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Tested: Land Rover's Defender

2011-05-19 22:41

THE ORIGINAL 4X4: Defender now rolls Goodyear rubber, instead of General grabbers. Looks like a truck and drives like one too, which only serves to heighten the appeal for some…

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Land Rover
Model Defender
Engine 2.4l turbodiesel
Power 90kW
Torque 360Nm
Transmission Six-speed manual
Zero To Hundred 20.3 sec
Top Speed 132km/h
Fuel Tank 75l
Fuel Consumption 11.8l
Weight 2 110kg
Airbags No
Front Suspension Solid axle, coil springs
Rear Suspension Solid axle, coil springs

Lance Branquinho

Since its ingenious (fortuitous?) beginning as an aluminium-crafted all-terrain vehicle in the steel-starved British auto industry of post-Second World War Europe, Land Rover’s Defender has always been a rather polarising icon.

Land Rover traditionalists contend that it remains, unquestionably, the quintessential safari vehicle.

In the last two decades, though, utilitarian Japanese alternatives (notably, Toyota’s Land Cruiser, and to a lesser extent Nissan’s Patrol) have significantly eroded the Defender’s once substantial market share of the hardcore off-road vehicle segment.

A crucial factor responsible for this market dynamic has been the perceived unreliability of certain Defender power- and drivetrain components, and the vehicle’s (very) antiquated ergonomics.

Hardcore off-roaders, especially those who own one the Japanese brands, will dismiss any notion of the Defender’s alleged superiority off-road. They'll intimate that any low-range 4x4 without a rear differential lock (no matter how superior its individual wheel travel is) will eventually get stuck rather easily on a traction-challenging (slippery), angled surface.

The question, then, is simple: Do these perceptions hold any truth pertaining to the latest incarnation of Land Rover’s Defender, launched in 2007, and recently upgraded with improved traction control and better (Goodyear) tyres?


As a design the Defender has evolved at a glacial pace over the last six decades since its launch back in 1948.

Although the styling is decidedly utilitarian, it does have an appeal all of its own. As a friend of mine, an industrial designer, remarked, it's a shape that owes nothing to fashion and everything to utility – making it a refreshingly pure, non-artificial design.

In an era where SUV styling is dictated by crash-safety regulations that subsequently make most 4x4 vehicles look like oversized, high-riding station-wagons with soft corners, the Defender (still registered as a truck, and therefore immune to EuroNCAP testing) looks like the classic, chunky, oversized Tonka toy for the road it has always been.

Enduring as the Defender’s styling may be (it looks infinitely better than Land Cruiser’s chromed horror that is the 76-series station wagon), those generous dimensions (especially the 2.02m height) do come with issues all of their own.

First, forget about accessing most parking garages. I had the displeasure of trimming some paint off the rear seam of our Defender test unit’s roof exiting a parking garage (note to self, the default height for a multistory parking garage is 2m, despite what the ill-calibrated signage says), and unless you’re keen to deflate the tyres to 0.8bar each time you wish to use in-city covered parking, the Defender is a home-to-office transport solution best avoided.

The turning circle remains huge, too, and what would be a simple three-point turn in your average double-cab bakkie often becomes an infuriating to-and-fro exercise in parking frustration with the Defender.


Although its sheer size is obvious, and therefore the "challenging" urban landscape driving experience is excusable, what does (unexpectedly) surprise one is the ludicrously ill-packaged cabin architecture and design. I once chatted to a Land Rover engineer (at the Paris auto show in September of 2010) and he coyly admitted the Defender’s cabin layout went against every axiom of concise engineering he had ever been taught at university.

The driving position is terrible and, although Land-Rover is at pains to point out its proximity visibility advantages ("you can see exactly where your right-front wheel is going to roll over the obstacle" - thanks, but I’ll get somebody to get out and spot instead) the idea of traversing 2000km of harsh (or any) terrain bundled up against the driver's side door trim does not appeal to me.

BASIC MOVEMENT: Ventilation much improved over models from a decade ago. Maddening noisy wiper motors still drown conversation and music when it’s raining, though…

If you're taller than 1.8m it's impossible to get comfortable in the front passenger seat. The parking brake remains inexplicably mounted practically behind your left leg (trying its best to puncture your calf) and there is still no room for your right arm when driving.

Never make fun of Land Rover owners who drive with their right forearm on the door's window frame, it's the only way, trust me...

