A new Defender! Though the old girl still looks much the same as she did 60 years ago
You’re right – the Defender traces its ancestry back to 1948 and remains the granddaddy of off-roaders, the Morgan of the mud. Since launch, almost 60 years ago, the old Landie has had a few substantial upgrades – not least to coil springs, a few styling revisions and a revised chassis. The name ‘Defender’ is also relatively new, introduced when the Discovery was launched in 1990 (when suddenly there were two Land Rovers).
So what’s new?
For 2007, the Defender gets one of its biggest-ever revamps. The major changes are a new common-rail diesel EU4-compliant engine from the Ford Transit (so if white van man can’t destroy this engine, then the SAS, farmers and the landed gentry should be fine), a new six-speed gearbox, new facia, new seats and a heating and ventilation system that actually works.
OK so we’re not exactly talking a brand new vehicle here…
Fortunately not. The styling – if you can call it styling, for the Defender mirrors an earlier age when style followed function rather than fashion – is unchanged. The only difference is the ugly bonnet bulge, to make way for the taller Transit engine. That new four-pot motor has 2.4-litres capacity and produces 122bhp, same as the outgoing Td5 engine. More important is the torque. At 265lb ft it’s up 20 percent on the old Landie diesel engine. The six-speed manual box, rather than the previous five-speeder, allows for a lower first gear (better for chugging up muddy hills) and a taller top ratio for more relaxed motorway miles. The biggest change visually is inside. The facia is new and so are the seats. On the seven-seater, the back chairs now face forward rather than sideways. There’s the usual plethora of body styles – 14 including pick-ups, station wagons etc – and three wheelbase configurations (90, 110 and 130-inch) as before.
So what’s it like to drive on-road? About as refined as an old van full of nails, I suppose?
Well, it’s not going to win any prizes for quietness and comfort, that’s for sure. We start with the 90 short-wheelbase station wagon, the classic Defender. It has that constant pitching rock ‘n’ roll action – redolent of a small boat in a swell – for which Defenders are renowned. It’s not uncomfortable, rather it’s part of the character. The steering also needs constant corrections just like the outgoing Defender. Plus there is no room for the driver’s right elbow, another long-standing Defender foible. Wind noise is also pretty terrible. The Defender has all the aero qualities of a garden shed, so no surprise here. Rather, the big improvement is in mechanical noise. The new Transit diesel is way quieter than the old Landie Td5 motor, and the taller gearing helps too. It cruises at 70-75mph easily, with little more than a pleasant background engine hum. What’s more, you can now hear the radio on the motorway, a quality hitherto unknown in Defenders. Pick one of the posher and pricier spec models and you also get MP3 compatability. So you can listen to a 21st century icon in a 20th century icon. The longer wheelbase 110 model rides much better and has really generous rear seat room. Apart from its slowness, it almost stacks up as an everyday people carrier (almost, but not quite). It doesn’t look as cool as the 90 wagon though.
Cool eh? That’s one of the things about the Defender. It’s actually become trendy!
Amazing but true. It’s become fashionable in the urban jungle. Even those 4×4-haters at Greenpeace say they’d never attack a Defender. It’d be a bit like assaulting your grandpa. It’s the sheer authenticity of it all that so appeals. Unlike the Range Rover, it’s also a totally classless vehicle, just as likely to be driven by the governor as the gamekeeper. The Defender is the origin of the species and you just don’t get such antiquity sold as-new these days. It’s like an original Mini or an old Beetle. It looks brilliant too, with those flat sides, short front overhang and that big bluff grille. The grille was very popular in my home country of Australia. You used to be able to take it off the car and use it to barbecue meat. Can’t do that any more though. A few years ago, they changed it to plastic. Progress, eh…
But it’s off-road where it really shines right?
You bet. In tough off-roading, nothing can beat a Defender. It’s light for a 4×4, got a tiny front overhang and its engine chugs from low down in the rev range. While the Defender always feels out of its natural habitat on the tarmac, it is brilliant in the mud and on slushy leaf-mulched lanes or clambering over rocks. Select low-range and the diff locks, by good old-fashioned mechanical levers (none of this girly e-diff stuff), and the Defender is ready for anything. You can wade through rivers up to half a metre deep, scramble up impossibly steep muddy banks, clamber over boulders and generally play mountain goat. The vehicle also feels totally bullet-proof and although the dash and interior are a bit posher than in the old Defender, it still has a tough, indestructible quality just fine for serious adventure.
There’s simply nothing like a Defender in the rough. Other positives include its immense towing and carrying capacity. Few vehicles can lug loads like a Landie. Like all great warriors, the Defender has its Achilles heel – namely its on-road slothfulness and highway hullabaloo. The new one sees a big improvement here. But don’t think of the 07 Defender as an alternative to a Discovery 3 or an ML Benz. It is nothing like as car-like. Rather, the Defender remains a vehicle of great character, amazing toughness, huge strength and genuine appeal. It’s a working vehicle, free from pretension, a little slice of old England (like, to quote George Orwell, ‘old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist’). Just make sure you work it hard and work it true and give it regular doses of country air and mud to avoid disappointment.