Monday, 3 October 2011

Driven #42:- Land Rover Freelander V6 ('05)

At a funeral, the grieving assembled tend to speak fondly of their dearly departed. Chances are, Great Uncle Derek had a few skeletons in his closet, but it really wouldn't be the right time to let them out. When somebody, or something has passed on, it's churlish to be too analytical, to get too hung up on the things they “could have done better,”

I appeal to you, then, to read the following as a description not a review. I mean, let's get this clear, we all know that the first Land Rover Freelander which admittedly died years ago, was never a particularly good car, just as Great Uncle Derek was probably not that great an Uncle. But we all have to start somewhere.

From the moment this particular machine came in as a part-exchange this week, all I wanted to do was to satisfy my curiosity. Some months ago, well, a year actually, I drove the current generation Freelander, in TD4 configuration, and found it a very pleasant if starkly equipped machine. That car was the direct replacement for this one, the original shape baby Landie of '97 launch.

When the Freelander first arrived on the market, it was to some fanfare and ceremony. Land Rover had been short of a combatant in the Rav-4, Vitara battlefield for far too long, and this was their answer. It's a shame, really, that the early plaudits thinned out and the reputation went a little awry, before seemingly falling from grace as if gravity-assisted.

The previous owners of this one have obviously mollycoddled the thing in any way possible. For a start, as an '05 car, it only has 23409 miles on the clock and there are driveways in Surrey which are longer than that. No wonder it's in such absurd condition; it's never actually been anywhere.

The cleanliness continues to the interior, where there simply isn't anything out of place anywhere. No dirt, no scuffs, just uniform, military freshness. And check out the spec, too! This is an HSE, right at the top of the Freelander tree, with Becker navigation, Hard-On Kardon sound, electric folding mirrors, spangly alloy wheels, all that good stuff.

But the badge on the back alludes to the real reason I wanted to drive this car. “Freelander V6”. This means, ladies and gentlemen, that under the bonnet lies a specimen of an engine I know only too well. Yes, the Rover KV6, as seen on the Official Vehicle of Roadwork.

Ah, the KV6. Four camshafts and two and a half litres of head-gasket seeping loveliness and bewildering drivebelt complexity. But also extraordinary lightness, compactness and power-to-weight. 175hp, too. I love it in my car; I feel like I have to nurture it a bit, but it makes a lovely noise (quoth wikipedia “...One of the most immediately noticeable features of the first V form engine to be designed by Rover for decades is its distinctive, quietly growling engine note.”) and rewards my enthusiasm with surprising economy and uncanny refinement.

So what would it be like to sample in an off-roader? Well, the noise is still there. The starter motor sounds different, somehow cheaper and louder than in my car. But start it up and slide the automatic selector into neutral and revving produces the same distant murmur that I'm so familiar with.

And then, with the box in drive, toe the throttle and prepare for, er, indifference. I've no recollection of how these were seen in the reviews of their time, but after a period behind the wheel that you could measure in nanosecond, I had already established that the KV6 wasn't a good choice for this car. And especially not with this gearbox. And there are a number of reasons why, each of which are entwined with each other.

Lets tackle the gearbox first. Very soon I appreciated how lucky I am that my KV6 is linked to a manual transmission, even if it is a slightly bureaucratic one which demands advance notice if I want to apply for access to second or fifth gears; my synchromesh is not as strong as once it was. The automatic gearbox here employed has a go at being sophisticated, with a manual “tiptronic” mode, but it's still just a traditional slushbox and none-too sensitive to the whims of your right foot.

I can now reveal that I've never driven a Rover 800 with an automatic gear box, but what I do know is that the KV6 chats with the Jatco automatic all the time, and agrees to reduce the torque output for every up-change to produce a smoother shift, and it probably works quite well. I don't know if the engine in the Freelander has the same communication with the gearbox, but the shift is creditably smooth anyway.

The problems only really start when you try to drive the car in a spirited manner. Put it this way; when I drive my Rover, with its manual gearbox, I can choose the gears sensibly and match revs to road speed accurately and appropriately. So, why can't the automatic box in this? It's its only job! Almost any degree of acceleration sees the tacho needle flailing widly around the dial, and when I requested power for a determined bit of acceleration, it span waaay beyond six thousand RPM.

I've never taken my KV6 up there. To be truthful; having, as I do, the fear, I don't think it's a very good idea. I've been brainwashed over the years about the fragility of this engine. In my university years I was involved in the final development of a certain hi-speed amphibious car which just happened to be powered by the KV6 engine, in actual fact the exact same power-train as this Freelander, the engine cover even had Land Rover stamped on it. The company used the four-wheel-drive transmission, too, to cunningly provide drive to two wheels and further power to a rear-mounted waterjet. The difficulty they had from the outset was that the engines had to run at high revs for a prolonged period of time and often at quite slow motive speeds, so there wasn't a lot of airflow getting through to the engine; which would run hot, overheat, and often pop a head gasket or two.

