The Land Rover Defender is an institution and unbeatable off road, if crude on it

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How do you update an icon? How do you redefine for a modern audience something conceived generations ago in a very different world? Simple: and you can see how by tuning into BBC1 on Saturday night.

There you’ll find the latest Doctor Who series. Its genius (and the reason it’s one of the Beeb’s most lucrative exports) is that, while its production standards may be modern, its concept and content have hardly changed.

Boot has a fitted carpet — why? You’re meant to be able to hose these cars out.

The good Doctor still galaxy-hops in a police box, even though not a single member of its target audience has the slightest idea what a police box is.

It is to be hoped that the engineers of this new Land Rover Defender are avid viewers, for then they will have seen the formula for regeneration laid out before them.

They will know that, whatever changes take place, the fundamental formula has to remain inviolate. Mess up the Land Rover Defender and you don’t just spoil a car – you defile a national treasure. It should not be something done lightly.

But updated the Defender must be, in what is absolutely its last major rethink before it finally succumbs to the one obstacle that even the world’s most famous off-roader can never hope to climb: the legislator’s pen.

Even to make it this far, it needed a new engine to cope with emissions rules, and that meant a new gearbox. And while the engineers where at it, the suspension and steering have been modified. But the biggest change is a near enough new interior – again to ensure compliance with the rule book, but also to bring a level of comfort and user-friendliness not yet seen in one such as this.

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Land Rover Defender rear

Tracing its roots right back to the original 1948 Land Rover concept, the new Land Rover Defender has been given a new engine that meets stringent Euro 5 emissions standards and a significant overhaul to improve refinement. This overhaul kept the Defender in the showrooms until at least 2015.

Outside, you can tell the new Defender from the old only by the raised bonnet line (not to give it a macho power bulge, but simply to clear the engine) and, sadly, the deletion of the rectangular air vents beneath the windscreen.

Land Rover says the stereo has been improved. Hard to imagine how bad it was before.

Replacing the old Ford Transit-sourced 2.4-litre diesel is a new 2.2-litre unit, which gets a single variable-vane turbocharger and a new Continental high-pressure (1800 bar) fuel injection system. The engine gets updated fluid seals and a robust single-mass flywheel. (Most modern road cars use dual-mass flywheels for refinement, but these can be fragile.) Despite all this, the power and torque of the new unit are identical to the outgoing engine’s.

A bespoke anti-pollution system was also designed for the Defender. The catalyst and particulate filter are mounted close together and the whole assembly is squeezed into the engine bay, ensuring that the expensive and vulnerable equipment is not destroyed by serious off-roading.

The upshot of the re-engineering is that “virtually every component in the engine bay has been re-located,”, says Land Rover. The 2012 Defender also gets a significantly upgraded NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) kit, including a new acoustic hood for the engine, more efficient sound-deadening and improved seals.


Land Rover Defender's dashboard

There is now a world of difference inside. The dashboard features new instruments in the Land Rover Discovery style, and a new ventilation system brings fresh-air eyeball vents to the cockpit and crude-looking switches and dials to make them work.

As ever, hard black plastic is the predominant theme – no attempt at all has been made to gentrify the Land Rover Defender. Moreover, the driving position remains appallingly cramped despite the fitment of new, more supportive seats. Elbow space is notable for its absence and legroom is right on the limit of comfortable.

Turbocharging comes from a Honeywell-Garrett variable-nozzle turbo which can direct the flow of exhaust gas at different parts of the turbo’s induction wheel

In the back, where you’ll now find just two forward-pointing seats that, perhaps uniquely, you can access only through the rear door, headroom is at a premium. Adults will be able to stretch their legs, but you sit perched so high above those in the front that taller occupants will find their head becoming unusually well acquainted with the headlining. The seat backs tip forward and the seats themselves can be folded easily into the side of the car to leave a vast boot, but they don’t slide, tumble, recline or come out. An MPV it ain’t.

The lack of a rear bulkhead in this 90 means that the seats (which seem to be more generously padded) will just about go back far enough for a six-foot driver, but the narrow cabin requires elbows to be tucked well in during low-speed maneuvering. The centre console is laid out clearly and backlit effectively at night. The heater is volcanic, but its old-school water-valve technology makes it very hard to regulate.

Ergonomic madness abounds – especially the upright handbrake and a key that can’t be turned when the headlamp switch is in the ‘on’ position. The column stalks date back to the original Austin Metro, the headlamps are weak and the wipers clear just a tiny part of the screen.


The Puma engine in the Defender

Slot the Getrag gearbox into first, raise the heavy clutch and, at first, you’ll be impressed by the performance of the new motor. Its 121bhp at 3500rpm may not sound much, but it’s blessed with 265lb ft of torque at 2000rpm, and in the lower gears, you’ll not struggle to keep up with the traffic in the Land Rover Defender.

Flat out around the test track, our test car reached a mighty 83mph, and did so suspiciously quickly. Just like a BMW M5, its top speed is restricted. Unlike the M5, however, the Land Rover Defender’s electronics are meant to call it a day at 85mph. It is, apparently, for ‘operational’ reasons, from which we infer that the Defender becomes difficult to operate above such speeds.

New bonnet is steel rather than aluminium; not only will it rot in time, but it’s also heavy.

The engine refinement, while still quite vocal, is clearly a big improvement and the motor’s muscular low-down torque helps make the Defender more driveable. The six-speed ’box needs a firm hand but is clean in its shifts and positive.

