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Steve Q

Future Classic: Land Rover Defender

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Steve sets out to find out whether the Land Rover Defender is the best 4x4 by far, and a future classic.

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It cannot be denied the Defender is a true British icon and one of the few vehicles in the world which is truly classless. It’s a car that is befitting of Royalty, as well as farmers or builders and as such it is a vehicle which does not look out of place either in the country or parked on a suburb.

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Launched in 1983 to replace the venerable Series 3 the new model was designated either 90, 110 or 127 dependent on which wheelbase was chosen and came with an array of improvements over its predecessor. The 110 model came first in 1983, followed by the 90 in 1984 which had improved handling characteristics thanks partly to the fitment of coil sprung suspension all round which not only made the ride more compliant on tarmac it also improved axle articulation on the rough stuff. The 90/110 models were further refined over the series 3 with an updated interior including wind up windows and one piece windscreen which increased visibility. The most noticeable change however, was the aesthetics of the vehicle which not only had a longer bonnet; it also received a different grill and larger dimensions. Despite the level of extensive changes the design department were able to keep the 90/110 looking conservative, thus keeping their target audience happy.

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Mechanically on release the 90/110 was available with Land Rovers traditional 2.25 four cylinder petrol, 3.5 V8 petrol or 2.5 diesel available in non turbo and turbo variants throughout production. Most of these units inherited their design from the previous Series Land Rovers but were updated to offer more power and improved reliability. The combination of drivetrain and looks saw the 90/110 model into the 1990s where the model was later revised with not only a new name “Defender”, but mechanical enhancements in the way of Land Rovers brand new TDI engines. The first of these was the 200tdi which despite having the block and some internals from the Series 3 2.5 unit, produced 107hp/264 Nm torque thanks to direct injection, alloy cylinder head, improved turbo charging and improved intercooling. These changes helped the Defender to have a higher cruising speed as well as better fuel economy. In 1994 the 300tdi engine was introduced which was a completely new engine which gained power to 111hp/264 Nm torque.

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It wasn’t just the mechanical components that got an upgrade as the Defender also received some cosmetic tweaks to try and cater for the recreational market. As such the Defender became available with alloy wheels and more comfortable seating amongst other additions. Heading towards the Millennium marked an interesting time for Land rover as a whole thanks to coming under the ownership of BMW. This naturally had an effect on the Defender where BMW introduced yet another new engine, the TD5 which was a 5 cylinder engine offered more power and greater fuel efficiency. During BMW ownership the Defeneder also gained upgraded electrics including an improved ECU. However it was discovered that despite its efficiency these ECU were more vulnerable to damage when wet compared to its predecessors. This naturally caused issues for owners who used their Defenders for series offroading.

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BMW further improved the Defender design by installing revised weather seals, enhanced dash controls and improved instrumentation in the way of new dials plus upgraded illumination. There was a later change in Land Rovers ownership in the mid Noughties when they were bought by Ford, who just like BMW changed the Defenders engines to Ford 2.2TDCI duratorque diesel engines which allowed the Defender to meet stricter EU emissions rules as well as increasing performance to 122hp/ 300 Nm torque, plus mated to a 6 speed manual gearbox. Ford further improved the interior with a completely revised dashboard, instrumentation taken from the Discovery 3 and improved heater/demister. However, despite all the improvements the writing was on the wall for the Defender and the model finally bowed out on the 29th January 2016 due to a fall in sales thanks to stiff completion as well as ever stricter safety/emission regulations.

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Driving the Defender

The vehicle I have on test is a 1996 Defender 90 County Station Wagon which is fitted with the 300tdi four cylinder diesel engine, producing 111hp/264 Nm torque. Climbing up into the cabin it feels archaic compared to its competitors but I love it more for this. For those who are used to more main stream vehicles they will have to get used a more cramped interior and unique driving style. Turning the key, the diesel engine rumbles into life which can be clearly heard through the bulkhead due to a lack of sound deadening. As one would expect from a utilitarian vehicle there is more vibration and less luxury compared to other European and Japanese rivals, but on the plus side the interior can be hosed down and wiped down which overall makes the interior more durable. I found the seat base comfortable but less supportive for my back. For rear passengers the Defender came with either four separate seats or bench seats. The former is a lot safer thanks to independent seatbelts, and Id strongly recommend you carry out this conversion if the vehicle you are considering doesn’t have them already.

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On the open road the Defender experiences a lot of wind noise thanks to that flat windscreen and angular body which cannot be muted by the radio at higher speeds. Let’s be clear though, the Defender is not a vehicle to be pushed at higher speeds as it can start to get fidgety on the motorway and on the whole you are confined to a cruising speed of 60-65mph. The steering can also be slightly vague but has the benefit of being power assisted and on the whole you can sense where the wheels are which is certainly helpful when travelling offroad. The brakes can also take a little getting used to and will surprise those who are used to cars that can stop on a six pence.

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Offroad is where the Defenders pedigree shines through as it can master most inclines without hesitation as long as the correct gear has been engaged. As well as being able to lean at an agle of 45 degrees without getting flustered. Generally it will go where ever you point it and can be forgiving for the novice offroad driver. The Defenders offroad prowess is impart to a short over hang both front and rear and good ground clearance. Plus the defender has a wading depth of 500mm.  

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However consistent offroading can be the Defenders downfall as mud, water and salt can wreak havoc with the chassis if not jet washed or waxoiled and serious rust will inevitably set in. Usually it’s the rear cross member which goes first thanks to getting all much and road salt from the rear wheels.  But corrosion will set in on the chassis rails and bulkhead, the latter requires a replacement in a worst case scenario and involves a complete strip down of the vehicle. The body on the Defender is made mainly from aluminium but can get dented or distorted from offroading, this is particularly the case of the sills. Corrosion in the way of oxidisation can form around areas where the aluminium meets the steel framework, as well as hinges which wear due to wear and tear. The rear door is the worst culprit for this thanks to the heavy spare wheel which it supports. Thankfully most parts for the Defender are available thanks to the vehicles popularity.  

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On any potential purchases it is wise to check over the mechanical components thoroughly as there a lot of Defenders which will have had engine conversions either to tdi or to V8. The latter is a rarer modification but it does happen. Proof of any major mechanical work is strongly recommended to prove it has been carried out to a professional standard. As you’d expect most of the engines are now getting on in age and many will have covered high mileages, as such its worth listening out for any whines from the differentials or turbo as well as making sure the gear changes are crunch free and that the gearbox changes from high range to low range without issue. Bearing in mind regular driving with the 4x4 engaged will cause premature wear to the gearbox and differentials.

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The Motorists Guide View:

Despite its outdated appearance and driving characteristics the Defender has certainly gathered a loyal following of fans who love it for various reasons. Some for its “go anywhere ability”, others to use it for work or exploration and those who want one to have a slice of automotive Britshness. Overall, I loved the Defender and would certainly own one in a heartbeat. It certainly has character and feels somewhat alive and feels like it has its own personality. I do believe they are a guaranteed future classic and I’m sure prices will only increase as time goes on. So my advice would be, to get one whilst they’re still affordable!

Dimensions – Defender 90 (as tested)

  Length: 3883mm

Width: 1790mm

Height: 2035mm

        Gross weight: 2400kg

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