The Land Rover Defender, to many, is the benchmark for all off-roaders out there, and when the latest model finally reached the end of the production line in 2016 it felt like the end of an era for. It’s now 2019 and we are expecting the big reveal of the plucky mud-plugger’s replacement in the coming months. Only time will tell if the latest version will be true to it’s past or radical new move for JLR…
Even though I have owned several Land Rovers over the years and driven pretty much all of their current line up, I have never actually been able to get my hands on a Defender. I have appreciated them from afar and despite this, I have always been convinced I want one. Well, last weekend I finally got give one a go in its natural habitat – a big muddy off-road playground just up the road from Kelmarsh Hall at Avalanche Adventure. The Defender in question was a short wheelbase “90” with the 4 cylinder 2.2-litre diesel engine and the majority of it was standard apart from a sump guard, some grippy tyres and a few extra lights and roof rack. It looked just how I would want one if I was going to spec one up in my head. 2 seats at the front, benches in the back and not much else to distract you from the great outdoors.
Our instructor was first in the driver’s seat to give us a quick lap around the pit and to give a quick lesson in how best to attack various climbs and descents and how to use the Defender’s torque to get you through. I had actually driven this course before in my old Discovery 3 about 2 years ago at the Kelmarsh Land Rover Show 2017 but I could already tell this was going to be a very different experience. When you sit in the driver’s seat of the Defender, one of the first things you notice is how small it feels compared to how it looks from the outside. Unlike most modern 4x4s that are filled with leather seats, buttons and screens and nice plush interiors, the ’90 is as basic as you can really get, staying true to its roots going back over 7 decades.
The driver’s position is bolt upright with little space to stretch out your legs and nowhere for your right arm, it’s either hanging out the window or squeezed up against the paper-thin door card. On the contrast, the footwell is deep and pedals are chunky and spaced out perfectly for my huge size-12 Hunter wellies and the headroom isn’t too bad for me either. As we’re only going to be using this off-road, I slip it into Low-range and pull away in second gear and then pretty much let the car do its thing with me occasionally applying some gas or a bit of breaking and turning the wheel. Unlike my old Discovery, and just about every other car or truck I’ve driven off road over the years, there are no other special settings in the Defender which was quite daunting at first as I had always considered myself a confident driver but I had also always used the various terrain settings and hill descent controls and I didn’t want to come unstuck after badgering on about how I had done this before hundreds of times…
Fortunately for me, the Defender may be basic with regards to electric aids and “mod-cons” but it is also absolutely fantastic off-road. The ride was incredibly bumpy and crashy a lot of the time and my poor better half had quite a ride in the back as we chucked the car about the course, but at least she got her own back when it was her turn! In my head, I had built the Defender up to be heavy, cumbersome and difficult to manage but in reality, it was no harder to handle than the other cars I’ve tried out, it was just very different. In cars like the Discovery and Range Rover, you can do everything the Defender can, but it’s a completely different atmosphere. It’s almost serene as it’s so calm and smooth, even the really bumpy bits are somewhat ironed out by fancy air suspension and super-comfy leather armchairs, whereas the Defender keeps up with the big boys, but you have a lot more fun in the process. I remember getting to a particularly steep climb in my Discovery and I just flicked a few switches, lined up my wheels and let the car do the rest – the same climb in the Defender was so much more fun as you had to not only line yourself up properly but also make sure you had enough run up to get the momentum behind you and also make sure you still had that grunt and some grip at the top to pull you over. Out of the 6 of us who attempted the climb last weekend, 5 of us actually made it and only 2 of us did it on the first attempt (naturally, I was one of those 2!) This wouldn’t have even been a competition in the tech-laden bigger brothers of the Landy!
Something I have gone about for a long time is how a lot of modern cars are so sophisticated and clever that anyone can grab the keys, jump in and go for a ride, and that’s great. It makes all different types of driving more accessible to people and it makes anyone feel like a hero behind the wheel. Whether that’s the super easy everyday-ness of the Audi R8 that makes average Joe feel like a true racing pro behind the wheel to the current Land Rover Discovery that lets you conquer mountains like it’s no big deal. It’s just not for me. When I’m driving around a circuit or on an off-road course, I want my muscles to ache at the end of it, I want to be almost exhausted from concentrating and I want that sweat you get from putting your back into it and a lot of that isn’t there anymore with modern cars. Cars like the Caterham 7 and Land Rover Defender keep that dream alive and I really hope the new Defender keeps that spirit alive when it’s finally released to the public later on this year.
Driving the Defender for the first time was a bittersweet experience for me in the end. I loved it as much as I thought I would, if not, more, but it also made me realise I will probably never own one. The main reason for this realisation is down to practicality. My parents live in Spain and my in-laws live on the exact opposite side of this island we live on in Wales so I will always need a car that is ready for long motorway cruises and I always do a lot of driving for work etc and unfortunately, I am just not built to last those kinds of journeys in a Defender. The other more pressing problem is the truck’s combined recent style icon status and the number of people buying them as investment cars. This is pushing resale values through the roof and I hate to be the one that says it, but they just aren’t worth it. These are great agricultural vehicles built and designed for farms and quarries, but when a 3-year-old example that used to be bottom of Land Rover’s food chain is now changing hands for £40k. You could buy a full-fat Range Rover for that, or if you really wanted all the old-school of a Defender but still be able to actually drive it every day without needing a chiropractor on site, you could get a same-age Mercedes G350, which I can confirm is fantastic both off and on the road!
I just want to give a special thanks to Avalanche Adventure for a brilliant day of off-roading, clay shooting and quad-biking at their facility over in Sibbertoft. All 7 of us had a great day and we were all very looked after throughout our day! Details of all the activities on offer at Avalanche Adventure can be found HERE – They also do pay and play days if you want to put your own truck through its paces!