’03 Land Rover Freelander: Land Rover or Not?

The Freelander:
Land Rover or not?

Pictures: Alex Leeks

Big, boxy and tough. A classic Range Rover

Close your eyes. In your head, imagine what a Land Rover looks like. Seeing it? Straight lines, body on frame, enough ground clearance for you to walk under and styling that resembles a brick. A very square brick. Here’s a 1994 Range Rover. It is a classic Land Rover design. Observe the strong character lines, almost muscle car – or perhaps ship – like. This is what should come to mind when someone thinks of an SUV, or a Land Rover. Keep that in mind.

Yes, this is an actual Land Rover product.

This is the Freelander

Its ground clearance is slightly higher than your average hatchback, the plastic bumpers and trim is all that says “rugged” and it’s more reminiscent of a soap bar than a brick. But don’t let that make you think that it isn’t a proper Land Rover.

The Freelander 1, internally known as CB40 when the project started in 1994, was launched in 1997. The Freelander was an entirely new type of SUV by the company, with a transverse mounted engine, a first for Land Rover, a monocoque construction, another first for Land Rover and no low range gearbox, yet another first. Basically the Freelander was not a traditional 4×4, it was a lifestyle SUV. Less farmers with sheeps, more young people with 90’s haircuts and mountain bikes. Imagine what that must have looked like, back when everything Land Rover was big, boxy and tractor like, a car that was more coupe than tank.

Under the castellated clamshell bonnet, a Land Rover hallmark, you could find several choices for engines. For those who demand power, with a capital P, the Rover KV6 engine will be suitable for your horsepower needs, with 176 of them on demand.

For those who want frugal fuel consumption, two Diesel engines were available;

The rover L-series and BMW M47 Diesel units weren’t the most powerful, but did deliver torque and fuel efficiency.

But the most balanced engine, for power and fuel economy, as well as delivering the most fun, is the mighty Rover K-series 1.8 four cylinder. 30mpgs and a useful 117 horsepower, perfect for the Freelander’s lighter frame.

So, you may ask, what is it like to drive?


To sum it up in one word: sportyish. I know that isn’t a real word, but it covers it quite well.

The Freelander (a 1.8 k-series manual 3-door in this review) has very direct steering for an SUV of its age, with good feedback on what the front wheels are doing. The viscous coupling unit normally divides power 70/30 (front/back), but when flooring it, divides power fifty-fifty, so the rear stays in line when cornering. The suspension soaks up potholes and bumps with ease, and the car seems to always find grip.

The 1.8 under the bonnet is very capable for its size, considering that the Freelander is by far the heaviest car to use the engine. Third gear pulls are satisfying to execute, with the four cylinder engine growling away.

The gearbox is very Honda like, very direct and with gears that are easy to find.

Whilst the Freelander isn’t exactly a sports car, it can still be used in a sporty way. Thanks to the previously mentioned suspension, steering and all wheel drive, the Freelander can still be used to enjoy a good driving road. Potholes and crap road conditions aren’t a problem, neither is snow. Confidence is something the Freelander helps grow, as few on road obstacles, such as a ford or some other unknown, are overcome, thanks in part to off-road capabilities and toughness that the car hides well, beneath the soft looking plastic and gentle corners of its bodywork, genuine toughness, that bestows the diver with the confidence to tackle the unknown, almost like having a friend at all times saying ‘yes, we can do that’.

On the downsides, the Freelander definitely lacks some its fellow Land Rovers off-road ability. The ground clearance, whilst definitely better than many soft roaders and crossovers today, doesn’t come close to the clearance of a proper full sized off-roader.

Another rather annoying issue is the turning circle. It’s terrible. How can a Range Rover have a seemingly smaller turning circle when it’s got a longer wheelbase? Town driving becomes, in tight Victorian roads and multi-storey car parks, a slight nightmare.

You will struggle to reverse park the first time and bay parking in a narrow spot is hardly a fun time. This is also an issue off-road, where you’ll have to do a two or three point turn to squeeze into a gap between hedges or trees.

The Freelander’s correct engine, the mighty K-series 1.8 litre 4 cylinder

The Design

Marmite. I personally like it quite a lot, on toast with definitely way too much butter, but I digress. The Freelanders design is vehicular marmite to an extent, crossed with butter. You either notice the Freelander, like it or loath it, or it simply doesn’t register.

