Still the greatest off-roader of them all, and now a little more civilised too

Our Verdict

Land Rover Defender

The Land Rover Defender is an institution and unbeatable off road, if crude on it

Andrew Frankel Autocar
21 March 2007

What is it?

You’re kidding, right? Unless you’ve spent the last half century at the bottom of the ocean, you’ll know exactly what this is. Conceived over ten years before the first Mini and now in its 50th year of production, what you’re looking at is the last throw of the dice for what is now called Defender, the most widely known and loved off-roader of them all.

From the outside you’ll tell it from the car it replaces only from its raised bonnet (required to clear the new engine) and the fact that the vents beneath the windscreen, one of the most iconic signposts of Landie design, have been deleted.

It’s happened because they could not fit into the new interior package and the new ventilation system means they’re not needed, however much they may be wanted. Inside you’ll find not only new eyeball vents, but a whole new dash, new seats, Disco-derived dials and, at last, reasonably sensible switchgear. The short wheelbase Defender will now only sit four (it used to house seven) and the long one has lost its congestion charge-busting nine seat layout and is now limited to seven.

Mechanically there’s a 121bhp, 2.4-litre four cylinder engine new to the Defender but very familiar to Ford Transit drivers, complete with its six speed gearbox and spring and damper changes to improve ride and response on and off road.

What’s it like?

Better at all the things a Defender needs to be good at, namely getting you places you’d otherwise need some combination of a machete, rope ladder, crampons, Sherpa and pith helmet to reach.

The new engine has no more power than the five cylinder motor it replaces, but it now has so much torque, it actually has to be electronically restricted during extreme downhill descents off road to stop the car going so slowly the tyres start to lock. A first gear some 32 per cent shorter than the old one helps too. All the old ground clearance and axle articulation remains and it will still wade through half a metre of water without the need for a raised air intake.

Land Rover has also paid a lot of attention to improving ride and refinement on and off the road so that now it not only offers a more comfortable vantage point from which to view the mountain you’re scaling, it is also rather less wearing on the journey from base camp back to the local town.

Do not, however mistake it for a car you’d do long distances in by choice. For comfort and quiet, a Discovery has more in common with a Rolls-Royce Phantom than this Defender. Yes it’s no longer excruciatingly crude at speed (with a top speed of 82mph, I use ‘speed’ as a relative term) but it will still take you longer to reach your destination and deliver you in a more frazzled state than almost any other car on sale.

Should I buy one?

If you’ve always wanted an original Landie, this is your last chance. Sometime between 2010 and 2014, forthcoming legislation will kill the Defender (it already can’t be sold in the US) and one of the longest lived, and globally loved and iconic cars will cease to exist.

Designed as a short-term stop gap to combat the Willys Jeep, its iconic angular shape came from the fact that its life expectancy was so short it was not worth investing in tools that made curves. And that aluminium body which ensures that, even today, 70 per cent are still on the road, came about not through thoughts of corrosion resistance and light weight, but because, after the war, there was so much scrap around it was the cheapest material to hand.

This car will, of course, be replaced. Land Rover already sells 25,000 a year without having to try very hard, but however good is the new one, it will not be a Defender.

Buy it also if you need an SUV but don’t wish to be targeted by the off-road haters. Sian Berry, who speaks on matters motoring for the Green Party, spends a sizeable chunk of her time slapping fake parking tickets on SUVs, but she’ll never put one on a Defender. Even the greenies understand this car and its unimpeachable place in the nation’s heritage.

It’s not cheap, some of the interior materials are still shocking, it’s slow, noisy and not very comfortable but, to my eyes at least, it’s still the greatest off-roader of them all.

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