Things hardly improve if you get in through second row doors. Rear passengers continuously stub their toes on the modular construction cross beam on which the front seat-runners are mounted and it’s cramped.
Defender apologists will point to the awesome loadability (and they have a point, you can stack and fasten a touch more than 1000kg worth of kit inside and on top), and a veritable treasure trove of bolt-on accessories available aftermarket due to the design never having been radically altereed for comfort. The fact remains that for something so large the Defender’s cabin is not a comfortable place to spend time, not in the driver’s seat (especially) or the as a second (or even, heaven forbid, third) row passenger.

So yes, it remains unwieldy and crudely uncomfortable, but what about the driving ability? Is it really as ponderous as Defender haters make it out to be? And off-road? Is the reputation of superiority deserved, or do the absence of front and rear axle-lockers ensure an embarrassing lack of progress once you have cross-axled it?


As part of the significant 2007 upgrade, when Land Rover was still owned by Ford (before the Tata takeover of 2008), engineers at Solihul made a very smart decision.

Whereas the previous TD5 2.5-litre Storm engine was a temperamental (and not at all fuel-efficient or bush-robust) unit, its replacement, rather cleverly, was sourced from Ford’s Transit panel van. Now honestly, ask yourself, what is more reliable than a panel-van engine? Subjected to the injudicious throttle inputs of frustrated delivery drivers day-after-day, if an engine doesn't break down in heavy traffic (hauling a fully loaded panel van along), it’s hardly going to let you down in hot bushveld conditions either – at least, that’s what Land Rover would like you to believe. 

Displacing 2.4-litres, the Ford-sourced four-cylinder turbocharged diesel 90kW and 360Nm. Contrasted with the 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine it replaced, power remained unchanged but an additional 60Nm of torque became available and an extra (sixth) ratio traced out its position on the bottom left of the H-gate's shift pattern.

American turbine specialist Honeywell-Garrett contributed a nozzle-turbine turbo that spools up seamlessly at low speeds to virtually eliminate lag, the bane of many fixed geometry turbochargers. As a result 315Nm of torque is on line at a low engine speed threshold of 1500 to 2700rpm. Acceleration is - predictably - slow. The Defender will do the benchmark 0-100km/h sprint in a trifle more than 20 seconds, accompanied by unnerving transmission sound effects if you hurry the six-speed transmission along with a touch too much enthusiasm.

The driving experience is unique (for a civilian vehicle), with a terrifyingly heavy clutch and unbelievable levels of driveline snatch accompanying each gear change. Although the Defender has a woefully slow top speed (132km/h, on a slight decline, with acoustic intrusion akin standing inside an industrial turbine at full speed), the presence of six gears and a 360Nm torque peak enable it to keep up with traffic accelerating through the gears. Be warned, though, you wander into the right-hand lane of the N1 at your peril with a Defender.

All things considered, the Ford-sourced engine and transmission combination is in all ways superior to the previous Landy five-cylinder turbodiesel and its five-speed shifter.

One element that does surprise with regards to on-road use is the Defender’s ride quality. Featuring a coil-spring on each wheel (a design migrated from the original Range Rover in 1983) the Defender manages to absorb surface imperfections well and goes about its pavement parking duties without conferring undue harshness to the driver or passengers. The same cannot be said for its chief rival, the leaf-sprung, rear suspended, Land Cruiser 70-series station wagon.

Despite its uncanny on-road ride comfort the Defender, with its lack of outright pace and built-to-budget military-type ergonomics, is tolerable (at best) as a daily driver. Off-road, though, is where six decades of ladder-frame and solid-axle heritage come into their own.


I've always admired Defenders (especially the modern coil-sprung ones) for their amazing suspension stroke (axle articulation). Land Rover's design philosophy has always been to enable one to keep all four wheels in contact with an obstacle; guaranteeing forward movement.

The issue, though, is when severe angle low-speed manoeuvring is required; especially on a traction surface which is slippery, sandy, or strewn with loose shale. On obstacles combining these features (gradient climbs out of hairpin corners) the Defender’s lack of a rear axle locker has always proved a problem. In fact I have, disappointingly, seen Defenders having to take the chicken run on rather simple muddy climbs that double-cab bakkies with appropriate tyres (and, crucially, a lockable rear differential) have managed to get up and over.

