Time Warp 02
The year: 1997, Leisure Wheels issue 01
The car: Land Rover Defender 110 County 2.8i
Land Rover: “Defender of the Realm”
Land Rover’s venerable workhorse has been given a new lease of life with the fitment of BMW’s superb high0torque M52 engine. The latest petrol-engined performer has now cleverly been re-positioned in a sector of the image-conscious lifestyle market where it was never previously represented
The long-serving but thirsty 3,5 litre V8 is no more, but lift the bonnet of the latest petrol-powered Land Rover Defenders and you’ll find the same superb BMW 2,8 litre Vanos 24-valve in-line six that powers the Z3 sports car, 328i and 528i.
And the surprise South African development, which is attracting widespread interest from a number of other Land Rover markets around the glove, comes at a time when you could have been forgiven for imagining that the Defender was nearing the end of its model life.
After all, it is no secret that the venerable workhorse which traces its origins back to the 1948 original, is unlikely to be re-engineered to meet impending American crash legislation, which requires things such as airbags.
But there’s life in the Old Faithful yet. Not only is the Defender an ideal vehicle for Third World markets that value simplicity and rugged dependability, but Land Rover South Africa has cleverly positioned the latest petrol-engined performers in a sector of the image-conscious lifestyle market where it was never previously represented.
Features and Equipment √ √ √
The latest short-wheelbase 90 and 110 County models not only boast the muscular Bavarian power-plant, but a number of enhancements including disc brakes all round, a standard BMW immobiliser and alarm system, specially developed Continental Trac 235/85 tyres on handsome dished alloy rims, a new air-conditioner, and revised interior trim.
Your R192 950 buys a vehicle unlike any other 4×4 in the world, although inevitably would-be buyers in this price range will also consider the likes of the Jeep Cherokee (R174 000 to R197 475), Mitsubishi Pajero (R204 990), Nissan Sani (R178 492).
Many may also have a potential shopping list that includes various double cabs and even top-end Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Merc C-Class models. It’s a question of price and lifestyle we’re talking here.
Included in the price of the 2.8o is a radio-cassette player, air-con, centre cubby box between the front seats, additional seat belts for the inward-facing rear seats, tinted glass, side and rear steps, mudflaps, and a tow-bar.
Accommodation √ √ √
Seating for nine and terrific load space, if you don’t use the rearmost seats, are obviously major plusses, but there’s lots to fault in a cabin that has changed little over the years.
the dash is out of the dark ages, but the instuments now feature better illumination, while the air-conditioner has been improved, incorporating the radio speakers that used to be bolted to the roof.
Despite the age of the design, front seat passengers are comfy, with the bonus of loads of stash space either in the huge centre console box between the seats or in the recess that runs the length of the facia. There’s also a useful space beneath the driver’s seat that is big enough for tools, a tug strap and a hand-held spotlight.
Move back to the middle bench seat and things aren’t quite as cosy. You’re likely to wish for more legroom with our toes up against a bulkhead and, if you’re taller than average, your view of the scenery is hampered by blindspots that are only partially relieved by skylights in the roof.
Obviously the flip-down seats in the cargo area aren’t ideal for long trips, although kids seem to love them on shorter hauls. But they do make for terrific seating versatility, hardly eating into the load area when they’re not in use. The load space is also ideally squared off to conveniently swallow all the kit for that Botswana expedition, with a range fo approved options that includes a huge roof-rack.
If you do visit the Kalahari in mid-summer you’ll be grateful for the improved air-conditioner, although, like the heater, it isn’t up to the latest standards of the 4×4 estate class.
Nor is the fit and finish. Truth is, the Defender is assembled like a giant Meccano set with yawning panel gaps that are prone to wind, water and dust leaks. Could it be otherwise in a work-horse of this vintage?
Performance √ √ √ √
Much as we loved the brawny character of that burbling V8, there’s no denying the advantages of the BMW six-cylinder unit. Not only is the installation unusually neat and well thought out, with the air filter well out of harm’s way, but the smaller capacity engine boasts superior refinement, power, torque and fuel economy.
While there has been some computer remapping to suit the Defender’s specific needs, power and torque peaks are unchanged at 142 kW at 5 300 r/min and 280 Nm at 3 950 r/min. The good news is that torque builds strongly from little more than tick-over speed, with the six bettering the old V8 throughout the range.
Compare it ot the optional 2,5 litre four-cylinder Tdi turbodiesel and it is no less impressive, the oil burner credited with 83 kW at 4 000 r/min and 265 Nm at 1 800 r/min.
Obviously the character of the Tdi and 2.8i is vastly different, with the Bavarian power-plant appealing strongly to the sportier recreational buyer seeking additional performance and refinement.
Rev it hard and the results are little short of startling, the Defender storming off the start line and racing to the 6 500 r/min red-line with an enthusiasm rare in an off-roader in any market sector. Certainly it has created something of Jekyll and Hyde personality for a vehicle traditionally associated with images of adventure in the most inaccessible parts of the planet.
The engine and exhaust note is just right too, sounding purposeful and potent without being as raucous as in early prototypes.
Despite the appalling brick-like aerodynamics, it is possible to cruise effortlessly at 140-plus, with a true 152 km/h top speed at Highveld altitudes.
And when the tarmac ends there are no serious compromises either. Like its diesel-equipped Tdi stablemate, it will crawl over the most daunting obstacles at idle speeds, responding instantly to demands for more power where a Tdi can momentarily hesitate as the turbo gathers boost. Although peak pulling power is developed at nearly 4 000 r/min, the Vanos variable camshaft timing swells torque at low revs, while maintaining top-end potency.
And where Land Rovers are usually known for some drivetrain backlash when suddenly accelerated or decelerated, the tendency is masked by the sophisticated engine management system’s anti-surge control.
In keeping with the uprated performance, there are disc brakes all round, which do a commendable job of pulling the beast up sharply on demand. ABS is not offered.
On- or off-road it is a classy act.
Ride, handling √ √ √ √
All 4x4s are a compromise, and the Defender is clearly biased in favour of off-road prowess. How could it be otherwise with a supple, long travel coil sprung suspension designed to ensure unrivalled comfort while keeping the tyres in touch with terra firma when lesser vehicles would be lifting wheels and wheel-spinning wildly over rough ground. In its natural bundu habitat it is exemplary, and when traction does become a worry, there’s the added safeguard of a centre locking differential that is engaged by shifting the stubby transfer box lever sideways, instead of fore and aft to go between high and low ratios.
The downside, of course, is that while the Defender is indomitable over uneven ground, it displays considerable body roll when bieng tossed into fast open road bends. With familiarity, it does handle on-road situations surprisngly adeptly, the new Continental tyres proving both quiet and wonderfully adhesive. They’re certainly a big step forward in refinement.
On- or off-road, there’s no getting away from the Landy’s giant turning circle, which makes it a pain to park in tight spaces, and sometimes cumbersome to thread between rocks and trees out there on the trail.
There’s also an agricultural feel to the controls, with care needed to shift gears smoothly. One lady driver immediately criticised the heavy clutch and awkward shift action, but others were kinder. Macho men actually enjoy the feeling of moving all that heavy-duty machinery around.
Verdict √ √ √ √
If it is absolute quality, refinement and slick controls you’re seeking, look elsewhere to more modern designs. But if you are serious about your off-roading and need a large station wagon with exemplary off-tarmac capabilities, then your search is over. In its latest guise the Defender has never been better, and remains arguably the most charismatic 4×4 of them all. For many the only choice will be petrol or diesel.