Land Rover Defender 90 Station Wagon XS

 

Engine: 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual gearbox, dual range permanent four-wheel drive, lockable centre differential Power: 122 PS at 3,500rpm
Torque: 360 Nm at 2,000 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 27.7 mpg
CO2 emissions: 269g/km
Top speed: N/A
Acceleration (0-62 mph): N/A
Price: £29,500 (Defenders start at £21,410 for the pick-up model)

It’s no secret that Land Rover is working on a successor to its most basic model, the Defender, so if you’ve always wanted to buy one, time is running out. But why would anyone actually walk into a Land Rover showroom, ignore the obvious appeal of the Freelander, the Discovery and all of those plush Range Rovers, and plonk down a large amount of cash for a comparatively crude design that can trace its roots all the way back to 1947?

Well the Defender wouldn’t have lasted this long if it didn’t have a lot going for it, and if you do buy one, you’re not just buying a car – you’re also buying into what is arguably the finest off-road pedigree around. Only Jeep really comes close. And while the Defender has the same basic architecture using a separate chassis as the original 1947 Land Rover (it only became the Defender in 1990), almost every part has been changed over the years. That’s helped only a little bit in the cabin, which has some creature comforts but is still cramped and awkwardly laid out. On the other hand, the engines have improved out of all recognition; the current model has a strong 2.2-litre turbo-diesel from Land Rover’s former owner Ford. Paired with a modern six-speed manual gearbox, this provides fairly decent performance, and even acceptably refined motorway cruising. Probably the biggest update in the Defender’s long history came in 1983 when it got a big under-the-skin revamp incorporating coil-spring suspension and a more modern transmission, a set-up that borrowed heavily from the much more civilised first-generation Range Rover. That means the Defender’s on-road ride and handling are just about tolerable rather than truly terrible, although it’s still left in the shade by the more modern competition in this respect.

But over the rough stuff the Defender makes a strong case for itself. It certainly lacks some of the advanced off-road aids that Land Rover’s more expensive models enjoy, in particular, the company’s Terrain Response system. That allows a driver to set the car up, using a twist-knob or buttons, for different conditions – for example sand and gravel or mud and ruts. Engine mapping, ground clearance and other parameters are then altered accordingly. Combined with automatic transmission, Terrain Response goes a long way to deskilling the task of off-road driving. So what does the Defender have instead? Well it has a dual range transmission with a lockable centre differential, still probably the mark of a really serious off-roader, and the sort of kit that isn’t generally fitted as standard to most of the posh German-badged SUVs – that helps a lot when the going gets tough. And the Defender does have some effective electronic aids such as anti-lock brakes and traction control. Most helpful of all, though is the latest Defender’s remarkable reluctance to stall even in the face of difficult conditions or clumsy clutch action; time and again this feature can help a less experienced off-road driver keep going instead of getting hopelessly stuck. Add in generous ground clearance and that tough separate chassis and it’s still hard to beat.

But if the Defender still has plenty to offer, changing safety and environmental rules mean its days are inevitably numbered. Land Rover has already floated a concept car showing what the Defender’s successor will look like. It’s appealing enough but while it may end up occupying the space in Land Rover’s brochures and on dealers’ showroom floors previously devoted to the Defender, I doubt whether it can ever truly replace it. After all, how can you replace the irreplaceable?

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