The KV6 has its origins in the Rover K-Series engine line; near legendary for their light weight versus their available power, but notorious for overheating and head gasket failure. In fact, so frequently was this the case that some enthusiasts lovingly refer to them as the Kettle series. Of course, my Rover is my day-to-day car, so I tend to treat it with kid gloves a bit. The automatic gearbox as fitted to the Freelander doesn't seem to offer a choice, it's either revving to buggery or nothing at all .

But then again, the KV6 is quite a high revving engine, with peak power and torque happening beyond four thousand revs anyway. It's not like the engines you often see in four wheel drive cars, with lots of stump-pulling low down lugging power. As a result, it's called on to work hard, and this is borne out in the fuel-consumption figures, which are pretty frightening; expect early twenties as a general rule.

Sadly, the bad news spreads beyond the innapropriate engine, and engulfs the rest of the package. By any reasonable standard, the replacement Freelander 2 couldn't have come out any later, as the original was becoming very dated indeed. It was still an attractive enough form; this facelift model with its big, bulky body-coloured nose was a big improvement on the original with its swathes of grey plastic mouldings, but you don't have to search hard for evidence that it was still an exercise in '90s parts-bin-raiding design.

I'm talking about the interior, mainly. It's practical enough, and not horrible to look at; and to be fair it's well equipped and seems robust. The first thing I discover to my peril is that there's no height adjustment to the drivers seat, or, if there is, it was hidden well beyond my wit. Being of such an elongated form, this meant that my head rubbed the ceiling and my forward vision was through the top of the windscreen, right on the edge of wiper coverage.

And then I played a little game; how many elements of the dashboard can I find that I recognise from my Rover? They're all over the place. The column stalks, the air vents, most of the switches, the roof lights. And I'm sure I've seen that digital clock somewhere before; in a Metro, perhaps? This was all of course necessary to cut the product development costs for the Freelander; Land Rover were pretty much desperate for the car to be ready for sale; but since the final cash injection to get the car on the market was administered by BMW, it's a shame they didn't step in to make a few improvements; or at least junk the old Rover bits at mid-life facelift time.

Mind you, it does give us disgusting Rover 800 fetishists a reason for low-key celebration; those air-vents had been giving sterling service since 1986. In fact, fiddle with them and it seems that, although the design is the same, the actual quality of the plastic has been reduced for the Land Rover, now being a shiny black plastic rather than a matte grey colour. But that's not the only plastic weirdness going on here; none of the interior finishes are very pleasant at all. The dashboard features the only application of wet look plastic I've ever seen. From my elevated viewpoint I look down on a surface that seems to be coated in baby oil, but is actually bone dry. Most disconcerting.

It made wonder what I'm sitting on. Not having the spec to hand, and obviously suffering from Land Rover knowledge deficit, I couldn't tell whether my seat was stiff leather or vinyl. It was comfortable enough, but probably quite sweat-inducing.

I already mentioned the frenetic nature of the engine and gearbox combo, but I'm not going to really get into the minutiae of how the Freelander drives, beyond the fact that it's completely safe and not going to spring any nasty surprises on you. It's fundamentally not a drivers car, and hugely outpointed by its replacement and stuff like the BMW X3, but the main reason I don't want to discuss it is that, so far, this has been nothing but a condemnation of the car from the ground up.

The thing is, I really like this car, warts and all and despite incompetence in key areas. In fact, that's probably why I like it.

The mid-size soft-roader market was full to bursting as soon as we had finished dancing like it was 1999, the Koreans and Japanese having countless offerings to choose from. But they all became increasingly homogenized and samey; like a Sunday Roast, the ingredients are always the same but the quality varies from kitchen to kitchen.

Looking at it as a 2005 product, it's hard to get your head around the fact that the Freelander was being sold alongside the Discovery 2 and the latest Range Rover, both with avantgarde new interiors and unprecedented wantability factors. Meanwhile, the Freelander soldiered on, looking like it was from another era. But then, that's the way things alsways used to be.

It's like the Freelander was British Leyland's final haunting before the ghosts were finally exorcised. The original Range Rover, remember, wore Morris Minor door handles right up to 1994; the frst Discovery had rear lamp clusters to the same design as the Austin Maestro van, until they were finally rectified in 1998, yet in 2005 the sleek custard of the Freelander was still being poured over 1990s dumplings.

How very British. I am reminded of the legendarily non-PC classic light comedy series, Dads Army, in which the British home guard, made up of a motley bunch of patriotic pensioners given army khakis, amass to defend old Blighty from the threat of an advancing German front line using only a converted butchers van and a blunt bayonet, but who at heart believe they command the same might as an American tank division.

But, more than that, I'm reminded of dead British comedian Dick Emery, celebrated for his drag creation, Mandy, who's catchphrase sums up the Freelander succinctly;

You are awful, but I like you”.


It has been pointed out that there was a flaw in my assesment of the gearbox to engine relationship. I mentioned that there was a tiptronic manual mode yet I failed to try it out. There is every possibility that tiptronic manual gearchanges would reduce instances of in-gear over-revving. I am not able to drive this car again, but if anybody owns a similar car and finds that the tiptronic facility improves economy by preventing unnecessary high revs, I would be delighted to hear from you.

I apologise for the lack of thoroughness I have exhibited.