No Longer the bare essentials
It’s a design package that has remained mostly unchanged for more than 50 years. Now the latest Defender is here, with a new engine, new interior and (very) few styling changes. So it should be ready to embrace the motoring virtues of the 21st century, right? Well, yes… but mostly no
There are few more distinctive shapes than that of a Land Rover Defender – an outline largely unchanged from 50 years ago, when the original Landy first saw the light. The positioning of Defender within the current, expansive model line-up has remained the same, too: this is a workhorse, and dozens of military and governmental agencies can’t be wrong.
The key dimension is the wheelbase and the 110 inches (2794mm) between the centre lines of the axles (it’s one of the few vehicles with traditional “axles” at both ends) contributes to its nomenclature. One of the recent visual updates is the bulge in the bonnet to clear a new turbodiesel – just one of some 700 detail changes made. What hasn’t changed, though, is the ladderframe chassis with its coil-sprung axle. Onto these established underpinnings is bolted an alumimium body, with rivets the chosen method of joining the various sheets – a method that contributes to the iconic looks.
Features and equipment
★ ★ ★
Some hardcore off-roaders think Defender has lost focus in recent years, shedding the simplicity that was its appeal. The last two generations of Defender have had traction control and anti-lock brakes, and in this guise the technology has been upgraded further to improve response when grip is lost. It also introduces anti-stall, which speeds up the idle in first gear low range to the point where you really need to stand on the brake pedal to slow its ascent.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all the wheels are driven all of the time, the system allowing for shifts on the fly (both up and down the transfer case with a bit of practice). The centre differential lock can be engaged in both high and low range – but be sure to eat your ProNutro before attempting any of these tasks.
The latest engine is a Ford-sourced 2,4- litre turbodiesel, producing a mellow 90 kW but a class-leading 360 Nm. A new (and rather heavy) Getrag box with six ratios allows for a lower first and a longer top: cruising at a true 120 km/h has the motor thrumming along at just 2600 r/min, while the clearly marked speedo indicates about 127 km/h.
The big news for the Defender is the cabin update, with the dashboard itself taking on the appearance of the Discovery series. The instruments, seats and hangdown centre section are also new.
But other than that it is much the same as Defender drivers have been facing since the name came into vogue in 1984. The instruments are viewed through a huge steering wheel set at a bus-like angle, and the headlights are activated via an old-fashioned toggle switch to the left of the steering column – where you’ll also find the ignition switch and stalk-mounted hooter.
Most of the secondary controls are scattered far and wide, with no real pattern to the layout. It certainly isn’t a facia you would describe as intuitive.
Nonetheless, the new heating/air-conditioning system is effective, even though there are a million gaps through which air can escape. Some of the HVAC controls are pretty stiff and hot air seemed to be directed straight at the driver’s left foot rather than being spread evenly around the footwell.
Seating in front is surprisingly comfortable and the driving position commanding, though the rear view is cluttered thanks to sixth and seventh seats and the positioning of the spare wheel. Storage space is a bit meagre, with the notable exception of the lidded box between the seats.
The backrest angle is easily adjusted, though on the test unit part of the lever’s handle had gone astray and drivers therefore ran the risk of tearing their trouser seat – or worse – when getting in or out.
In fact, the vehicle is awash with this kind of quirkiness: most drivers will find that the handbrake lever will bump their left knee or calf, while the driver’s door handle will rub irritatingly against the right knee.
Rear accommodation is rudimentary, with passengers sitting on hard cushions in an upright position. The narrowness of the cabin also makes three abreast unpleasant. A pair of auxiliary seats is standard and when not in use they flip up against the side of the luggage compartment – an easy enough task. Opening the fifth door requires some dexterity to manoeuvre one’s wrist and fingers past the spare wheel.
★ ★ ★
The engine is reasonably smooth and quiet, responding cleanly from low down the rev range but running out of steam early. Power peaks at just 3500 r/min and you can feel it tailing off soon afterwards.
But turbodiesel owners will know the drill: work the powerband by short-shifting and using a higher gear than what at first seems appropriate. Witness the results of our flexibility tests, where 60 to 100 km/h in fifth takes only half-a-second more than the same test in fourth, and feels less breathless. Our acceleration runs were also interesting: faster times were achieved by skipping a gear and going straight from third to fifth!
The Defender had no problem cruising at the legal limit, the engine being vibe-free and as quiet as any rival – but at 120 km/h in a Landy the wind noise is so dominant that you don’t really notice the mechanical sounds. There is still a trademark – albeit muted – whining from the drivetrain on a trailing throttle.
Nowadays the Defender is governed to a true 132 km/h and while that might disappoint some buyers, the fact of the matter is that it shouldn’t be driven any faster than that.
The ABS is a real boon and takes some of the angst out of the prospect of an emergency stop. We recorded some exceptionally consistent results, though in terms of outright ability it still lagged some way behind a rival such as the Land Cruiser 70.
Ride and handling
★ ★ ★
Once again you have to recalibrate your frame of reference when driving a Defender. This is an old-school 4×4 on tall tyres and with heavy underpinnings. The greater the potential for a vehicle’s drivetrain to send all available torque to one wheel, the more robust the hardware needs to be. As they say in mountain-biking circles: “Light, cheap, strong: choose any two.”
So the wheels will drop into potholes and the body will heave upwards over bumps, but because there is plenty of suspension travel there is acceptable ride comfort, especially over speedbumps when the wheels move simultaneously. Of course, this is all compromised if you adhere to the ridiculous 320kpa rear tyre pressure recommendation – try 220 and the on-tar ride (and off-road grip) is markedly improved.
One of the hardest adjustments is coming to terms with the steering. Not only is the worm and roller painfully slow but there is little in the way of steering lock, so you need lots of space to make turns. This is arguably also its only shortcoming off-road, where it feels less than agile negotiating narrow, tight trails.
Other than that you can only be grateful for the amazing approach angle and a genuine 230mm of ground clearance. And you’ve always got more or less that much, thanks to solid axles with off-set differentials. The departure angle is also exceptional (although our test unit was fitted with a towbar, reducing it from 37 to 27 degrees). The tyres on our test unit – General Grabbers – didn’t impress us either. They weren’t particularly grippy on smooth surfaces and the tread clogged easily in muddy terrain.
★ ★ ★
Driving a Defender is about getting the pace of your inputs to match those of the vehicle. If you’re too hasty you’ll have the drivetrain clunking and shuddering like an old Sherman, and you also need to learn to feed the steering on and wind it off in a way that won’t induce body roll and upset the equilibrium.
Get it right and it can be quite satisfying, if you accept that not much happens quickly when you drive a Defender. Know anyone who drives like that in this day and age? Apart from various bodies of officialdom, the Defender is aimed at the likes of Kingsley Holgate, intent on exploring truly uncharted territory. The rest of us want more action more quickly, so don’t be suckered into buying one based on its off-road credentials: the novelty of using it as a commuter will rapidly lose its gloss.
But as long as planet earth needs adventurers and defence forces there will be a need for Defenders. So the future of the Landy workhorse looks secure, even if fewer and fewer private customers will be choosing one.