The brake specification is one of the areas where the Defender has changed not at all. There are discs all round, with ventilation for those up front, and they offer good feel and reasonable, fade-free retardation.

Off road, the Defender is enormously capable, but it takes much more effort from the driver than is needed in a modern, electronically controlled off-roader, not least in finding – and selecting – the right gear in difficult conditions. One thing that has made it much easier to drive in extreme situations is the engine’s stall control. At crawling speeds, it is possible for the driver to lift off the pedals altogether and let the stall control inch the vehicle forward.


Land Rover Defender wading

Driving a Land Rover Defender is something of an acquired taste for anybody but the true believer. To a driver used to a modern road car, it radiates a nervousness and unpredictability, not least through the indirect steering feel.

Coping with this modest potential is a chassis unchanged in all but detail since the 1984 revolution in which the wheelbase was extended from 88 inches to 90 inches and the longitudinal leaf springs were replaced by coils. The chassis is still a steel ladder frame with an aluminium body bolted on. And, yes, there are still live axles at each end, the one at the front located by radius arms and a Panhard rod, and at the back by trailing arms.

You can’t drive with the diff locked above 40mph but can swap between high and low range at less than 5mph.

This time, there are new spring and damper settings, revised castor geometry and revalved power steering. Although the ride has been improved, even the world’s most eternal optimist could not expect a car of this construction to provide more than basic on-road refinement.

And so it proves. On smooth surfaces, riding on standard 235/85 R16 General Grabber (aka Continental) mud and snow tyres, it’s settled enough, but it doesn’t take much of a pothole, transverse ridge or surface change to send a jolt through the chassis. Body roll is pronounced, and understeer is anything from mild to epic.

There is precisely nothing to be gained, other than perhaps a bill for a new Defender, by driving this car quickly. All that matters is that the Defender’s on-road performance and dynamics will now take you where you want to go at the same speed as everyone else.


Land Rover Defender

The whole Land Rover Defender line-up covers three wheelbases and up to 14 different body styles. Just the one engine – the 2.2 diesel – powers the lot. You don’t buy a Defender for economy or CO2 emissions, but, if we must, it offers 28.3mpg and 266g/km in its most frugal form.

You don’t get much in the way of luxuries for your £21,895 entry-level Defender. It’s one of the last cars in the land whose exterior mirrors can only be moved by physically grappling with them, and the rear windows don’t even have winders – they simply slide.

A wheel without an airbag is a pretty shocking omission for a car on sale in 2007, as is the fact that ABS is an option on all but top-spec XS models.

Electric front windows and central locking are standard, but if you want air conditioning, alloy wheels, heated seats or even ABS, you’ll need a top-spec model such as our road test example.

There’s little stowage space on board, either. There’s nothing in the back, only a grab handle where the glovebox should be, and a lidded bin between the front seats – and even that is optional. Airbags are non-existent. Then again, think of another car with a rear external power take-off, allowing you to take the car anywhere and use it as a mobile generator.

There are new option packs for the Defender range, including a £1650 Comfort Pack (including air-con, CD player, electric windows and remote locking) and a £1500 Off-Road Pack (which includes ABS, heavy duty rims and MTR tyres, tow ball and under-ride protection bar).

The compelling figures that make you contemplate buying a Defender are its off road ones. This is a car that will tackle a 45deg slope going forwards or backwards. It will wade through water half a metre deep without modification and traverse a 35deg hill. Its approach and departure angles are each an astounding 47deg. A Jeep Wrangler, perhaps its closest conceptual rival, offers just 38deg approach and 32deg departure.

These extraordinary stats combine with its huge ground clearance and compact wheelbase to give rock-hopping qualities most alleged off-roaders simply couldn’t imagine. Low range, unswitchable traction control (optional with ABS) and differential locks complete the picture.


3 star Land Rover Defender

More than half a century after the Land Rover Defender first appeared, there’s still nothing we’d rather go off road in

Despite global sales falling just under 19,000 units in 2010, the Land Rover Defender – especially in short-wheelbase form – is staging something of a comeback in the UK as a stylish urban runaround. In truth, the Defender works either as a pure country vehicle for those who really do spend time off road, or as an iconic and uniquely characterful leisure machine. One Land Rover executive described it as a “classic car that you buy new”, which is as good a summary as any.

Despite our desire to be objective, we just can’t assess the Defender like any other car. It is a vehicle for farms, outbacks, jungles and deserts that, for all its flaws, has a very real role in the world today. It is better than ever at those things it needs to be good at, and as useless as it has always been at everything else.

With a shape as aerodynamic as a brick, 19.3mpg is actually reasonable fuel consumption

If you’ve always wanted an original Landie, this really is your last chance to buy one new. Some time around 2015, legislation will kill the Defender (it already can’t be sold in the US) and one of the longest lived, and globally loved and iconic cars will cease to be made.

This car will, of course, be replaced, but however good the new one is, it will not be a Defender. Buy it also if you need an SUV but don’t wish to be targeted by the off-road haters. Sian Berry, who speaks on motoring matters for the Green Party, spends a sizeable chunk of her time slapping fake parking tickets on SUVs, but she’ll never put one on a Defender. Even the greenies understand this car and its unimpeachable place in the nation’s heritage.

It’s not cheap, some of the interior materials are still shocking, it’s slow, noisy and not very comfortable but, to our eyes at least, it’s still the greatest off-roader of them all.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Land Rover Defender 1983-2016 First drives