Driving the Land Rover Defender Works V8

Four hundred horsepower in a Defender? Consider us interested. And slightly alarmed

The Universal Law of Sod says that you only do something embarrassing if you have an audience, and if you manage something really cool, you’ll look up to find everyone magically looking the other way. Thus it is with cars. With a small group of Land Rover engineers and PR people waiting expectantly for me to drive away in the new Defender Works V8 – and having spent 30 minutes telling everyone how my first three cars were Series Land Rovers – I completely misjudge both the required lock and woefully arcing turning circle, and manage to fail completely to pull out of a parking space. Two big shuffles and some vague windmilling at the steering wheel later, I managed to extricate the short-wheelbase 90 from the carpark, and did what most people do to prove they’re not embarrassingly incompetent. I nailed the throttle.

Words: Tom Ford / Photography: Mark Riccioni

This was a mistake. Now equipped with a 5.0-litre V8 and 400bhp, not to mention an eight-speed ZF auto nicked from the Range Rover Sport, the Defender sucked in a lungful of air and launched, all four tyres squirming on their semi-off-road block treads. There was noise. There was incongruous speed. There was a lot of surprise, continued right into the next roundabout, which involved copious understeer, followed, somewhat alarmingly, by a half-armful of oversteer. In a Defender. The ride is busy via a valiant and largely only semi-successful attempt to corral the horsepower, the brakes effective, although constantly battling the Defender’s inherent doesn’t-do-fast physics. It is, without being too obtuse about it, a… unique experience. Mark Riccioni, the photographer in the passenger seat – made a keening noise somewhere between amused and terrified, I looked a bit startled and backed off. This is going to take some getting used to.

To be honest, it’s not actually that hard a concept, the Defender Works V8. Source one late-model Defender – these aren’t ‘new’ cars, but conversions – strip to giant AirFix kit, add that big motor and modern gearbox, retaining the low-ratio transfer ’box for off-roadability. Lob in a torque-biasing centre diff that can throw 90 per cent of torque to the front or rear as required, uprate the interior, suspension, brakes and other bits, serve for £150,000.

Wait, what? £150k for a pre-owned Defender? Yep. Apparently, making a Defender sympathetic to the gearbox and motor – and having all the attendant functions like traction controls working like a proper series production car – is an expensive way to do things. Yes, the interior may be hosed down with liquid leather and house decent Recaro seats, but it’s still a utility Defender in all the ways that matter: bolt upright, elbow-tight and lacking the modern ergonomics that any human-standard person would recognise. The two-door 90 seats four, the four-door 110 seven, neither in comfort.

There’s a ‘new’ infotainment system that features Land Rover Classic’s newly launched DAB Classic Radio, surround-sound speakers, smartphone sync and satnav, but bluntly it’s rubbish. The badly positioned screen is tiny, the reproduction from the stereo literally awful (Defender sheet metal is not sympathetic to audiophiles), and you’d be better off just making a decent mount for a smartphone. Equally, the exterior work really isn’t that expressive, consisting mainly of a black roof, 18-inch alloys and some LED headlamps. It looks great, but it still looks like a Defender, rather than anything particularly eye-catching.

Oddly enough, TopGear magazine’s Big Cheese, a certain Mr Charles Turner, also has a Defender V8, although of earlier vintage and more rustic appearance. It is equipped with a venerable 3.5-litre Rover eight-cylinder, what feels like around 180/190bhp and a drainpipe exhaust that makes it sound much faster than it actually is. It has a five-speed manual gearbox more vague than a political promise, smells of wet dog and looks pretty much exactly the same as the reborn version, apart from the non-standard steering wheel apparently nicked from a speedboat. It drives in a relative manner and cost just six thousand pounds. CT makes a pretty good case for it, and it delivers. So why would you pay that much for the official modern one? A warranty and Jaguar F-Type gearlever is nice, but…

It’s more of a driver’s car than a modern Porsche 911. If you relish a challenge, anyway

And that, really, is the point. If you ‘get’ this car, it doesn’t need explaining, even at £150,000. The engineers involved have done a sterling job, given that the car they started out with is a pensionable utility machine, but even they can’t work miracles – the Defender V8 is lacking in almost every way to a ‘modern’ SUV. Except in one area. Character. It’s fun and funny, and an antidote to all the scarily semi-sentient stuff. You have to manhandle it, you have to pay attention, and in many ways, it’s more of a driver’s car than a modern Porsche 911. If you relish a challenge, anyway. It is also worth what someone will pay for it, simple as that. Seeing as there were several hundred ‘expressions of interest’ complete with deposit info, one assumes Land Rover Classic could have mined this particular revenue stream even more than the 150 examples on the build sheet. It’s overpowered, dynamically challenged, uncomfortable, compromised and hugely expensive. It’s also brilliant, unique, huge fun and bizarrely desirable. A niche vehicle, but one that fills the Defender-shaped slot perfectly.

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