By Tom Allen
The Land Rover Defender 110: Hand-built, exceptional off-road ability and bucolic - not so different from the 1949 model. But that’s exactly why it’s one of the most characterful cars you can buy.
The last time I drove a Defender was several years ago, when I worked for the UK’s 4x4 Magazine. The short wheelbase Defender 90 was, objectively speaking and by common consent, the best off-road car. In one 30-car off-road test, the only other one that came close in mud-skipping, rock-crunching dexterity was the Jeep Wrangler.
Having since scraped off the mud and arrived in the UAE about three years ago, I promptly requested a Defender test drive. Problem: There were no Defenders here. There were plenty of Wranglers but the paragon of British off-roading was nowhere to be seen.
Perhaps Land Rover Middle East preferred to shift its more expensive and sophisticated models. Perhaps the Defender’s spartan composition, diesel engine and manual transmission were too agricultural for this country’s mostly fair-weather off-roaders. Officially, the Defender has always been on sale here — which isn’t really true. When did you last see one in a showroom?
But probably because car sales have crashed in most markets, Defenders have suddenly reappeared in this one.
The UAE may be the world’s top-selling Land/Range Rover market (per head) but no one should forget it was the Defender upon which the entire range is based. After, ooh, two years, I got a call saying, “Your Defender is ready”.
This time, it was the long wheelbase 110. I didn’t take it off-road, leaving that to my colleagues, Amit, Chandan and Dejan, who took it, and the long wheelbase Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, onto the sand. (See the fun and games in the next issue of wheels.) No, I stuck where, for even the most adventurous off-roader, the Defender will spend most of its time: In town.
And d’you know what? It works. False memory had got me thinking getting up to 120kph would be a slog, but it wasn’t. The 2.4-litre Td4 engine — the UAE gets this dirtier engine, since replaced in other markets with the cleaner and newer Td5 unit — is nevertheless impressive.
Cruising in sixth is a doddle and not too noisy, although the diesel throb is hardly Lexus-like. The six-speed gearbox is obviously tailored for off-road grunt, so there’s huge amounts of low-down torque, which ameliorates the meek-sounding 122bhp. To accelerate, you admittedly have to rattle the bus-like gearstick through the low gears. But it works brilliantly in traffic. Honest. First gear is so roomy, you can let it roll, feathering the brake to slow down or speed up.
In any other car, you’d stall but in this one, you crawl.
It works as a family vehicle too.
I strapped our baby in the back seat and wheeled the buggy, still upright, into the space between the folded-away third row of seats. And because it’s diesel, you can even claim to be that bit greener. (Diesel is slightly less poisonous than petrol — because of the diesel engine’s inherent efficiency, you use less energy to get more performance.)
However, in town, the Defender has a major Achilles heel: The turning ‘circle’ — it’s more like a straight line. In a country where making a U-turn is a national sport, the Defender fails woefully. I found myself nudging the kerb, with a queue of instantly irate honking drivers behind me — into which I had to reverse to re-angle the turn and pull off.
However, this is where the Defender driver’s natural sense of superiority kicks in. You won’t mind them honking because you’re driving... a Defender. When a slightly lower Range Rover passes by, you can’t help pity its wood, leather and creature comforts because you’re driving the real deal. This is the original Hummer, without the porn-star connotations. In my opinion, the Def’s looks are unbeatable. As is the ultra-user friendly and utilitarian interior.
You couldn’t get a car less like the Porsche Carrera — apart from the fact both companies have been honing their icons for years. The 2009 Defender isn’t much changed from the 1949 one. It might be Tata owned, but it’s still handmade and you still only need a spanner to disassemble it.
If I had driven this last year, it would have been one of our top-rated ‘cars of 2008’, just featured in issue 201. But then what’s the point in praising a car one year when it’s been around for 60 years and probably will be for 60 more. Unchanged, of course.