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We were invited to a fancy estate to celebrate Land Rover’s 65th birthday with cakes and a speech. We skipped it and disappeared with the keys to a Defender to celebrate in our own way

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A disclaimer: If you have just abandoned your four-month-old smartphone because the newer one lets you scroll the screen by moving your eye, this car is not for you. If you read auto magazines only for machines that are coming to your local market, then stop reading right now. The Defender is not coming to India. If you have heard tales of glory from British magazines and television shows about how a Land Rover Defender is the best thing man has invented since the wheel, you might not want to read this through to the end and be disappointed with your hero car.

If you are still with me, then you are not exactly normal. Read on anyway.

First things first. Land Rover has turned 65. So they called us to Packington Estate in Birmingham, England. It’s a 1,000-acre property, which in the past was also used as testing grounds for early Land Rovers. Since it turned 65 and all, Land Rover obviously wanted to celebrate with tea, cake and some speeches. Then they lined up some special-edition Defenders and all of the old Landies from the 1940s. But I wanted to sample a bog-standard Defender without all the glory. Without all the hoopla. So I feigned nature’s call and went off deep to drive what’s clearly been less of a car and more of an institution.

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By now you must be perplexed at seeing photos of the car being driven with the driver’s window down. You may think I am trying to show off. The fact is, with the window up, there is absolutely no room for my right elbow in this car. Sure, I am, er, dimensionally gifted and the Defender is not a small car. But the seats are placed so close to the door, it’s as if they will fall out if you aren’t careful opening the door. The interior is all rudimentary. The only safety feature the Defender comes with is seatbelts. No airbags. Compared to the older Landies from the 1940s I was driving earlier, I can tell you the modern Defender has softer, more rounded edges in the cabin. And in place
of a glovebox you have a massive grab handle.

But it’s not all bad. There are creature comforts. Air-conditioning, power windows for the front, self-cancelling indicators and some thoughtful touches too. For instance, the ignition key is to the left, not the right as it usually is in right-hand-drive cars. I thought this was another Defender quirk. But it’s actually smart. As a Land Rover employee joked, the Defender has seats that are one-size-fits-no-one. Apart from moving it a bit back and forth, there’s nothing more you can adjust. And so, if the ignition keyhole was to the right, I would have impaled my dimensionally gifted self into the protruding key when climbing in. And they call Defenders agricultural.

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Jokes apart, the Defender is truly agricultural. It is utterly hopeless on the road and around corners, and if you are crossing 60kph in the Defender, you will regret not going for that limited period life insurance offer. Yet, I can see exactly why the Defender is such a cultural icon. Absolutely nothing can stop it off the road. Water, inclines, declines, ravines… If Land Rover didn’t have special bonds with the Lord who owns Packington estate, I reckon they would have confidently let me drive this thing though walls.

The engine is a 2.2-litre diesel. It’s not too crude. And if it were not for the minimal sound deadening, it would have sounded like a standard road-going diesel. Moreover, when you start the engine, it won’t shake and shudder. The six-speed manual is nowhere close to slick.

But if you spend time with post-war Landies, you’ll realise how far the current Defender has come in terms of refinement and comfort. If you have never ventured beyond small, slick hatches, you might think of applying for a commercial vehicle driving license before even letting go of the clutch in the Defender.

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I will tell you what the Defender is not good for. If you need a single car for all your needs, the Defender is not it. It can’t do much on the highway. It can’t be a people carrier because ride is bad and the cabin is more comfortable carrying goods than people. And if you plan on taking it to a fancy dinner with expensive trousers or stilettos, you might want to keep a small chair or desk to help you climb into the giant.

Now I will tell you what the Defender is good for. Think of it as a Ferrari for the farm. Or a Maserati for the mountains. Just as those Italian cars are too good for most public roads, the Defender is way more capable than what the average farm or mountain terrain can throw at it. You can plough your field, carry your crop to the market or take your cow to the vet. Essentially if the surface is from this planet – land, water, slush, boulders – the Defender will go. Heck, even if you are driving on volcanic ash, the Defender will keep going till the last bit of rubber and wheel rim get burnt.

Which makes it perfect for Indian roads. Yet, it is never going to come here. You see, for a car without any safety features or creature comforts, the Defender is expensive. The basic Defender starts at the equivalent of Rs 17 lakh in the UK, going up to Rs 25 lakh for bigger versions. What you are paying for is a tough, hardened, workhorse that you can tweak and modify and will keep going for a decade or more. And it’s so simple, there is very little inside it to go wrong. Imagine all the jugaad we Indians can do with such a car. But our import duties will make the Defender the most overpriced car on Indian soil.

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Moreover, I’d have to say the Jeep Wrangler is a way more accomplished car. It can do nearly all the things a Defender can off the road, and it’s a way more refined and capable car on the road. People who work for Land Rover believe that if the Defender did not exist, the Jeep would have been the world’s best off-roader. Now, I will never know because the Defender will never come to India for me to compare with the Jeep. Nor will the Defender go to the US, since it doesn’t meet American safety norms. Which means the Wrangler will have to go to Solihull or Packington to see if it can survive the torture that a Defender calmly brushes aside.

However, in an era when everything from a coffee table to a passenger plane has to be designed taking into account the lowest common denominator, the Defender has steadfastly stuck to being this very rudimentary, built-to-task machine that can plough through the toughest of terrain. The irony is, when the terrain becomes effortless, the Defender is like a crocodile on land. It can gallop and hold its own. But it’s never as unbeatable as it is under water.

So, to the car that’s the only one of its kind, happy birthday. For it sure knows how to throw a party.

(Words: Sriram Narayanan, Photos: Peter Robain/Land Rover)

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The numbers
Price: Rs 22 lakh (approx UK road price)
Engine: 2198cc, 4-cyl, turbo-diesel
Power: 120bhp at 3500rpm
Torque: 360Nm at 2000rpm
0-100kph: 15.8secs
Top speed: 140kph (both claimed)
Weight: 2,052kg
Towing capability: 3,500kg

Pros: Incredible off the road, simple and workman-like abilities, can take terrain of all shapes and sizes, torque and towing might.
Cons: Hopeless on the road, zero elbow room for the driver, no airbags, expensive.

The verdict
If you live on a farm, you can replace all your animals, implements, equipment with one machine. The Defender.


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