A WEEK WITH THE DEFINITIVE LAND ROVER DEFENDER HAS LEFT US SCRATCHING (AND RUBBING) OUR HEADS…
Chocolate. Guinness. Snowboarding. That girl in the mail room. The Land Rover Defender. Things that look fantastic but don’t work out as well as you’d expected. Chocolate is absolutely delicious as it melts onto your tongue and scampers down your throat but as soon as the taste is gone you automatically feel two stone heavier. There’s nothing like a creamy pint of Guinness but one quickly becomes 10 and the next day is spent hiding under the bed covers in agony and expunging the excesses through every one of your body’s aching orifices in dark, unpleasant lumps. Snowboarding looks like the most fun in the world and I’m sure it is, ifyou’re any good at it. Getting to that stage involves nothing but cracked bones, bruised skin, frostbitten extremities and the occasional concussion. As for the girl in the mail room, she might look naughty but nice but most of what’s on show was brought to you by the good folks at Wonderbra and if you try to escape the screechy drivel she calls a conversation, she goes all bunny boiler on you and leaves enough text and voice messages on your phone to merit a restraining order.
Which brings us to the Land Rover Defender. Whenever I see a Defender I always think it looks like a big Tonka toy, waiting to be thrown into the sand pit and played with until its wheels fall off. I wonder about the exotic locations the driver has been in their Defender and where I would go if I got one. I have visions of loading the family up and heading to Africa or Russia in it to uncover the unexplored wilderness. So I call Land Rover up and I book one. And then I spend the next week wondering what the hell I was thinking.
Any way you look at the Defender, it’s quite incredible that you can still buy a car like it in 2007. We journalists go ape-ga-ga if a Mercedes squeaks or an Audi doesn’t have dual-zone climate control and we tut-tut when a car company says ESP or an iPod interface is going to be optional. We scoff at the interior plastics of the Ford Fiesta and bemoan the longwinded gear change of the Lexus IS220d.
But the Defender? Well, it’s a Defender, isn’t it? You expect it to be a little rough around the edges. Exposed screws everywhere – check. No airbags – check. Begrudging addition of ABS and traction control but no ESP – check. Gearbox from a WWII Sherman tank – check. Clutch that could pass for gym equipment – check. So much about the Defender is unsuited to modern European life it boggles the mind and yet most of my colleagues and thousands of customers seem curiously immune to the fact.
Land Rover explains that it’s difficult for it to change the Defender too much because in remote areas of the world parts are in limited supply and changing any part of the car could put it off the road for a long time should anything go wrong. All the parts the vehicle currently has are tried and tested, too, so again, given how off the beaten path Defenders go it’s best not to mess with what has worked for decades. Fine, except I don’t live in Africa and I don’t need my Defender to cross the Munjaba River to get medical supplies. I can walk to the pharmacy ‘round the corner and the AA will come if my car breaks down. I don’t need to be able to repair it with a spoon and mud. It’s not even all that great off road – on our Land Rover Experience course last year we weren’t allowed to take the Defender down the steepest hills because without ‘Hill Descent’ it would simply lock up its wheels and slide out of control, unlike our HDC-equipped Discovery and Range Rover Sport. Plus, the driving position is so cramped you keep banging your elbows and head off the door over rough terrain and there’s alarmingly little between you and a forest full of pointy things should it all go pear shaped.
Ironically, where the Defender is best is on the motorway, now that its steering has lost its wanderlust and it has the power from its new 2.4-litre Ford Transit engine to keep up with the flow of traffic. Out on the open road you don’t have to work the clutch or gearbox or do too much steering, thank heaven, leaving you free to soak up the envious stares of people wondering where you’ve been in your Defender. If it was cheap, I’d concede that all this was just about acceptable but, alas, it isn’t. Our three-door model without air conditioning costs a whopping €40,000 while a loaded five door is closer to €46,000.
You’d need to have a pretty serious need for ruggedness to justify spending that kind of cash on the Defender so unless you work for some wildlife organisation or need to access telecommunications masts on a regular basis you should perhaps look elsewhere. Don’t be fooled by the play-with-me looks. The Defender’s definitely not what I’d call fun.
Land Rover Defender Engine 2.4-litre, 5-cylinder turbo diesel 122hp,
360Nm torque Transmission 6-speed automatic Acceleration 0-100km/h 17.0 seconds (est)
Top speed 136km/h (limited)
Economy 8.4 litres/100km
CO2 Emissions 282 g/km
Boot Capacity N/A (there’s no boot, per se)
Base Price €39,700
Price as Tested €41,000 (est)