Defender Blasts its Past - A big makeover for Land Rover's Icon
The basic Land Rover has chugged through the decades and now, on the eve of its 60th birthday, comes one of its biggest makeovers – one that gives meaning to the saying, “there’s life in the old girl yet”. It still looks much the same – the giveaway sign is a hump on the bonnet; most of the changes are hidden behind its alloy body panels.
As far as makeovers go, this was probably a reluctant one for Land Rover. The vehicle was selling steadily as it was, but in order to put another few years under its tough ladder chassis, something had to be done about meeting new emissions and safety laws. The biggest change required fitting a new engine and transmission to replace the five-cylinder Td5 diesel that was well liked but too “dirty” to meet new European emission rules.
Fortunately, the Ford empire had just the motor, a 2.4 litre 90kW, 360Nm common-rail unit from the Transit van, along with a nice six-speed manual gearbox. With a few mods to make them more suited to the serious off-roading that is Defender’s forte, the new mechanics seem right at home in the classic body, almost like they were made for each other.
Other serious changes included the dashboard and accommodation for driver and front passenger. Land Rover skilfully grafted what is essentially the Discovery dash onto the Defender and although more space-intrusive than the previous arrangement, it looks and works very well. The dash includes integrated air conditioning, replacing an archaic bolt-on cooling unit. The front bucket seats look good, are comfortable, supportive … and heated.
For decades, Defenders and their predecessors used inward-facing seats in the back, but these have become safety no-go zones so Land Rover has replaced them with a pair of folding front-facing bucket seats. There’s no progress here, other than to meet new laws, as the seats are wasteful of space and uncomfortable.
Defender is sold here in three distinct versions, starting around $64,000. Wagons are offered in long- or short-wheelbase. The long five-door 110 seats five or seven depending on the configuration, while the 90 three-door seats four. The 110 is also available as a double-cab ute, although its cargo tray is small and awkward due to intrusive wheel wells. If tray capacity is important, an even longer 130 model is available in a lower S specification. One of the hero features is the new MT82 gearbox, based on the Ford MT75 unit. Compared to the previous five-speed, the newcomer has a lower first and a higher top, providing more stump-pulling torque at one end and lower rpm for relaxed highway cruising at the other.
Engage low-range and the new first gear is outstanding for crawling up, down and around serious obstacles off-road. The Defender’s great coil-spring beam axle suspension continues as before, although the anti-roll bars really need to be removed for it to articulate at its best. The gearing, plenty of low-down engine torque and the suspension combine with good ground clearance and superb approach and departure angles to make the Defender, particularly in the short 90 format, an outstanding off-roader. New Zealand Defender SE models all have standard electronic traction control, making them even more competent in the really rough stuff.
On the road, the latest Defender is somewhat quieter and smoother and rides very well, especially in the longer 110-inch wheelbase format. The butt of many jokes over the years, nobody now needs to feel disadvantaged about being asked to sit in a Defender on a long trip – unless they get one of those fold-away rear seats. It’s still not particularly fast, with a 0-100kph time of about 14 seconds, but thanks to the six-speed gearbox, overtaking times can be surprisingly quick. The company’s engineers have done a good job of bringing Defender up to date, at least for a few more years, until the nameplate reappears on something completely different.
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