A bruising Land Rover Defender encounter

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 08:29 27/08/2012

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When the idea for the first Land Rover was drawn up, it's doubtful its instigator Maurice Wilks, Rover's design chief, imagined that the exact shape he sketched out in 1947 on the sands of Red Wharf bay near his farm in Anglesey would still be available in showrooms more than 60 years later.

That gritty medium, scored with a walking stick to show the shape of a potential farmer's friend of a vehicle, explains why the Land Rover is so rigidly square. It also had to be cheap to make and, being fashioned out of surplus aluminium sheet, rather than expensive steel in those first stark years of austerity after World War II, it was easier and cheaper to bend and fix in straight lines than in fancy curves. That first car was built on a former WWII Jeep chassis and had a centre steering wheel. Both features were missing from the first production models when they appeared in 1948.

In fact, that prototype Land Rover had more curves than the current Defender 110 (One-Ten) tested here, with the earliest car's front mudguards describing a neat 90-degree radius from the bonnetline to bumper.

Things have changed in 65 years. Fuel is no longer kept under the driver's seat, one or two modern home comforts have snuck into the dash, which isn't a painted metal plank any more, and there are heated seats and air conditioning, as well as traction control and ABS to help you to go and stop, plus flash alloy wheels add a little visual street cred.

But most else is the same as it was at the start. It's not like granddad's axe, where the blade was changed along with the handle. In the Defender's case, the handle hasn't changed at all.

And doesn't it look the business? It generates such warm feelings from passers-by, something largely unknown when you have a modern SUV, unless you're helping someone's car out of liquefaction, snow or flooding.

It's possible that they're admiring my "brilliant restoration", which is what one starry-eyed pedestrian called it. He looked at "my" One-Ten with that same half-admiring, half-sympathetic gaze that you get from someone who loves your gorgeous villa but is already thinking of the work it entails.

"No, it's brand-new," I told him.

"When did they start making them again?" he asked.

"Never stopped," I explained.

Like that favourite villa, a Land Rover, even a brand-spanking-new one, means you have to make a few compromises. There's no airbag for a start and when I told a front-seat passenger as much, she visibly flinched. There's a bulging loaf of a plastic boss across the steering wheel's spokes, but it's merely for show.

The Ford Transit van-like dash and vents introduced about five years ago make the Land Rover's interior a little less like the inside of an iron maiden, but it still has squared-off edges into which you bash legs and arms and, while the big, tall between-the-seats cubby is very useful, I even managed to bang my head against it when clambering in one time.

The front cabin is very narrow. So tight is it, that changing gear and steering is a little like using a knife and fork while sitting next to a Belarusian shot-putter in a budget airline seat. One advance over the old model is the provision of power front windows, which means that drivers will no longer wear a deep bruise in their right leg from the earlier version's protruding winder.

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Surprisingly, it doesn't take long to get used to the narrow cabin and, while you can't push the seat back very far, the almost vertical leg placement is perfect for accurate clutch manipulation, and throttle and brake work. I warmed to the beast quickly - buoyed of course by other people's admiration for the old thing.

Speaking of "warmed", the heated seats, clad in cloth and leather and toasting the lower back as well as the backside, were superb. Marvellous during our cold, rain-lashed, recent weather.

Some people like SUVs for their view and accessibility. Well the One-Ten certainly has the view, but climbing aboard is nothing short of an Outward Bound course, especially up front.

Accessing the second row is a bit of a clamber too but, once you're in, the three-place bench is a very pleasant place to sit and nothing like the flat, featureless expanse of old. It offers good legroom thanks to the extra height, and it's much the same in the very back, where two bucket seats offer space and comfort for two, and can be folded and locked into the sides of the load area when not in use. When these seats are stowed, the load area is very useful, and it's carpeted, which is very out of character for a Land Rover workhorse.

What you have is a roomy, and very airy up to seven-seater, with a very strong visual presence.

It's all powered by a new 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine that came in to replace the outgoing 2.4-litre unit. The new unit makes as much power and torque as the old one but with a lot less fuss, thanks to an effective engine insulation cover. While still noisy, it's now quiet enough to make the car's stereo worth having. The unit works well, actually, and has auxiliary input.

The spread of gears from the six-speed manual does allow the Defender some semblance of refinement at highway speeds. Where previous versions could send you hoarse through having to shout a conversation at 100kmh, the 2012 model requires merely a slightly raised voice.

