When asked to explain what jazz is, Louis Armstrong reportedly quipped: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
The same answer can be given to those who ask the reason for the enduring appeal of the Defender. If its iconic shape doesn’t move you and you don’t find its countless idiosyncrasies to be charming and endearing, well, you will never understand the appeal of the Defender.
Its charm, you see, is intimately tied to its shortcomings. Yes, it is boxy and about as aerodynamic as a granite slab, but that’s what Landy fans love about it. It is an icon – a moving piece of history. In an era when too many 4x4s are bland and boring, the Defender boasts oodles of character.
But what about all those criticisms that nay-sayers hurl at the Defender? Is it truly slow and frustrating to drive? Is it as noisy and uncomfortable as they claim? Is it an ergonomic mess? Is its technology antiquated and inadequate?
The answers to these questions may surprise you. Yes, the Defender is showing its age in some respects, but a surprising number of the vehicle’s frustrating flaws have been addressed over the last few years.
The question remains, though: does the Defender’s charm outweigh its flaws, or is it simply too big a nuisance to live with?
*** Features and equipment
It has often been said that you need to adapt your driving style when you get behind the wheel of a diesel Defender. You have to accept that acceleration will be slow and that your highway cruising speed will be around 100 km/h.
Lately, though, that statement hasn’t been very accurate. The TDi and TD5 engines of old might have been lethargic but the newer diesel engines aren’t bad at all. The previous 2,4-litre oilburner allowed you to cruise at 120 km/h and accelerate at a reasonable pace. The new 2,2-litre engine is no different.
We found that it powered the bulky 110 without hassle and reached 120 km/h without breaking a sweat. To be sure, it’s not a blistering performer, but driving the Defender during our test was never a chore because of a lack of power. We even managed to overtake trucks and other slow-moving vehicles on single-lane roads without having to put our lives on the line!
A capacity of 2198cc might seem a tad small for a hefty vehicle such as the 110, but the new oilburner actually produces the same power and torque as the previous 2,4-litre engine did. It generates 90 kW at 3500 r/min and 360 Nm of torque at 2000 r/min.
The engine is mated to a six-speed gearbox that has a good spread of ratios. The first gear has good low-speed crawl capability, while the top gear allows highway cruising at low engine revolutions. This obviously improves fuel consumption on the open road.
The interior of the Defender has been updated and improved quite a bit over the years, but its cabin remains austere and uncomfortable by modern standards.
The biggest problem is the ergonomics, and the vehicle’s seating and driving position are the areas where it really reveals its age.
The driver sits on top of the steering wheel and very close to the door. The handbrake is located in an awkward position next to the driver’s knee.
While the front passenger seat provides decent accommodation, the rear seats aren’t great. The biggest problem is that there is no space for passengers’ feet to slide under the front seats. Because of this, adults in the back have no option but to sit with their knees at a sharp angle. This isn’t a big problem over short distances but becomes tiring during long overland journeys, especially for tall passengers.
The basic issue with the Defender’s accommodation is that not much can be done about it without altering the overall structure of the 4×4. Unless the Defender undergoes a significant redesign, its cabin will remain antiquated and somewhat uncomfortable. And, of course, should it receive a serious redesign, it would lose much of its appeal since it would no longer truly be a Defender.
Thankfully, other aspects of the interior have been updated. Features such as air conditioning, electric windows, power steering and a good sound system are all there.
It is troubling that a vehicle retailing at R450 000 lacks features such as airbags, but the modern Defender boasts a lot more standard kit than previous models. Moreover, the 2013 model, which was announced recently, will offer contoured, part-leather seats and an Alpine sound system. The noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels inside the cabin are also impressive compared to older Landies. There’s still some noise, but gone are days when it was tough to communicate or listen to the radio when driving on gravel roads. The cabin insulates you effectively, even on ugly roads.
**** Gravel Performance and Handling
The Defender’s performance on dirt truly impressed us during our test. The Landy, with its permanent four-wheel-drive system, felt very surefooted, even on the ugliest sections of our test route.
Most double cabs feel quite skittish on dirt roads, especially when they aren’t carrying loads. The 110 Crew Cab reacted predictably at all times and inspired a lot of confidence.
The ride comfort was also surprisingly good on dirt. Defenders are notorious for rattling terribly on bad roads. In contrast, this modern version performed very respectably and really showed how the vehicle has improved over the years.
If you plan on spending a lot of time on gravel roads, the Landy will not disappoint. To be sure, it doesn’t boast the comfort and handling of a luxury SUV such as the Discovery 4, Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota Prado, but it can definitely hold its own against other hardcore 4x4s such as the Land Cruiser 70-Series and Wrangler Rubicon.
*** Trail Capability
The Defender is very capable in off-road situations.
Thanks to its coil springs and live axles, it has excellent wheel articulation. It also has good ground clearance – 250mm at the rear differential and 230mm at the shocks on the vehicle we tested, which was fitted with all-terrain tyres.
Once you slip its short lever into low range, the 2,2-litre diesel engine also does well on trails. We tested it by idling up steep, rocky slopes without touching the accelerator, and the 4×4 chugged along under its own steam without hassle.
That said, the Defender does have a few shortcomings. Firstly, it doesn’t have a rear diff lock. It does have traction control, which works reasonably well, but a rear diff lock would certainly have been a nice-to-have. Traction control tends to kick in only once the wheels have started spinning, which is often too late. A diff lock that can be engaged before tackling an obstacle will always be a better option.
The 110 Crew Cab also doesn’t have the best turning circle, so navigating tight and twisting trails is difficult.
Lastly, its ride can be pretty uncomfortable on 4×4 trails, especially if you’re sitting in the back. The seats do not offer a lot of support – you sit on them, rather than in them. Moreover, there are no handles to grab onto, so you inevitably get chucked around a bit.
Overall, though, the Defender 110 is a capable trail vehicle. It is not ideally suited to tight trails, but it can get the job done.
*** Overlanding suitability
The Defender’s reputation as an overland vehicle is well established. Indeed, had we tested the 110 Station Wagon, we would have given it four stars in this category. The reason we have decided to give the Crew Cab three stars is because its loading area is too small and doesn’t have a lot of usable space.
The length of the back is only about 130cm and it’s made even smaller by the presence of a spare wheel. Compared with other double cabs on the market, the 110 Crew Cab is impractical.
As an overland vehicle, the 130 Crew Cab makes far more sense and is actually cheaper (by about R5000) than the 110 Crew Cab.
Ignoring for a moment the space offered by the 110 double cab bakkie, the vehicle is undoubtedly a good overlander. The new 2,2-litre oilburner offers enough power to deal with long-distance highway driving, provided you’re not in too much of a hurry. The vehicle’s performance on dirt is good and it can deal with off-road conditions when necessary. NVH levels in the cabin are low, the air conditioning works well and the audio system is good.
The Defender has improved immeasurably over the last few years, and is now a far easier vehicle to live with than previous versions were.
But the fact remains: if you’ve never understood the appeal of the Defender, you are unlikely to be converted by this latest iteration.
The 110 Crew Cab retails at R449 000. Vehicles such as the Toyota Hilux, Ford Ranger and VW Amarok retail for less and offer far more features, power and comfort.
The latest 110 is good…for a Defender. It is plusher and more refined than any Defender before it.
If you’ve always been tempted to buy a Defender but found that it was just too basic and unrefined, now is the time to reconsider. This iconic 4×4 is better than it has ever been, but it will still demand a few compromises from you.