The Land Rover Defender is an institution and unbeatable off road, if crude on it
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What is it?
This is the substantially modified 2012-model year version of the car that won’t lie down and die. Tracing its roots right back to the original 1948 Land Rover concept, the new Land Rover Defender has been given a new engine that meets stringent EU5 standards and a significant overhaul to improve refinement. This overhaul could keep the Defender in the showrooms until at least 2015.
Replacing the old Transit-sourced 2.4-litre diesel is a new 2.2-litre unit, which gets a single variable-vane turbocharger and a new Continental high-pressure (1800 bar) fuel injection system. The engine gets updated fluid seals and a robust single-mass flywheel. (Most modern road cars use dual mass flywheels for refinement, but these can be fragile). Despite all this, the power and torque of the new unit are identical to the outgoing engine.
A bespoke anti-pollution system was also designed for the Defender. The catalyst and particulate filter are mounted close together and the whole assembly is squeezed into the engine bay - ensuring that the expensive and vulnerable equipment is not destroyed by serious off-roading.
The upshot of the re-engineering is that ‘virtually every component in the engine bay has been re-located’. The 2012 Defender also gets a significantly upgraded NVH kit, including a new acoustic hood for the engine, more efficient sound-deadening and improved seals.
There are new option packs for the Defender range, including a £1650 Comfort Pack (including air-con, CD player, electric windows and remote locking) and a £1500 Off-Road Pack (which includes ABS, heavy duty rims and MTR tyres, tow-ball and under-ride protection bar). The whole Defender line-up covers three wheelbases and up to 14 different body styles.
What’s it like?
Better than the old model, but still something of an acquired taste for anybody but the true believer. This Defender is more planted than the outgoing model, still requires some concentration on tarmac. To a driver used to a modern road car, it radiates a nervousness and unpredictability not least through the indirect steering feel.
The engine refinement - while still quite vocal - is clearly a big improvement and the motor’s grunty low-down torque helps make the Defender more driveable. The six-speed ‘box needs a firm hand, but is clean-shifting and positive.
The lack of a rear bulkhead in this 90 means that the seats (which seem to be more generously padded) will just about go back far enough for a six-foot driver, but the narrow cabin means low speed maneuvering requires the elbows to be tucked well in. The centre console is clearly laid out and clearly backlit at night. The heater is volcanic, but its old-school water-valve technology means it is very hard to regulate.
Ergonomic madness abounds (especially the upright handbrake and key that can’t be turned when the headlamp switch is in the ‘on’ position), the column stalks date back to the original Austin Metro, the headlamps are weak and the wipers clear just a tiny part of the screen.
Off-road the Defender is enormously capable, but it takes much more effort from the driver than is needed in an modern, electronically controlled, off-roader, not least in finding - and selecting - the right gear in difficult conditions. One thing that has made it much easier to drive in extreme situations is the engine’s stall control. At crawling speeds it is possible for the driver to lift off the pedals altogether and let the stall-control inch the vehicle forward.
Should I buy one?
Despite global sales falling just under 19,000 units last year, the Defender - especially in short wheelbase form - is staging something of a comeback in the UK as a stylish urban runaround. In truth, the Defender works either as a pure country vehicle for those who really do spend time off-road, or as an iconic and uniquely characterful leisure machine. One Land Rover executive described it as a ‘classic car that you buy new,’ which is as good a summary as any.
Land Rover Defender 90 Hardtop
Price: £20,995; Top speed: 90mph; 0-62mph: 14.7sec; Economy: 28.3mpg; Co2: 266g/km; Kerbweight: 1889kg; Engine type, cc: 2198cc four-cyls, longitudinal, turbodiesel; Power: 120 bhp at 3500rpm; Torque: 265lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox: six-speed manual