When it comes to off-road ability, there’s only one yardstick – the Land Rover Defender. But while its ability in the rough is without question, there are still question marks over how it handles daily life.
It’s not the last word in refinement, nor is it the most comfortable or practical car there is. And the build quality is certainly below par. But put it in the right environment and it absolutely shines.
It’s a car that necessitates quite a few compromises, but, if you make them, you’ll begin to appreciate that old school is indeed cool.
Vehicle Style: Medium SUV
Price: $42,800 (plus on-roads) | $50,030 (as tested, plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 90kW/360Nm 2.2 4cyl diesel | 6sp manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 10.0 l/100km | tested: 13.8 l/100km
“Fit for purpose.” The Land Rover Defender is the very definition of that phrase. In fact, it defines it so well that it excludes almost everything else.
Apart from comfortable front seats and electric front windows, luxuries are considered unnecessary frippery. It’s why you get an interior that is as Spartan as it looks.
But get it off the blacktop and boy is there a revelation. There seems to be almost no terrain that will prevent it from getting to where it wants to go.
Quality:There are some very good things in the Defender’s interior and some not so good things as well.
The negatives are easy to point out: screw and bolt heads visible throughout, tacked on plastic covers and Bluetooth microphone, hard plastics and no carpets at all.
Comfort: The leather seats, however, an optional extra on this car ($2540), are something else. They are more akin to sports buckets than standard seats in a four-wheel-drive, and the level of comfort they provide is excellent.
The positives pretty much end there. While the driver has enough room, the passenger suffers from a footwell that has been cramped by the gearbox and transfer case which push across and eat into the space there.
The rear seats, while well padded, are mounted high up and headroom for taller people can be constrained. Getting in and out for the rear passengers is also a contorted affair: open the back door, flip down the backrest, flip up the chairs, walk through, crouch over, flip the chair down and then flip the backrest up.
Not terribly convenient; so if taking passengers is a regular occurrence, the Defender 110, with its extra rear doors and wheelbase, would be the better bet.
Equipment: The standard kit on a Defender is about making sure needs are covered, not wants.
There’s a Bluetooth-enabled detachable-face Alpine stereo, air-conditioning, powered front windows, heated rear glass and that’s about it. The stereo is adequate but can be fairly drowned out by road noise, but thankfully streaming audio is easy to set up.
Fitted to the car as interior options were heated front seats and front windscreen ($820), black side runners ($740) and black alcantara headlining ($600).
Accessing the battery (for connecting a compressor) is done by sliding the passenger seat forward, pulling up on the seat base, exposing the vinyl flap which covers the storage box. Pull the flap up, undo a simple clasp, and the battery cover can be removed. The driver’s side has the same arrangement for the fuse box.
Storage: There’s not a lot of variety of storage in here. There are two cupholders up front and a large under-armrest storage area which will hold several books, maps, iPads or bottles.
Rear passengers have to hold their own cups.
The seats anchor to the floor and can be folded up against the sides. With them stowed away, the boot area is quite large, while the seats in position sees a T-shaped area (in between and behind the seats) available.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: The Defender’s driveability changes depending on the surface, which is why we’ve given it two different ratings (OFF-ROAD RATING follows). And as you’ll see from below, there are highs and lows.
On the road, put simply, it’s below par.
With the diesel cranked into life, it clatters away up front, with a truck-like idle. The clutch is heavy, as is the gearbox; some force is required to get it into first gear.
Let the clutch out slowly and the take-up is immediate, and with quite a fast idle, it’ll crawl away and walk along without any throttle input. On the road, however, the 2.2-litre diesel exhibits a fair amount of lag.
With only 90kW to play with, it’s not exactly quick. Its 360Nm output helps, but the gear changes certainly don’t make for rapid progress.
Each gear change is notchy, followed by a clunk as the clutch takes up properly. Getting a smooth change, therefore, is very difficult. The gears can be slammed home, which speeds things up, but it doesn’t feel pretty.
Around town, the constancy of changes through a heavy gearbox can become quite wearing. Couple that with a bouncy ride, noisy engine and heavy steering and the Defender feels quite outclassed by just about every other four-wheel-drive.
But you do feel connected to it. The feedback from the seat of your pants is quite overwhelming at times, but you know exactly that the car is doing and where its wheels are at in any given moment. And that’s particularly useful when you leave the blacktop.
OFF THE ROAD
Driveability: Our expedition took in sand, mud and rocky trails, meaning the Defender would have to deal with various grip levels and depths of substrate. The first step, therefore, was to let the tyres down to 20psi.
Over differing gradients, the Defender’s short wheelbase means that it is never going to be stranded clambering over a rock.
And with a wheel at each corner of the car (plus excellent approach and departure clearance thanks to short bumpers) you never had to worry about denting panels or bumpers.