It’s a strange car in that way. I’ll reveal something about myself now, no, not something deep and dark and personal, but something that has changed as a I grew up. I used to not like the Freelander at all for its looks. Yup, consider now that the Freelander is one of the few cars I will defend with all my strength, was once a car I didn’t like. The Freelander is definitely a weird design today, with its lack of LED headlights, simplistic design that doesn’t have that many sharp rakes in its sides to look “sporty” or “fast”. The front, predominantly a single piece of plastic on the 1997-2003 ones, has a small amount of grills that all seem to do something. The rear mounted spare wheel does come across as vehicular shorthand for off-roader, but it works, recalling the rear mounted spares on the Discovery and Defender.

With the roof off, the profile of the car becomes stranger still. The design works, yes, but stumpy somewhat.

To summarise the design, I’d say it’s both stylish and utilitarian, using what styling it has in an effective manner, without having to add unnecessary details that simply add complications to what is already there.

For an example of this, have a look at everything Lexus has made since 2007.

Overly complicated designs for reasons that don’t seem to make much sense at all. Recently, I spoke to someone who worked at Lexus and asked them why? Why is the design so needlessly messy and complicated. They said, in many long words, that basically they want to stand out.

The Freelander just is, maybe doesn’t grab your attention like a Lexus does now, by attacking your eyes with over designed knives, but can be appreciated for doing so.

A truely Roofless car. Get it? Roof-less? Okay I’ll stop with the puns…

The interior follows the same utilitarian theme, with exposed paint work on the doors and B-pillars. The dashboard and centre console are a work of ergonomic art.

All the controls are in a line, from the digital clock in the middle of the dashboard to the window controls mounted behind the handbrake on a middle unit that has good storage inside for charging wires and chewing gum. This is how a interior should work.

My left hand is in charge of changing gear, music, heating/cooling, where said heat/cold should go and what the windows are doing. My right hand stays on the wheel at all times.

Hey, modern Land Rover. You know where window controls should be? On the centre console, just behind to handbrake, NOT ON THE WINDOW SILL WHERE RAIN AND CRAP GETS ALL OVER THE DELICATE ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS AND WHERE I HAVE TO TAKE MY DOMINANT HAND OFF THE WHEEL. That is bad design, especially when it means that the window controls are the same in every market, which would make things cheaper and better.

Another strange feature is the seats. They are some of the most comfortable seats I have ever planted my arrière upon, with excellent padding that keeps you in place, without feeling firm. Drive for two hundred miles, feel like youve driven ten. On the downsides, the heater isn’t the best in the universe. Defrosting the window is painfully slow. As with other cars of it age, some rubber coated knobs and switches have deteriorated into a sticky mess.

Features and Offroading

With minimal disassembly, a honda bike will easily and safely be stored on board.

I have yet to find an object or cargo that the freelander cannot carry. With the simple unclipping of some roof clips, the boot area is suddenly a pickup bed.

As you can see, the boot can hold a honda bike with ease. It can carry many bags of cement, or a labrador or two.

A rally prepped Freelander van

As for offroading, you will have to conceed that it is lacking in the ground clearance department. Lift kits are avalible, they are not nessary. With the correct tyres and technique, the Freelander can, most of the time, go where ever you want it to go. Stick the car into hill decent mode and the car will maintain a steady speed up and down hills. It is the progentitor of the offroad assist systems that are in every Land Rover today, allowing for steady offroad progress.

However, if you want to drive it like Colin McRae, go ahead. Its suspension can take a suprising amount of punishment. On the subject of rallying, people do rally and race these compact SUVs.

Almost stock as well, bar a stripped down interior and rollcage.


Mine, in wales, in the rain.

It isn’t the best SUV in the world, let alone the best Land Rover, however it is one of the best compact SUVs ever made, with handling, comfort, capabilities and for a cheap price. It is, in my completely unbiased opinion, one of the best sub £1000 cars money can buy.

If you are in the market for a compact SUV, its ether this or the Rav-4 in contention, ignoring the fact (if you want to risk it) you could probably buy a more capable 4X4 for under £1000, like a Discovery, P38 Range Rover or a Shogun.

The Freelander is far better onroad than them, seats less but is less heavy on the wallet if looked after. Make sure that the K-series ones have had their engine head gasket done, avoid the KV6 (too complicated for the power, only avalible in automatic) and above all, make sure it hasn’t been converted to front wheel drive.

Except from that, you should have fun with one. Enjoy it, its a good first SUV, like I have had with mine, 146,000 miles on the K-series with no problems in the three years I’ve owned it, and I plan on many more happy miles with it.

Possibly the nicest angle of the car. Observe how the lines of the car are simply and easy to follow.

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