Defender of the Faith?


Above: '61-plate Defender sildes next to an A-reg Rangie. Which looks more modern?

We try living with a Land Rover Defender 110 for a week in London. Can it function on tarmac as well as off it?

A little while ago, we tried the latest Land Rover Defender on an extreme off-road course (when the headlights disappear under water, you know it is extreme). We were so impressed with the new 2.2 litre diesel engine (from the Freelander and Evoque), we wondered if it would function as a family's seven-seat off-roader in everyday use. Hence we tried it in central London – about as natural a habitat for a Defender as for a Cheetah.

Our first impression was that a geologist would love this car, and not simply because the shape is so old it almost requires carbon-dating. One of the little games you can play with the Defender is spotting which decade different features come from. The driving position? That is the 1950s. The pattern of the wipers, not set up for either left hand drive or right hand drive, but somewhere in the middle? Just like a 1960s Mini. The column stalks are upgraded versions of the ones on a 1970s Range Rover. And so on, right up to the engine, which is pure 2012.

Engines were traditionally the Achilles heel of the Defender: for most of its life it had whatever underpowered, unreliable four cylinder engine was lying around at either Rover or Austin Rover. Now it has an engine which is decades ahead of much of the rest of the car, which is a strange combination.

I remember being deafened in a friend's Land Rover 88 in the 1970s (his mother ran a riding stables in Cumbria). 55 mph was pretty much the maximum cruising speed if both the engine and the occupants were not to expire. Cruising in the current model, you barely hear the engine at all. Admittedly, that is partly because of the road noise from the cavernous rear of the Defender, the whine of the wipers and the roar of the fan (both motors not being insulated, unlike modern cars), but the relative hush is still near-miraculous to anyone who has been in earlier models.

In fact the general driving experience is remarkably painless. The suspension is better than you would expect: based on the Mark One Range Rover, it would not count as comfortable, but coil springs instead of the original leaf springs, plus tall, squashy tyres, mean it is not actually jarring. The gearbox (now with six-speeds) is also acceptable – about the same as you would get in a modern pick-up, although the stiff, slightly springy clutch takes a few minutes to get used to. The only real problem is the steering, or more accurately, the turning circle. The power steering is actually fine, but it only turns the wheels half as far as you expect. The maximum angle of the wheels has barely changed since the original Land Rover of 1948, which was 30 inches shorter, and not really intended to drive around multi-storey car parks. It takes planning and caution to execute low-speed manoeuvres: you need to use every inch of space to avoid three-point turns in even the most innocuous urban cornering.

Above: The 'luxury' of carpet seems like something of an afterthought...

The other problem is the architecture of the body. The driving position is borderline absurd. The seat is rammed against the door, a legacy of the days when Land Rovers had three front seats, and it is about four inches too close to the wheel for tall drivers. Second row passengers have enough space, but can't put their feet under the front seats, as that is where essential mechanical items like the battery live. Third row passengers are OK for legroom (if not for headroom), but there are not as many of them as there used to be: legislation means the original six inward-facing seats have had to be replaced by two forward facing ones.

After a week what did we think? That the Defender 110 is one of motoring greatest guilty pleasures. We absolutely loved it, even though we could barely get in the driver's seat. The history, the potential to climb a mountain, the mechanical feel to the controls, all made every journey feel special. In a way you are buying a painless classic car: the original shape, but with a modern engine and gearbox. The two big problems with the Defender are the ergonomics of the ancient body and, we have to admit, the near-total lack of safety features for a family.

Forget airbags, even ABS brakes are an option on all except the top trim level. The only parts of a Defender that will crumple in a crash are the occupants, which is not a good thought. Should you take one on a test drive? Think first – you might just fall in love and then have to justify your eccentric decision to a sceptical world.