This road test is tinged with sadness; regret that the venerable Land Rover Defender, stalwart of many people’s lives from farmers and vets to rural gents and military types, dies today. Emissions rules and crash regs and just the sheer economics of it have conspired to end the Landie’s life, although a new Defender will follow, most likely from 2018.
A good time, then, to revisit the trusty 4×4 and find out if it still cuts the mustard in 2016. Is it hopelessly outmoded and ready for the euthanasia clinic? Or can it still charm its way into our affections? Read our full UK Land Rover Defender review to find out.
Defender specs: a baffling array of models
Buying a Land Rover Defender is an artform in its own right. Choose from three wheelbases – 90, 110 as tested here and the uber-stretched 130, all measured in good, old imperial inches – and then mate one of 14 bodystyle variations to suit.
It’s this versatility that has endeared the Defender to country folk, able to pick station wagons, removable hard tops or single- and double-cab pick-ups, naked chassis cabs… you get the idea. Today we’re driving the 110 Station Wagon, the popular seven-seater go-anywhere 4×4 with three rows of seats. It’s a go-anywhere people carrier for people who sneer at BMW X5s and their ilk as too outré.
It’s a pricey business buying Defenders; this one retails at £33,405, although entry-level 90s start at a much more enticing £23,100. Click here to read about the attractive run-out special editions – the Autobiography luxury one tops £62k!
Approach a Defender as you would most 2016-spec new cars and you’ll be shocked. This is a car from a different era, and the exposed door hinges and riveted bodywork can surprise, though we’d argue they delight in equal measure. This is a car largely built by hand, not machines, and it feels that way in the panel gaps and fit and finish inside. This is inherently a 67-year old design, remember.
It’s a big car, especially in this 110 bodystyle, and you climb up into the Defender’s cockpit. There’s a good view out, thanks to the breeze-block styling but there’s surprisingly little space for a car stretching to within a whisker of 4.8m long.
The fixed steering wheel and only modestly-adjusting driver’s seat make it a chore for taller drivers to get comfy but your 6ft 2in correspondent did indeed fit without too much contortion. Just watch out for a cramped right elbow – there’s precious little side-impact crush space and your outside arm is lodged by the B-pillar. Annoying.
There’s plenty of space in the back though, and this is where Defenders excel. At lugging stuff. Bodies. Dogs. Firewood. A complete collection of CAR magazine. The rear bench has a flat floor and loads of room (though the theatre-style, raised seating makes the view out in rows two and three increasingly restricted, hence the ‘skylight’ Alpine-style roof windows), while the rearmost seats are now forward facing, pop-down pews.
Earlier north-south benches are banned, so huge, side-hinged chairs now tumble down to accommodate passengers six and seven; they’re heavy and forget any fold-flat-into-the-floor tricks – they gobble up plenty of boot space when folded up.
How does the Defender drive?
Fire up the 2198cc longitudinally mounted four-cylinder turbodiesel, reach a long way forward for the impractically positioned handbrake and the agricultural vibe continues. It’s Euro 5 only (another reason for the Defender’s 2015 demise, as EU6 takes effect) and provides clatter aplenty despite the recent addition of extra acoustic baffles. This is a heavy car, but the 266lb ft of twist at 2000rpm overcomes the near-two-tonne kerbweight better than the 120bhp does.
The gearchange is stubborn, but once underway you just leave it be, relying on that surfeit of torque. Driving a Landie at speed is a lesson in restraint; anything much over 50mph and the 4×4 bounces around, needing constant steering correction through the huge, spindly wheel like you’re playing BA Baracus from the A-Team. The 90mph top speed is best left untouched, the 110 preferring a more leisurely pace.
And once you accept the Defender’s dynamic deficiencies – on road, at least – everything clicks into place. This car is loved by people who admire its different qualities: the fact that it’ll run forever (buy one of the last models and it’ll likely ‘see you out’), its practical load-lugging abilities, the fact that you’ll never get stuck in bad weather ever again. Not to mention the sheer charm of it.
It’ll also tow a 3.5-tonne braked trailer, you can stack up to 150kg of clobber on the roofrack and you get a full-sized, hilariously-profiled Continental CrossContact AT 235/85 R16 spare wheel on the side-hinged back door. Praise too for the delightfully rugged rubber floor; how many other cars can you simply hose out nowadays after a muddy family walk?
Off-roading in the Land Rover Defender
Surely the raison d’être of Defender ownership, no? We’ve driven 90s and 110s across all sorts of terrain – in Europe, Africa and Australasia – and never come acropper. Slip the transmission into low range and let those mud-biased tyres take you wherever you want to go. Don’t think the Defender is an effortless off-roader though; with few electronic safety aids such as hill descent control or switchable driving modes like you’ll find in newer Land Rovers, you need to know what you’re doing to extract the best from it.
But engage your brain as well as low-speed transfer box, and you’ll soon enjoy the 45deg climbing gradient, extraordinary axle articulation and half-metre wading capability. It’s proper old-school, go-anywhere fun. And because of its grass-roots, unpretentious character, the Defender feels best when driven with a light smear of mud.
Any objective measurement of the Defender’s skills will reveal shortcomings in so many areas. Newer cars have come along and surpassed it in so many areas that you might wonder why Land Rover didn’t scrap it sooner.
But to do so is to miss the point of the Landie. Its rugged charm, developed over seven decades, is precisely the point of this iconic workhorse, and if you can live with the relatively high cost to buy and run (CO2 emissions on our car are 295g/km – higher than a McLaren 650S!) there’s no better rural companion. Grab one while you can.[“source-carmagazine”]