Rover decided to go it alone with the CB40, which meant using parts from a limited parts bin, as it had done with the MGF roadster. Although BMW took over Rover Group in 1994, they did not get heavily involved in the development of the Freelander. The car was launched in 1997. The car became Europe's best-selling four-wheel drive model and remaining so until 2002. The last Freelanders in North America were sold as 2005 models.
There were a variety of models, based around 5-door estate and 3-door softback (semi-convertible), hardback, and commercial (van-like) versions. In 2004, Land Rover introduced an improved and upgraded version of the Mark I; changes included a new interior and major external revisions, including a new face and rear.
The 3-door model was available in E, S, SE, Sport and Sport Premium trim and the 5-door model in available in E, S, SE, HSE, Sport and Sport Premium trim.
Engine choices include:
- 1.8-litre I4 Rover K-Series petrol (1997-2006), badged as '1.8i' (Not sold in North America)
- 2.0-litre I4 Rover L-series diesel (1997-2001), badged as 'Di'
- 2.0-litre I4 BMW TD4 diesel (2001-2006), badged as 'TD4'
- 2.5-litre V6 Rover KV6 Engine petrol (2001-2006), badged as 'V6'
The increase in the engines' sizes also reflected in the noticeable increase in the size of the vehicle's physical appearance. Manual gearboxes dominated the early models, but automatic Tiptronic-style gearboxes became increasingly popular and were standard on the V6.
While the first-generation Freelander was considered quite capable off-road, earning its credentials in the Camel Trophy and Land Rover G4 Challenge, it represented a compromise. It did not have a low range gear selection nor a locking differential, as found on larger Land Rover models. This meant that in comparison to its stablemates, it had relatively poor off-road performance (although its sophisticated traction control system meant that on some terrain, such as wet grass or ice, it could easily embarrass a 'proper' 4x4 such as the Discovery. In its class, against vehicles such as the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CRV it had superior off-road performance.