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Land Rover Defender


The last time I drove one of these - or more accurately a vehicle that was broadly equivalent - was a little over 30 years ago.

It was petrol rather than diesel engined, had a shorter wheelbase, no roof and was painted dark green.

From memory a vinyl-covered pad mounted directly on to the bodywork passed for the seat cushion.

I drove it from Auckland to Waiouru, most of the time in convoy and at a maximum speed of 72km/h; some of the time at a considerably lower rate of progress. It was a long, slow journey, dictated by Army regulations and the speed of the RL Bedford trucks that constituted most of the train of vehicles.

No-one was too worried about the lack of speed. One of the Bedfords carried an essential cargo for two weeks in Waiouru. It was heavily laden with beer. And the previous year, by all accounts, the beer truck had run into disaster, overturning and breaking most of its load of amber fluid-filled bottles.

The 1972 liquid refreshment was canned, but still no-one wanted to take chances.

That short-wheelbase well-sided Land Rover was a fun companion for the two weeks. Certainly a lot more fun than peeling potatoes or washing greasy cookpots in cold soapy water. The Army had trained me - drafted for Compulsory Military Training under the National Service scheme - as a cook but had too many cooks so I was driving a Land Rover.

Who was complaining? Not me. At the start of the fortnight I had no idea what first parades on vehicles were (basic maintenance checks) or of what forms had to be filled out and when, but I managed to bluff my way through.

As I said, it was fun driving that Land Rover 30 years ago, and I have to admit driving the bigger, long-wheelbase Defender 100 flatdeck last week was fun too.

The usual passenger didn't share my enthusiasm, finding the truck too bare and basic and - well - rough. Though she did have good words to say about the well-shaped and comfortable, vinyl-upholstered seats. Unlike the Army Rover these ones had curved backs, side bolsters and support for your shoulders.

The new Defender has much in common with its ancestor, including the "I'll go anywhere you want and do anything you want" nature and inbuilt ruggedness. It has the same basic shape that catches the wind and pummels it aside in the best blunt instrument tradition.

It has the same hard ride and the same contempt for all but the biggest of bumps.

We didn't take it far off-road. But there is no real need for a Land Rover to prove its off-road chops after decades of service in the toughest environments. And there was nothing that, with my limited off-road driving experience, I could throw at it that would test it greatly, save perhaps for the chance of getting mightily stuck in some muddy hole in the middle of nowhere.

I'll take the Defender's off-road prowess for granted. Land Rover's stylish brochure shows Defender wading swamps (maximum wading dept is 500mm), fording deep rivers, traversing snow and ice, climbing loose-surfaced unroaded hills at extremely-steep angles (the maximum gradient Land Rover says it will climb is 45 degrees).

That little green Rover did some of those things for me 30 years ago, the driver bluffing his way. If an RL Bedford 4WD could do it, so could the Rover. That was my thinking anyway.

It has to be said, though, that unsealed roads and places where there are no roads are the Defender's natural workplaces.

It wouldn't be your first choice for city driving, and certainly not - in two/occasional three-seat single cab and chassis form - the ideal vehicle for making the school run.

It rides firmly, its gearshift is chunky and unhurried. Try to hurry the long lever, especially on the shift from first to second, and it's likely to tell you where to get off. Or at best slot into fourth. The turbocharged 2.5-litre diesel has enough torque to keep accelerating (accumulating speed incrementally anyway) if you hit fourth when you wanted second. But following drivers will be cursing you.

The motor develops reasonable power - 90kW at 4200rpm - and healthy peak torque of 300Nm at 1950rpm.

That torque means there's plenty of lugging power, and the surge when you successfully slot the gear lever into second is strong. As you climb up through the five-speed gearbox, the torque delivery remains relentless, meaty and seamless and the Defender makes rapid progress up to 100km/h. And there's no need to slot down a cog to overtake at motorway speeds. Fifth gear delivers strong acceleration.

It's a vehicle you have to drive in all senses of the word. It's a tool and it demands that you treat it as such.

Take motorway cruising. If you want to run at a steady 100km/h you have to keep sufficient pressure on the throttle. Relax your foot pressure a little and you'll lose momentum.

Cruising relates mainly to speed. There's very little that's cruisy about the Defender's cabin. The engine is noisy in the grand tradition of diesels. It's a real old rattler and at speed that rattle joins the significant amount of wind noise generated by that flat windscreen and the truck's brick-like aerodynamics.

There's little in the way of insulation and - as in a traditional British-style sports car - you're in touch with the sounds of motoring (wind, engine and suspension noises), even though you're riding much higher off the ground (the Defender's ground clearance is 215mm unladen).

The fibreglass cabin roof's only concession to more than basic weather protection is a felt lining.

The driving position is upright and the climb into the cabin is high for a shorty like me. The technique was to grab the large-diameter, soft-feel steering wheel as an aid to hauling myself aboard. The passenger gets a little grab handle mounted at the left-hand end of the dash.

The view from the driver's seat is excellent and the controls are easy to operate and generally straightforward.

The test vehicle was without its handbook and necessity helped me one night find the headlight switch (down under the sparse dashboard behind and to the left of the steering wheel).

The two bucket-style seats are comfortable and supportive. The centre seat - with only a lap belt - is a cramped and short-distance-at-a-pinch sort of accommodation.

There's not a lot of elbow room and the Defender is easier to drive in winding going if you roll down the hand-wound window and let your elbow use the window opening for extra room.

A very practical touch was the handbrake - floor-mounted and upright - which Japanese ute manufacturers might like to emulate. It's far better and easier to use than one of those awful under-the-dash pull and twist brake handles.

The lumpy ride smoothes out on rough-surfaced gravel roads.

The test truck's tyres were biased more to off-road than tarmac motoring but provided very good levels of sealed road grip.

The Defender will corner surprisingly quickly and it can be hustled along country roads with confidence. The steering - power-assisted worm and roller - is accurate and has reasonable feel.

There's basic instrumentation - speedometer and essential gauges - and the general cockpit layout is of a design to which items have been added as they have come into vogue.

The $52,500 Defender cab and chassis (the flatdeck is built to suit customer requirements and there is no standard price) is a serious off-road vehicle, hugely rugged and with few concessions to luxury. You can, however, order air-conditioning.

Its go-anywhere/do-anything nature extends to city driving, though you could find better ways of threading through rush hour traffic.

That said, a briskly-driven Land Rover Defender has a decided effect on other traffic. Most cars tend to step aside and let you through.

It's not everyone's cup of tea and you'd probably only contemplate one if you did a lot of unsealed road and off-road driving and needed a vehicle that could literally go anywhere and do anything.

But sampled for a few days, even in the congested environs of Auckland city, the Defender flatdeck was a hoot to drive and enormous fun.

Best of all, though, it got us back in touch with real driving; driving where you had to take command and where very little is done for you by driver-assist features.

Without doubt it's the most characterful vehicle we've driven since Ford's F250 pick-up.

The test truck's 110 title refers to the wheelbase, 110 inches or 2794mm.

Story and photographs by Mike Stock

Auto Trader New Zealand