Land Rover says that the top speed has now crept up to a heady 145kmh from 133kmh previously. That's irrelevant, but it does feel quicker off the line with 100kmh possible in less than 15 seconds. The new car is no less thirsty at 11litres/100km and, while the One-Ten will be a favourite among green fans as Land Rovers have always been, best not tell them that its CO2 emissions are the same as the old model's 295g/km. The use of a particulate filter, does mean that the 2.2 complies with Euro 5 ratings, however.

In nasty weather, I drove the One-Ten through some serious stuff, on the edge of an angry-looking Waimakariri River, and even on wet river boulders, streaming berms and banks, it felt the way all high-low range Land Rovers do - in complete charge.

I like the way the front-end gropes deep into holes at low speed, "walking" into and out of obstacles while imparting good information through the worm and roller steering. On the rare occasions when low-range was needed - a steep, wet grassy bank was a case in point - the old beast could be left with the clutch all the way home and steered gently up the slope at idle in first without a thought of wheelspin.

While you can use the diesel engine's compression to hold the One-Ten back on steep downhills, you have to be extra careful, as the 2.2-tonne unit has no electronic hill-descent control - something we take for granted these days in less serious soft-roaders. Thus loose downhill surfaces require a little more skill than modern SUVs might but I'd never bet against this wonderful old-timer on general dirt work. It's easy to point and direct over boulders, and through streams. I didn't get to test the auxiliary snorkel or the big black front bash bar but, then, I'm a pretty careful dirt digger. However, it's nice to know such serious off-road contraptions are there "just in case".

On the road, the Land Rover tracks true and, despite its height and centre of gravity, does not appear to be as affected by side winds as the previous car. The worm and roller steering was faithful enough and, while the One-Ten is no sports car, it can be accurately pointed and cornered from the driver's perch. Low-speed manoeuvres can be a pain, however, as the Land Rover has a massive steering circle and you have to take wide, deliberate approaches to narrow gaps and car park spaces. Thankfully, other road users appeared not to mind the big white wagon's careful manoeuvring while they waited. They may not having been as patient with a Range Rover or something big, tall and German.

I didn't think so at first, but I could genuinely live with the Defender 110. There's so much off-road ability and charm in the car, that even the $71,500 price seems pretty reasonable, especially when you know that the iconic design will never, ever date.

There's no provision of an automatic option, of course, and painted metal and shiny plastic parts are in places where modern SUVs offer up velours and posh vinyls. However, the smattering of home comforts and chassis aids are just the right ones, the cabin space for the driver's six best mates is remarkably practical and I could even live with the bruises I know I'd get each time I try to rush aboard the car.

If you like refined driving and only want to take an occasional trickle down a forestry road or picnic trail, this is not the vehicle. However, if your sport utility has to stay off the road for days at a time, or tug a seriously large boat to the wharf, and look the part in a wrecked city that's going to need a lot of hard work in the next few years, this is the one on which I'd paint my logo.

DEFENDER 110 SW

Drivetrain: Front inline turbodiesel 2.2-litre 16v four with permanent 4WD, high-low range, lockable centre diff, 6-speed manual.

Performance: Max 90kW at 3500rpm, 360Nm at 2000rpm, max speed 145kmh, 0-100kmh 14 secs, 11L/100km, 295g/km CO2.

Chassis: Live axle with coil springs, front and rear. Power-assisted worm and roller steering. 16x7J alloy wheels.

Safety: ABS and traction control standard, 7 three-point seatbelts and headrests, alarm and immobiliser. No airbags.

Dimensions: L 4785mm, H 2182mm, W 1790mm, W/base 2794mm, F/track 1486mm, R/track 1486mm, Weight 2123kg, Fuel 75L.

Pricing: Land Rover Defender 110 station wagon as tested $71,500. Other Land Rover Defenders from $61,500 to $68,500.

HOT: Goes anywhere; tough, strong, calming, influence; hose-out interior; usefully equipped; good passenger room; charismatic.

NOT: Cramped driving position; difficult to access; noisy and relatively slow; devoid of passive safety accoutrements; thirsty.

VERDICT:
Highly respected; remarkably capable workhorse is surprisingly practicable; and charms from the first turn of the wheel.

- The Press

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