Bangernomics: Freelander V6 – bargain or money pit?

Don’t dismiss the ‘baby’ Land Rover V6 as a marque imposter; it can do almost anything it bigger brothers can – and at a fraction of the price

Over the years I’ve owned and experienced a fair number of 4x4s – including the AutoClassics Range Rover P38 now owned by staff writer Calum Brown. Several such models are currently viewed by society as either outdated or bland, but while some were good and some were rather lacking, all were undoubtedly solid fun.

My first Freelander was a quick purchase to replace a broken car. It had to be located close to me, and I fancied a 4x4. I wanted a diesel, too, but all that was nearby in my poverty-spec price range was a 2.5 petrol model.

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It was really nice to drive, and so my wife Suzanne and I bought it on the spot. She wasn’t quite so keen once she’d broken her little toe on the lip in the driver’s door, and it was only after the deal was done that I remembered to think about fuel economy…gulp...

In fact, I was working close to home at the time, so the mpg wasn’t too bad for a daily driver – and the Freelander was rather nippy, too. I loved its ability to overtake other traffic with ease, and enjoyed seeing the surprised look on drivers’ faces as a Land Rover shot by.

The car was very capable off-road, although the exhaust would clang on rocks when I occasionally turned my hand to local greenlaning, a pastime to which the Landie made a great introduction. Later, when the weather turned bad, it was utterly dependable in the floods and snow.

Then my work moved to Cambridge, 50-odd miles away from home, and the fuel consumption became crippling. I was managing about 150 miles on a 50-litre tank. That’s fewer than 15 miles to a gallon, and over two tankfuls a week.

Still, I loved driving that car. It was a very comfortable place to be when stuck in the daily traffic queue to reach the Cambridge Park ’n’ Ride, and made for a welcome warm bolthole after suffering for 45 minutes in an unheated bus at minus 5 degrees centigrade. The heated seats were bliss.

Later, when floods blocked the main routes, the Land Rover waded through back-road torrents with ease where other cars turned around – even if the underboot storage box did fill with water.

But – and it’s a big but – the Freelander suffered from the K-series petrol engine’s Achilles’ heel. One day I opened the bonnet after a week of driving, and found the cooling header tank was empty. The head gasket had gone kaput.

I’d had my doubts a few weeks after buying the car. The clear coolant had turned a dull mud colour, and I suspected that someone had previously bodged a water leak with sealant and then replaced the coolant with clear stuff. The engine’s life was numbered before I bought it.

The problem with the V6 is that although it was the motor the Freelander was originally designed for, it only just fits in the engine bay, making working on it difficult but not impossible. In comparison, the 1.8-litre is so small you could hide a body under the bonnet. It’s a lovely and capable unit – if the head gasket has been replaced properly.

Anyway I digress. My V6 managed to struggle on for a few weeks till I eventually got rid of the car at an auction. The stress of it all put me right off Freelanders, and I said I’d never get another.

Uh-oh...

Roll forward seven years, and we had to replace a Vauxhall Meriva that had developed a nasty fault. Several times a day the electronic power steering would just cut out, and the car would become harder to steer than a Lada Riva. I didn’t want to sell it and lumber someone else with such a dangerous vehicle, so I scrapped it.

My daughter was coming up to 17, so I needed another manual car for her to practice in. Idly flicking through the usual sites, I went onto eBay for a bit of a break and had a look at Freelanders. I came across a really old 1.8 with no bids, for a very reasonable price. It’d already had the head gasket upgraded and the timing belt replaced, which was a definite plus.

It looked OK in the pictures and was even in the next town so, uncharacteristically, I bid on it. The auction ended the next day and, blimey, I won it! Next problem; how to explain it to my wife….

We went to pick it up sight unseen at the weekend, and I have to say I was a little nervous. Those repeated promises to Suzanne that it would all be fine were haunting me. It was parked on the seller’s drive and looked a little worse for wear, but at least nothing looked broken. Twenty minutes later I was driving it home, with Suzanne following behind as back up for when it broke down. It didn’t – and, surprisingly for Land Rover’s reputation and the age of the vehicle, it never has.

The only real problems I’ve had in 18 months have been needing to change the two bearings either side of the viscous clutch, water getting into the oil-pressure light switch after driving through a lake and the back door window requiring adjusting. Oh, and the standard fish tank of water in that funny storage box in the boot floor.

Apart from that the Freelander’s been a perfectly dependable car, and has driven out to rescue the rest of the family fleet a number of times. In fact, it’s probably the most reliable motor I’ve ever owned. After I’d cleaned it up it proved quite a nice example of the early Freelander, and apart from some gaps the paintwork looks like it could have been done last week.

There are no obvious marks to show it followed the Defenders and Series Landies around the Billing show off-road course a few weeks after I bought it. The only real issue was the ground clearance through years of ruts dug by hefty 4x4s. There was a lot of banging from underneath, and by the end of the course the oil light was stuck on. I honestly thought I had ruined the car.

As it turned out, it was fine despite having followed the bigger 4x4s everywhere they went. The issue was merely down to a bit of water shorting the oil-pressure sensor. A quick spray of WD40 sorted that. A two-inch lift and a metal engine under-tray upgrade would have prevented it from grounding anywhere on the course.

I may look at doing such modifications in the future, but for now I like the Freelander as a very original example of a very capable vehicle. So much so, I entered it into a competition for the most original Land Rover during Bicester Heritage's Land Rover Legends. I didn’t expect to win – and, no, it didn’t, but it did make the final. It was a lovely weekend event, spent among all sorts of Land Rovers and like-minded folk, including a certain Mr. Brown of this very parish. A very friendly bunch.

Many people laugh at the Freelander, saying it’s not a proper Land Rover because it can’t do the things their Defender or Disco can. But while it can sometimes struggle on the rutted routes left by ‘proper’ 4x4s, I disagree with their overall dismissal of this great model.

The Freelander came along when Land Rover needed a popular car. The company was in trouble, and the Freelander 1 was that vehicle, becoming the top-selling SUV for a number of years after launch. Without it, there may be no Land Rovers at all made now.

While the Freelander may not be a go-anywhere 4x4, it is a go-most-places 4x4 that remains a comfortable place for non-hardcore drivers to be. It seriously deserves its place within the Land Rover fold.

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