, ripped out any real feeling of quality – and I find this both unacceptable and saddening for what is, in effect, the world’s most famous 4×4 brand.
So, would I entertain another Freelander? Well, I can admit by experience that the Freelander 2 and 3 are finely-crafted cars that befit the marque’s prestige image, while the current Discovery and Range Rover – regardless of the fact they attract the rich and famous rather than the rural or farmer seldom see a 45-degree mud bank – are equally nonetheless untouched for ability and appeal.
But the original Freelander post-2003? No, ta! That model is a prime example of how to ruin a good car by swapping the micrometers and set squares for an abacus. Crappy dealers also come in for some stick too, seemingly more interested in selling a fashion statement rather than a far-reaching brand of vehicle for those unreachable parts of the world.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.