Land Rover engineers have always maintained that the Defender’s outstanding suspension travel and lockable centre differential provide the best compromise off-road, guaranteeing agility (axle-lockers tend to bloat turning circles alarmingly, limiting manoeuvrability) and a degree of traction substantial enough to suit most requirements.

UP AND OVER: With 250mm of ground clearance the Defender loves doing stuff like this. Just you try and open (or close) that spare-wheel affixed tail door on an incline – rather frustrating…

Land Cruiser 70-series owners counter that their ability to lock both axles into drive is the best possible off-road traction solution in truly challenging situations.

As fantastically secure as a fully locked-up Cruiser 76 station wagon’s obstacle conquering ability is, I've nearly been reduced to tears trying to disengage its turn-dial lockers, often requiring throttle rocking, which one does not always have room for in tight, challenging terrain.

With the new Defender, Land Rover’s engineers commissioned Bosch to develop a hardcore off-road traction control system, intervening on all four wheels. It works by applying brake intervention to a slipping wheel, which then guides torque through the open axle differential to the opposing wheel with greater grip. The presence of traction control is sure to grate Defender traditionalists (and Toyota owners will point to its electronic nature as being a prime reliability weakness in harsh African operating conditions), but it works tremendously well.

I repeatedly cross-axled the Defender on purpose whilst testing its off-road prowess and found the system works a treat. With a gentle, constant, throttle input you simply hear that grating sound of electro-mechanical intervention as traction is magically restored to the axle with one wheel in the air and another trailing in mud.

An important point to note is that the Defender’s Bosch traction control works via an anti-lock braking system (like nearly all other off-road traction control intervention systems). Therefore the Defender has failsafe ABS, something Toyota's Land Cruiser 70 does not. Although it can be a bit of a curse in certain off-road situations, ABS is a life-saver on the highway when called on to execute an emergency avoidance manoeuvre.

Off-road some of the Defender's ergonomic foibles (so intolerable in day-to-day driving) start to make some sense. The offset driving position allows one to expertly place the right front wheel on (and over) obstacles and the utilitarian interior packaging does allow one the placement of a very tough ladder frame chassis underneath, resulting in the Defender never feeling the strain over severe terrain, even when fully loaded.

Statistically its 49-degree approach angle is clearly superior to Land Cruiser 76’s 38, and it must be said, with the new traction control system, the advantage in severely broken terrain now sits with the British off-road icon. Towing capacity is 3.5 tons – appreciably more than the 'Cruiser 76's paltry 1.5 – something of rather weighty importance when travelling in convoy and called on to act as a snatch recovery/towing vehicle.

Beyond Defender's advantages off-road in terms of towing ability, approach/departure angles and general ground clearance it uses appreciably less fuel than the Land Cruiser. Land Rover's smaller turbodiesel engine is more efficient (I averaged 11.8 litres/100km) compared to the 'Cruiser 76's 14.2/100km. With the ‘Cruiser's 15-litre larger fuel tank, the operational range discrepancy between these two fierce safari rivals is slight, yet when you are expensively refuelling in a neighbouring African country it is nice to get those extra kilometres out of each litre of diesel with the Defender.


I few years ago a friend of mine wanted to buy a new Defender. I dissuaded him. For a third of the new Defender’s price (back then) he could buy an decade-old Tdi version (offering similar performance), retrofit a rear differential lock and ace air-conditioning system, save himself well over six figures in the process, and have what I considered at the time to be a superior vehicle off-road to the new Defender he was considering.

With the traction control upgrade on the latest Defender I've taken a different view. It now has the all-round traction ability, even when cross-axled, and ABS modulated on-road highway driving safety many owners have always yearned for. Retailing for R406 995, it’s quite a Jurassic indulgence, yet it remains nearly R65 000 cheaper than Toyota's Land Cruiser 76.

If you require 3.5-ton towing capacity (a substantial two tons more than Toyota’s ‘Cruiser 76) and ABS then it really is the only utility off-roader to suit your requirements. If dual airbags are the deal-maker above all others for you, then the Toyota is a better option.

The sum total of the newfangled power and drivetrain refinements is a vehicle that looks almost exactly like its (awfully) iconic forebears, yet is more comfortable to drive, and more capable in forbidding terrain. Although "comfort" is always a relative term in a Defender.

Yet there is still one thing I don’t like about Defender ownership: that is the notion of being obliged to wave at all other Defender owners in passing, even those with Bulls windscreen stickers...

Click here for more information of the Land Rover Defender!

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