2016 Land Rover Defender 90 Review – One last drive
Review by KARL PESKETT
Price: no longer available
Engine/Trans: 90kW/360Nm 2.2-litre Turbo Diesel / 6-speed manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 10.0 l/100km combined
Construction: Body on chassis
Suspension: Coil sprung live front and rear axle
Towing: 3500kg unbraked / 750kg braked
“Purpose built”. If ever a car fit that definition it would have to be the Land Rover Defender. It has only one role – to get you from A to B through whatever the earth’s crust can throw at it. The Defender was always destined to be a classic, even apart from its longevity.
Every good thing has to come to an end, though, and in the case of the Defender that was earlier this year. January saw the last car roll off the production line, which is why when we had a chance to test one of the final press cars we’d see in Australia, we jumped at the chance. After all, this is truly an automotive icon, so what better way to celebrate it, than to test it in the environment for which it was designed.
Though it has been refined over the decades, the Defender’s basic layout and design have remained the same. And because it’s been built purely to climb over, crash through and flatten out any path you choose, there have to be a few compromises.
Let’s start with how it looks – it’s truly utilitarian. There are no extra creases, swage lines or spoilers to make it look good. Its only function is to transport people, which is why it looks like a box with windows. Headlights and a grille adorn the front, there are some wing mirrors for legal reasons and there’s a huge back end that carries passengers and cargo. Pretty basic stuff.
And it’s put together very basically as well. Bolt and screw heads are visible throughout the cabin. Plastic covers are clipped on and the build quality certainly isn’t what you’d call great. Spot welds, rivets, sikaflex – it’s all on display. Look down the bodywork and there’s a distinct concave wave where the door handle sits. Pretty it ain’t.
The news isn’t much better inside. The extent of luxury is the (optional) heated leather seats and the electric front windows. On yes, there’s also an Alpine deck with detachable face which is linked to a rudimentary Bluetooth system, including a tacked on microphone on the steering column.
And while it’s all very basic, credit where credit is due – those seats are fabulous. Padded beautifully and trimmed in soft leather, the pews are the best of any car under $50K, without exception. It is worth noting, however, that the upgrade to get even partial leather seats costs $1510 for the front seats and $2000 for the rear.
Everything else, though, is designed with function in mind. Every button, every lever, every switch can be used whether you’re rugged up and wearing gloves or not. The whole front floor can be detached and hosed off, while the rear section has tiny ridges that keep gripping even when filled with sand or mud. It may sound messy but in practice it’s simple to clean and stops your recovery gear sliding around.
So, the interior is a mixed bag. The drive? Well, that’s much the same, but depending on the surface you’re traversing, things can improve dramatically.
On the road, the Defender feels positively ancient. This will be the deal breaker for some.
Start the engine (the key is unusual, being on the left) and the car kicks over and settles into a clattering idle. Thanks to turbocharging the 2.2-litre engine puts out 90kW and a respectable 360Nm. Not huge outputs from a diesel of this size (you only have to look at the 147kW/441Nm from Hyundai/Kia to see how lacklustre it is) and because the Defender weighs 1815kg, you can imagine that progress isn’t exactly rapid.
Thankfully first gear is quite short and there’s a few hundred Newton-metres available just off idle, so it’s quite tractable. The problem is a distinct lack of sound deadening. That means you get to experience the intricacies of diesel technology in all their gory glory.
The manual gearbox isn’t the last word on smoothness, either. The lever is pushed into the gate and it clunks along the way, and then there’s a thump after it’s home. Imagine doing that every day on your way to and from work, and then multiply that by 48 working weeks a year. Yeah, it’s going to get a bit wearing after some time.
The passenger foot well is cramped, too, owing to a transmission tunnel and low range casing that pushes across to the left. And comfort levels don’t get much better along the way. Sure, the front seats are brilliant, but the rear seats are mounted so high up that apart from allowing a good view, anyone who is semi-tall will have issues getting in and out easily.
Passengers will have to be reasonably agile to climb up and into the rear, though the narrow door, but the procedure to get seated is quite convoluted. Fold down the backrest, unlatch and flip the chairs up to each side, walk through and then reverse the routine to sit down. And no, you can’t go in through the front doors.
Want to connect a compressor? There’s no need to pop the bonnet. Accessing the battery is done by sliding the passenger seat forward, pulling up on the seat base, exposing the vinyl flap which covers the storage box. Pull the flap up, undo a simple clasp, and the battery cover can be removed. The driver’s side has the same arrangement for the fuse box.
Wheeling it around reveals steering which has good feedback, but very indirect and heavy, so approaching corners takes some planning. There’s a lot of free play around dead centre, though the further you get into the turn, the sharper it gets.
Clearly the steering’s amount of turns is to ensure the wheel doesn’t get wrenched out of your hands when climbing the edges of ruts or rock walls. But you do feel connected to it.
As you can tell, some of the Defender’s foibles are glaringly obvious every day. A bouncy ride, noisy engine and heavy steering mean the Defender feels outclassed by every other four-wheel-drive built since 1980. So, does its performance in the rough balance the ledger?
We decided to test this Defender at the Powerline Track, east of Perth, near the town of Mundaring. It starts out with sand and a few small rocks and quickly deteriorates into mud, boulders, gravel and washed out ruts. Best let down the tyres, then.
Initially, it happy glides over the sandy sections and slides on the gravel with ease. And then the climb starts. The undulations become taller and deeper and the short wheelbase comes in very handy, as it’ll never get stranded ramping over a rock. Then the wheels are at each corner of the car, with short bumpers, giving it brilliant approach and departure angles.
The ruts start to get deeper and right in the bottom is a slick – clay mud. Normally tyres would cake up their treads and there’d be no more grip. But thanks to the traction control, the Defender has an ace up its sleeve.
Rather than a staccato brake-turn-brake-turn repetition, the wheels spin up quickly and then brake quickly, flinging out the mud. Grip is maximised and the Defender simply bounces on the spot and then climbs up and out. The wheel articulation keeps wheels on the ground, meaning physical grip is prioritised over traction by braking wheels which are in the air.
Keeping the majority of its weight low means it can accomplish lean angles which are visually (and practically) impressive. And we’re not talking about left and right. It can make near vertical approaches and departures, and despite having passengers hyperventilating, its ability usually outdoes its driver’s confidence.
Being quite narrow, it’s able to crawl into spaces that would have dual-cab utes leaving paintwork behind, and it is happy to clamber down slippery hills that would normally make hardcore off-roaders faint out of fear.
If there was a fault, it would be that the suspension isn’t very forgiving. It lands hard, and can jolt your spine. Apart from that, the Defender in its natural habitat is just sensational.
There’s tonnes of feedback from the seat of your pants – it can be a bit overwhelming at times – but you know exactly that the car is doing and where its wheels are at in any given moment. And compared with the current crop of off-roaders, the Defender’s raw attitude and no-nonsense, no-frills approach is refreshing. Alas, however, its time has come to an end.
As this legendary machine drives off into the sunset, we feel privileged to have been a part of its history. It’s the machine that kicked off Land Rover as a company, and has led us to amazing machines like the Range Rover Vogue. For that, we’re truly grateful.
Goodbye, dear friend. Thanks for the memories.