Freelander 1: Is It Really THAT Bad?

You hear a lot of horror stories about the Freelander 1 – repeated head gasket failures; complete drive trains destroyed; engines blown up… – are they really THAT bad?

The first thing to realise is that not all Freelander 1’s are made equal. Within the Freelander 1 range there are four different engines:

– the DI diesel Freelander (produced from 1997 until 2000 with a 2.0 litre Rover L-Series engine);

– the 1.8 petrol Freelander (produced from 1997 until 2006 with a 1.8 litre Rover K-Series engine);

– the TD4 diesel Freelander (produced from 2001 until 2006 with a 2.0 litre BMW M47 engine);

– the V6 petrol Freelander (produced from 2001 until 2006 with a 2.5 litre Rover KV6 engine).

The drive train for all Freelander 1’s is based on an IRD unit at the front (the equivalent of a transfer box); a viscous coupling unit in the centre of the prop shaft and a rear differential, quite clearly at the rear. Apart from some minor differences, particularly with the V6 Freelander, this drive train is the same across the range of Freelander 1’s.

So what is it that causes so many problems with the Freelander 1’s? What is it everybody seems to be complaining about?

The common faults with the Freelander 1’s can be split into three categories:

– Drive train issues;

– Engine issues;

– Electrical issues.

The Freelander 1 is a brilliant 4×4, extremely capable off road – it will give any Defender a run for it’s money – with the massive benefit of being an incredibly comfortable vehicle; no bouncing up and down hitting your head on the roof in these! However, some owners experience massive failure of the drive train, followed by an equally massive hit to the bank account to put it right. Complete destruction of the IRD and / or the rear differential. Why? Is this a fault of the Freelander 1? No. There is absolutely no problem with the Freelander 1 drive train design; nor is there a weakness in the system which causes it to fail. All of these drive train issues are caused by a failure in communication. Yes, you read correctly, a failure in communication.

There are two common causes of the unfortunately all too common drive train issues. The first is the viscous coupling unit (VCU). This innocent looking unit actually has a life span, in our experience it is approximately 70,000 miles. Because it is a sealed unit it is very difficult to test if the VCU is due to be changed and the most reliable way of protecting your drive train is to bite the bullet and change it every 70,000 miles, just as you would a timing belt. The communication problem is that it has never been included in a service schedule, as the timing belt is, and hence many owners are not aware it needs to be changed. The result? It tightens up, puts strain on the drive train and destroys, generally the IRD unit. If this change was on a service schedule the Freelander itself would not be criticized for the resulting failures.

The second drive train issue is caused by mismatched tyres. There is only a 5mm tolerance in the rolling radius of the tyres and if mismatched tyres are driven on this can destroy the rear differential in as little as 5 miles. Although the Freelander hand book does specify that all four tyres should always be replaced together, unfortunately many tyre fitters are happy to replace just two at a time – even just one if you insist! Again not the fault of the Freelander, we need those that serve us to understand the catastrophic effect of creating a mismatch by only replacing one or two tyres.

So far our Freelander is innocent. The drive train problems are caused by a lack of communication.

So now we come to the engine problems. There are four different engines, so here you have to judge each Freelander individually.

The DI diesel Freelander, with its old style diesel engine and minimal sensors, is an absolute workhorse. If this was the only engine in the Freelander range we would be out of business! No common faults here. This Freelander is definitely innocent of all charges so far.

Now we get to the 1.8 petrol Freelander. Unfortunately we do believe this is the Freelander which caused all Freelander’s to be charged with being “THAT” bad! But is it really the fault of the Freelander? The Rover 1.8 K-series engine is a magnificent piece of engineering, used extensively in racing for its incredible lightness. It did, however, have an initial design fault. The cylinder head gasket was just too flimsy for the Freelander and the use of plastic dowels did not help. This has caused pretty much every 1.8 Freelander to blow the head gasket, usually by 70,000 miles. But a solution was soon found in the form of a modified multi layer steel head gasket with steel dowels; with this fitted properly all the problems go away. So why do some owners experience multiple head gasket failures? One reason is some garages have fitted another SINGLE layer head gasket when they have done the replacement – bound to blow again! The other reason is, once a head gasket has blown there are many parts of the system which can be affected, even more so if sealing liquids have been added to the coolant (the Freelander’s hate these sealing liquids); and if all these affected areas are not addressed and rectified then further problems with the cooling system can occur, which can ultimately lead to another head gasket failure. Just putting in a new head gasket is not a total fix once a head gasket has failed. In addition using blue or green coolant, rather than red, can erode the head gasket hence causing head gasket failure. The 1.8 Freelander is guilty as charged as it does have an inherent issue at manufacture; however repeated failures are not the fault of the Freelander.

The TD4 diesel Freelander is probably the most popular of the range. This is a much more complex engine than the L-series diesel, and hence, as with any modern vehicle, does tend to have a few more issues – many of which are caused by sensors! The low pressure fuel pump has a shorter life span than would be ideal, however we would generally say there is only one major problem these engines have, which is over and above what you would expect to see from any other engine, this is the problem of the engine being suffocated and eventually being completely destroyed. What causes this? It is caused by the failure to replace the crankcase breather filter when the Freelander is serviced. Now this breather filter is on the service schedule, so we cannot blame communication this time. We generally only see this problem when the Freelander has been serviced by a generalist garage. It is evident that some generalist garages do not realise this filter exists (it is tucked away at the rear of the engine) and fail to change it. Once again, the TD4 Freelander is innocent of all charges so far.

The final Freelander up on charge is the V6 petrol Freelander. This is the one with the power. A beast of an engine which really does need a specialist and specialist tooling to fix it. This one will put a smile on your face as you drive down the road, but will it get you where you want to go? As the name implies the V6 Freelander has a six cylinder V engine. The main issue with these engines is that the thermostat is in the centre of the V – where all the heat is – and is encased in a plastic housing. This means it can be prone to leaking. In itself, changing a thermostat is not such a big deal, however, if the owner does not notice the loss of coolant this can result in head gasket failure, which on this engine is a big job. So is the Freelander V6 guilty as charged? If you check your coolant level regularly it would not be a big deal, but we admit there is an inherent issue there.

On to the final category of common faults, the electrics. In this category are the sunroof, the electric windows and the central locking doors.

The sunroof does cause a problem on the Freelander with many owners finding closing it up, taking the fuse out and pretending they never had one being a lot less stressful. The problem, however, is caused by our winters and some servicing. If the sunroof is not greased at the services and is not opened and closed regularly, the result is that it rusts and seizes. Our beloved Freelander is innocent.

Sorry Freelander, we love you to bits, but when it comes to windows and doors you are GUILTY. Be prepared for the wires to snap on the window mechanisms hopefully leaving your window up rather than down. Be ready for one or more doors to refuse to unlock / lock when you press the central locking buttons and if you have never had any of these problems you are blessed.

Before delivering your sentence on the Freelander 1 remember that all vehicles have their foibles; you are never fully aware of them until you research or own one. In addition, if you read all the forums do remember people generally go to a forum because they have a problem, you will not find many owners without problems posting there. There are forums for every vehicle, all full of owners with problems.