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“Lovely Defender”, said a small voice from somewhere behind the tailgate-mounted spare wheel, later revealed as belonging to an admiring Septuagenarian.
“My husband had one years ago, though I had to sell it when he died.”
Such is the vintage of the Land Rover Defender, essentially unchanged in design for decades, just like its raison d’etre. And unchanged too are the memories it evokes in some, and the recognition it invokes in others.
Let’s not proverbially beat around the bush before we do it literally. You probably know something of what the Defender is, what it represents. This is a car that has its roots in the original 1948 Land Rover model, though it only took on the Defender name in 1990.
Inside and under the bonnet it’s updated, thankfully, with more regularity, with a Euro 5 2.2-litre turbo-diesel added in 2011.
But all things must come to a close. The pop-riveted, aluminium-bodied Defender is on death row, to be undone by the legislator’s pen in Europe from year's end — though the long-wheelbase 110 tested here, as a commercial vehicle, could maybe eke out a few more years. Land Rover is developing a successor, but an era is approaching an end.
And as said era crawls over crags to its denouement, we thought to take an opportunity to spend some time in this timeless old lug that’s built to go the distance, but won’t get you where you’re going in anything much resembling comfort.
Now, on this occasion we had scarce opportunity to take it across deserts and through swollen rivers, nor could we traverse jungles and scale mountains. But come on, you don’t need us to tell you what 67 years of history already does. The Defender handles what few others can.
But what we are able to do is talk a bit about what living with a Defender is like, both on the road and off… and all the while, ruminate on what such an anachronism represents and if we stand to lose anything of value when this iteration goes away.
Our test vehicle was the long-wheelbase 110 Station wagon, priced at $47,500 plus on-road costs at entry level, a $4700 premium over the Defender 90 Shortie. That’s more than $6000 cheaper than a mine-spec DX Nissan Patrol and about ballpark with a top-spec four-door Jeep Wrangler.
Like the Wrangler, it’s a little remarkable how many Defenders you see in the city, many of which like the Jeep Wrangler serve more as fashion statements than tools of trade. Having grown up driving an MQ Nissan Patrol from the early 1980s, the ergonomics were somewhat familiar to yours truly.
The cabin is the definition of tough and basic. The layout is sparse, the ventilation controls need a heave and the plastics, grey and shiny black, are hard but harder-wearing. The aftermarket audio system with Bluetooth and the electric front windows are concessions to modernity.
The relatively narrow dimensions mean the doors have no pockets, and handles that rub in your knees, just like the gearstick does on the other side. The door catch also has a knack for recognising and grabbing a hold of the loops that hold your belt on.
On the topic of recognition, it’s rather charming that every Defender driver you pass gives you a quick wave out the window. And, rest assured, they’ll have said arm free, because driving without it half-resting on the window-pane is a cramped exercise. At least outward visibility is good.
Please don’t think we’re giving the Landie a needless kicking, because these old school trappings are kind of a central point of the car. It’s a throwback in numerous good ways, but it’s also a clear signpost of how far cabin ergonomics have progressed.
And yet there’s a silver lining. Flip those high second-row seats down with a heave-ho and jimmy open the rear tailgate, and you have what is tantamount to a van. Our test car had a hard-wearing rubbery floor (which can be hosed out), and though the loading area is narrow at its deepest point, it is tall and 1900mm long. It also has a payload nearing one-tonne.
Standard equipment stretches to a sub-woofer for the audio system, a powerful air-conditioner, electric windows and a rear folding step. Some choice options include a sunroof (an affordable $590), side runners ($740), contrasting black roof ($730), leather seats ($2400), third-row seats (from $2000) and heated front seats/windscreen ($820).
Airbags? Nope. This is made for rock-hopping and handling hardcore departure angles. It does at least have ABS brakes and electronic traction control.
Again, and this should surprise precisely no-one, but driving a LWB defender around narrow city streets makes only a smidgen more sense than taking a Toyota 86 through a river crossing. Its turning circle is as high as 14.4 metres and its ‘worm and roller’ hydraulic power steering has as much resistance as a sleeper cell.
The off-road-oriented all-round live beam axles with coils are designed to handle a beating and articulate to all manner of crazy angles, not provide supple bump absorption and finesse over corrugations in bitumen, and the 235/85 R16 off-road tyres and boxy shape mean plenty of tyre and wind noise on freeways. The latter likely isn’t helped by the ill-fitting door seals.
The clattering of stones on the chassis is also deafening — say, if you’re driving along gravel — given there’s been previous little expenditure on sound-absorption back there.
Under the bonnet sits a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine mounted longitudinally, punching out only 90kW of power at 3500rpm and 360Nm of torque at 2000rpm. About 90 per cent of this is on tap between 2200rpm to over 4350rpm.
It’s matched to a six-speed manual gearbox only, with a heavy clutch. Claimed fuel economy on the combined cycle is 11.1 litres per 100km — extraordinarily thirsty by modern standards. In addition, the 75-litre fuel tank isn’t massive.
These are modest figures today and yes, it’s not punchy and borderline peaky like some modern turbo units, but it’s also hugely tractable. It also gets the 2100kg Landie up to speed without protest, though the 0-100km/h dash takes more than 15 seconds, and is legally able to tow a braked trailer weighing up to 3500kg.
There’s still almost nothing that touches a Defender off-road though. The official maximum gradient is 45-degrees, the axle ground clearance is 250mm, the unladen (bash-plate protected) underbody clearance is 314mm, the departure angle is 35.6-degrees (the Shortie’s is an outstanding 47), the ramp break over angle is about 150-degrees and the approach angle is just shy of 49-degrees.
Land Rover has progressed past manually lockable diffs, but there’s of course a proper low range (H and L) that requires muscle. Anyone who has moved a hobby tractor from ‘Tortoise’ to ‘Hare’ knows the rough motion.
Here’s where that tractable engine comes into play, given you can engine brake in first down a slippery ball-bearing embankment, or cruise off-throttle over some gnarly rock formations. In the hands of an expert it’s a world-beater, in the hands of a plucky amateur, it’s the keys to freedom.
Does it make sense as a fashion statement? No, but as anyone who has seen Paris Fashion Week knows, ‘sense’ is rarely a prerequisite in the eyes of fashion. Is it a family hauler? Not really. It’s outdated, but it will be rolling on years after most others cars have bitten the dust.
We can’t see too many people having issues within the three-year/100,000km warranty, or needing the 24-hour roadside assistance offered over the same period.
But off the beaten path it remains an animal without compromise, and in a world that exemplifies balance, that’s a rare trait.
Rating the Defender against our all-inclusive criteria means its score isn’t necessarily high, but like the budget Suzuki Jimny we drove recently, it’s a Perfect 10 in certain scenarios.
The world has moved beyond the Defender as we know it, but we’ll miss it anyway.
Click the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.