The Defender’s traction control is welcome and it has a neat trick, as it allows the wheels to spin up and then brake quickly, flinging out any mud caught in the treads. And despite being super slippery surfaces, its grip was brilliant.
Helping here is the excellent wheel articulation, enabling it to keep its wheels on the ground and maximise traction. The more your tyres are in contact with the surface, the better your grip will be – it’s a far better option than trying to eke out traction by braking wheels which are in the air.
The other surprising aspect is that the Defender’s shape makes it seem like it’ll topple over without much effort, however most of the weight is very low. This makes its lean angles both visually and practically impressive.
Its climbing and descending ability approaches near vertical, and while it feels very unnerving, the Defender carries through with a complete lack of fuss.
Apart from the excellent grip, traction control and wading ability, one aspect of its design serves the Defender better than most – its width.
Land Rover has made the Defender quite narrow, which means that even in walled ruts, it churns through without any risk of knocking mirrors or scraping bodywork. Indeed, a dual-cab ute going through the same cutouts would have lost all the paint down its sides. The Defender? It could even lean over slightly and still not risk any damage.
This machine, in its natural habitat is simply awesome. It’s such a pleasure to drive something so capable, and so raw.
Refinement: The lack of soundproofing means that the engine makes its presence felt, especially at idle. There’s quite a growl as it climbs through the revs, but it quietens as speed increases, and settles once up to highway speeds.
As you’d imagine, there is a bit of road noise, but no more than a Mitsubishi Lancer. The tyre roar quietens the closer you get to the national limit; but the wind noise then overtakes it. Sand crackling in the wheel arches is quite noticeable, too.
Ride and handling: With tyres biased to off-road duties, the sidewalls are soft, so when it turns in, lean is apparent. This softness promotes a bouncy ride, and not one which is conducive to inner-city driving.
Get the speed up, and the ride becomes a lot better. The steering, however, doesn’t.
While the feedback is very good, it’s extremely indirect and quite heavy, so approaching corners takes some planning. Around centre, there’s a lot of free play, and the further you get toward the lock stops, the sharper it gets.
The reason for the amount of lock you need is to ensure the wheel doesn’t get wrenched out of your hands when you push up against a wall or large rock when you’re out bush.
Braking: The Defender features discs all round, and with ABS, it pulls up pretty well on just about any surface. That said, it has a very wooden pedal feel, so it needs a lot of pressure in emergency stops to haul it up.
ANCAP rating: Both ANCAP and EuroNCAP have not tested the Defender, hence there is no safety rating for this car.
Safety features: Disappointingly, there are no airbags in the Defender. It does have anti-lock braking and stability control, but apart from that, and seatbelts, its safety suite is very limited.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Land Rover offers a three-year/100,000km warranty on the Defender.
Service costs: The Defender has 20,000km service intervals which vary in price from state to state. Contact your local dealer for service costs.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series Workmate ($57,990) – A bigger, beefier version of an off-roader, the LandCruiser’s trump card is its V8 diesel. It’s big and lazy and will see it climb prolonged inclines without breaking a sweat.
It won’t squeeze into the narrow spaces a Defender will, but if you want a rock-solid machine which will outlast a Sequoia pine, this should be on your shortlist. (see LandCruiser reviews)
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon ($51,000) – The only company to have more heritage in off-roading than Land Rover, Jeep’s take on a basic fourby is the iconic Wrangler.
With a hoseable interior and detachable sway bars, the Rubicon has amazing articulation off road, and its physical grip is outstanding. It’s better on the road than the Defender but it’s more expensive as well. (see Wrangler reviews)
Mercedes-Benz G 350 Bluetec ($150,610) – Designed in the same vein as the Defender, the G-Class puts a far more luxurious spin on an all-terrain vehicle.
It is brilliant in the rough, but its larger size means it’s not quite as flexible as the Landy. Its price also sees it far out of reach of most people. (see Mercedes-Benz reviews)
Note: All prices are Manufacturers’ List Price and do not include dealer-delivery and on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Despite a mediocre overall score, the Defender endears itself by virtue of its no-nonsense approach. The bodywork is wobbly, its road manners are woeful and it’s impractical in more ways than one.
However, the Defender says all it needs to, even when standing still. Its shape, its stance, its attitude – it makes no apologies for what it was built to do.
Because of this, the Defender will never be short of buyers.
Those buyers will only be concerned with heading off-road, and not posing in the city. They’ll be more concerned with ground clearance than cupholders; ramp-over angle than cruise control;
They’ll overlook the Defender’s many flaws and see through to its brutal honesty. Finding a machine that has more skill off-road straight out of the showroom is no easy task – the Defender is one of (if not the) best.
Yes, the Defender looks as old as the hills, but it’s meant to. It makes ‘old’, uber-cool. There is not a hill it can’t tackle, and, soon to cease production, it has ‘collectible’ written all over it.