Monday, 4 August 2014

REVIEW - Land Rover Defender 110 XS Station Wagon

It takes something special for a car to become a motoring icon. And what I have here certainly is iconic; the Land Rover Defender. It’s been about in one form or other since 1948, and given that it will cease production in 2015, that’s a rather astonishing 67 year life span. When the replacement comes along, it will have a lot to live up to. So I jumped at the chance to get hold of a Defender- while I still could- to see what lies behind that iconic status. Is there a properly good car there, or is the replacement overdue? Read on to see what I thought…

Looks – 6/10

The Land Rover Defender is definitely a recognisable figure now. And if you’re looking for a rough, tough 4x4 then you don’t get much better than this. It’s certainly lacking in curves, and with such a tall stance it is imposing to look at from the front. From the side you can see every last rivet, and that does look a bit dated now. I do like the checker plate along the sill, and there’s plenty of tyre for off-roading, but other elements such as the wing mirrors and door handles- particularly the one on the tailgate- look a bit primitive now. And they let the overall image down. I think the bottom line is that whilst it may be a familiar face it’s showing signs of ageing. There’s been only minor changes to the shape over such a long time, and in that sense the replacement is a welcome one. I found there was a split audience when it came to the Defender; some like the character and style, others just didn’t get the appeal.

The inside is very much the same story. It’s remained vastly unchanged. Sure the vents under the windscreen are gone, and the dash vents are straight out of a Ford Fiesta. The half-leather seats are much nicer than those you would have found in an earlier model, but the door trims, steering wheel and oddly-placed handbrake have been there for a while. And the interior looks cramped in the front. The big cubby-hole is useful, but I would have preferred more room as a driver. The modern CD player looks out of place in this car, as does the Alpine subwoofer; the few mod-cons that have come along seem like afterthoughts and add-ons, such that they just don’t blend in.
Handling/Performance – 4/10

The engine in the Defender has changed several times over the years, and in itself has created separate following groups. Some argue that the current TD4 is a brilliant engine, and others will harp on about the BMW-derived TD5 of the nineties. So the 2.2-litre TD4 is the only engine available at present, and it’s only available with a 6-speed manual gearbox. It has 122PS and 360Nm of torque, which isn’t really a lot. The engine is far from refined, and is rather noisy too. Although it’s not relevant, the 0-62mph is 15.8 seconds and the top speed 90mph. So by modern standards the Defender is a slow vehicle, and coupled to a clutch which needs two feet to operate is a difficult car to drive as well. You do sort of get the hang of it eventually, and then when I got back in my car I nearly pressed the clutch through the carpet! At motorway speeds the Defender can handle itself, but it’s not exactly relaxing and comfortable.

The handling on the road isn’t exactly fantastic either. This is a tall car with steering that’s about as responsive as a canal boat. You wouldn’t want to corner at speed, and over bumpy roads the ride is a bit harsh. The Defender comes into its own when you stick it up the side of a mountain; there’s few cars you’d rather take into some properly tough terrain. But on the M65, where I spend most of my time, it’s not very spectacular, and on a long drive I found it rather fatiguing. There are probably Defender owners shaking their fists and condemning me a ‘wimp’ but I just don’t why cars have to be so compromised on the road for their off-road capabilities.

Economy – 3/10

I was also surprised at the efficiency of the TD4 engine. I recently drove the Freelander 2 with the same engine and was impressed with the economy, so I struggled when I read the figures for the Defender. CO2 emissions are 295g/km- and that’s a lot- with combined fuel consumption of 25.5mpg. That puts the 110 station wagon in VED band M, which is the highest possible. Road tax will cost you £500 a year. The first year rate is also £1,090. Ouch. By modern standards that’s just not good enough. Put it this way, the 5.0-litre V8 supercharged Range Rover Sport- all 510PS of it- emits just 3 g/km more, and that just doesn’t make sense to me at all.

Practicality – 5/10

I’ll start this section with a bit of praise for the defender. There’s 7 proper seats, and the rear-most two fold up to leave a rather usable space for your shopping. The high driving position is great as well. And then there’s the 4WD capabilities; the Defender will literally go anywhere. You get a proper transfer box, and with ground clearance of 314mm can get over some tall obstacles or deep ruts. The Defender can tackle 45-degree inclines, and can approach a climb at an impressive 47-degrees. So find yourself a wilderness and turn it into a playground…

But there’s a problem. In order to get to said wilderness you’ll no doubt have to travel on the roads, where the Defender is less impressive. The driving position leaves no room for your right arm; it’s why you’ll see Defender drivers with their arm out of the window. There’s not much visibility out the rear window which makes reversing difficult, and on the move the wing mirrors vibrate to such an extent that you can’t make out much in them either. Find yourself in traffic and your left leg will soon be aching from the clutch, and then trying to park it in a bay is difficult unless the whole car park is empty.

Fun – 7/10

I think it has probably become apparent to you by now that the Defender is rather flawed as a car. But it still manages to be fun. Because if you drive a Defender, you’re part of a rather exclusive little club. I had the car for just a week, but I lost count of the number of times I was flashed, beeped, waved at (or all of the above) by other Defender drivers. There’s an unwritten seal of approval for this niche, and I like that. What’s more, with mine being a brand-spanking new, 110 station wagon it was often met with awe and some rather impressed faces. I had a few conversations with some rather excited Defenderists who just loved my 110, and to be fair I quite enjoyed the attention. I never got to take it properly off-roading but it is now on my to-do list, so I’ll let you know how it goes when I get round to it. But I can’t imagine it being any less than impressive.

Concluding Remarks

So that’s the Land Rover Defender then. On one hand it’s remarkable fun, and gains approval from other motorists. However they aren’t driving it, so they don’t understand the frustration of living with one. I think that the uproar caused by the ending of this model will be short lived; a replacement is definitely going to be an improvement. There’s no reason why a new model can’t be as good off road, whilst being pleasant on the road as well. And when you consider the economic and safety legislation it’s no longer viable to continue with the current model. Consider this, it hasn’t met US safety regulations since 1998. So what does that mean? Well at £32,995 the Defender is a bit expensive, and soon to be obsolete. But there’s a niche for them, and a following, so even after the replacement comes out I can see these models holding value and becoming collectible. So perhaps you should buy one whilst you can! The Land Rover Defender; soon to be gone, but never forgotten.

Total score – 25/50

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