They say love is blind – and for the hoards of fans of the Land Rover Defender, it jolly well needs to be considering the car’s throwback dynamics, minimal safety equipment and near total lack of anything resembling comfort. Drawing its ancestry to 1948 in just three easy moves, the Defender has remained largely unchanged for the last 23 years. Now, with the announcement of a raft of revisions including a new engine, it’s going to be with us for a fair while longer. Begging the question: is this a good thing?
To decide it only seems fitting to take the Defender on a road trip between two equally iconic bits of Blighty. We’ll be starting at Stonehenge’s famous stone circle and ending up at the Swiss Re building in the City of London – better known by the affectionate nickname of the ‘Erotic Gherkin.’
If you choose to employ modern, objective criteria, the Defender is a truly terrible vehicle. It’s loud, slow and primitive. It frequently leaks, sometimes creaks and rides with all the cosseting pliancy of a space hopper. Despite all of which it’s acquired a cult following, both among those rugged rural types who genuinely need its undoubted off-road brilliance – but also among those who just appreciate it as a piece of timeless industrial design.
Despite its age and considerable cost Land Rover still sells 25,000 Defenders a year. Iconic design is certainly an important part of the appeal. This is one of those cars that just looks right. From every angle it wears its slab-sided suit with unabashed ease, projecting an unmistakeable presence in the manner of the original Mini or a Porsche 911. Indeed, you could argue that it’s the nods towards modernity that work less well in terms of the visual package – especially the chunky five-spoke alloy wheels that tend to adorn the ‘show pony’ examples.
Stonehenge suits the Defender well, both instantly recognisable and seemingly indestructible. The stones were knocked up about 2000 years BC, and nobody seems quite sure why – most theories tending to reveal archaeologists’ lurid fantasies about virgins being sacrificed in midsummer fertility rites. More recently controversial plans have been announced to spend £300 million burying the main A303 road which runs alongside in a mile-long tunnel.
It’s good that the Defender’s macho looks work so well, because the interior is so hopelessly out of date. This isn’t a car you slide effortlessly into, instead you need to physically man-handle your way into the cabin, where you’ll enjoy an eye line to rival that of a Transit van driver. Glancing around the interior is like travelling back in time, too, with loads of parts from the British Leyland back catalogue. It even shares its indicator and wiper stalks with the 1980 Metro, which must be some kind of record-breaking achievement in terms of switchgear lifespan. Ergonomics are pretty much non existent, switchgear is distributed all over the place with the heater fan controls by your right knee and the headlamp switch awkwardly located on the steering column. The three-abreast bench seat offers precisely zero latterly support, while most pilots find the only comfortable way to fit around the big steering wheel is to open the driver’s window.
Starting our journey across Wiltshire it’s obvious that the Defender would be far happier up to its axles in mud – every mud track or green lane not explored feels like an opportunity wasted. But we’ll be sticking to tarmac today – we already know that the Landie is pretty much unstoppable in the genuine wilderness, the arguably more interesting question is that of whether it’s tolerable for everyday on-road use.
The recent addition of the Ford Transit derived diesel engine has been welcome. Our Defender was fitted with Land Rover’s slightly off-the-wall TD5 engine, an in-line five cylinder turbodiesel that was designed for the second generation Discovery back in 1998. Never particularly popular with the Land Rover cognoscenti, who resented its lack of low-down torque compared to the very old-school 300 TDI four-cylinder motor it replaced, the TD5 feels very crude by modern standards, bursting into life with the sort of noise that can wake entire neighbourhoods, and with a turbo whistle that sounds like an old fashioned copper kettle.
Be under no illusions about the dynamic abilities of the Defender, though. It may be utterly brilliant off-road, but it harks back to an era when on-road feel was strictly secondary. The steering is woolly and actually feels as if something’s broken in the front end, and the cornering is laughably inept, offering new insights into the concept of slow-in, slow-out. Try anything too adventurous and the result is spectacular understeer.
On the A303 heading towards London the Defender forces a quick adoption to life in the slow lane. It’s capable of turning in some fairly impressive performance if you choose to put the hammer down – an indicated 85mph is possible on level ground. But the brick outhouse aerodynamics mean that you’ll get seriously punished at the pumps if you try to get anywhere too quickly – it’s alarmingly easy to push the fuel economy below 20mpg. Far better to stick to a truck-like 60mph trudge and watch the world rush by.
That’s probably half the reason that, 100 miles later and joining the back of a long queue of traffic on the M4 near Heathrow, I’m still as stress-free as when I left Stonehenge. Being able to see over cars in front helps, of course – if only there was a handy field next to the motorway in which to make good our escape.
There are few things more tragic than a gussied-up urban-dwelling Defender, but with some residual Wiltshire mud clinging to the wheelarches, ours can hold its head high as we enter the smoke. The Defender copes impressively well with city streets (sorry, Ken, but it’s true), it’s narrow and easy to place between width restrictors and the like, while the rock-hopping suspension leaves you free to take speed humps at pretty much any speed you choose. And you’ll keep fit driving it too, thanks to a heavy clutch and ponderous gearchange…
Still, the battle was worth it – and as we head towards the Square Mile following the guidance of an A-to-Z in lieu of any satnav, it’s not hard to find what we’re looking for. The Swiss Re tower was designed by elite penman Sir Norman Foster. It was completed in 2004 and is the second tallest building in the City of London, with its outline already a familiar part of the London skyline. It might look like a fat rocket, but it certainly sums up the confident image of 21st Century London, it’s plate glass windows acting as mirrors for the Land Rover’s equally assertive styling.
And the conclusion? Well, after 120 miles the Defender doesn’t feel any newer or more comfortable, but there’s undoubtedly something about it that draws you in, a character that more modern machinery, mass produced and carefully polished, just can’t match. It’s character that you learn to live with and, I reckon, finally brings you to embrace and celebrate the Defender’s manifest failings.