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I thought Land Rover had stopped making the Defender?
It has, officially at least. The last standard Defender rolled off the production line in Solihull on 29th January 2016, nearly 70 years and over 1 million units since it started. Since then, the world has realised how iconic the blocky off-roader had become, and gone a bit Defender mad.
You don’t miss what you have until it’s gone and all that. With a replacement still in the pipeline - if you can ever call what comes next a ‘replacement’ - and the fact that every tuner/atelier in the world is apparently now churning a lovely profit margin offering a bespoke Defender catering to your every personalised whim, the people at Jaguar Land Rover decided to make sure they have a slice of the pie. And what better time to do it than on the Defender’s 70th birthday.
So it’s a new, old Defender?
Not quite. This isn’t a new production series of cars running down the line at Solihull, rather a limited series of 150 ‘Works’ Defenders which are being hand built by the team at Land Rover Classic.
If you want one, and have the £150k asking price to spare, then the team will source an old Defender for you (in 90 or 110 spec), strip it to its components and rebuild it better, faster, stronger. And they’re not talking ropey old barn-find Defenders, either - the reborn cars have to fit sticky criteria and be 2012 model year or younger with less than 20k miles.
Re-built to the original specification like their Series Ones?
Er, no… Pretty much everything on the Defender Works V8 - apart from the basic bodywork - is new. Let’s start with the engine. The Works is powered by a Jaguar 5.0-litre V8 delivering 400bhp and 380lb ft of torque, which returns a hot-hatch worrying 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds and an even more troubling top speed of 106mph.
Don’t forget, this is a Defender. It was never really meant to go faster than the Speed of Farm. The upgrades don’t stop there either, as the mighty V8 is attached to an 8-speed ZF auto which can complete a gear change in 200 milliseconds (a millisecond isn’t a timing parameter usually associated with Defenders), and power is fed through a dual-speed transfer box which can deploy up to 90 per cent of the available torque to either the front or rear axle as required. Thankfully, the suspension, brakes and anti-roll bars have all been seriously upgraded to give the Works at least a vague chance of staying on the surface of the planet.
What’s it like on the inside?
Defenders could never have been described as luxurious (one of the reasons we like them) but inside, the Works team have done what they can to posh it up a bit. Whether that’s a good thing or not will be a matter of personal taste, but you get bucket seats from a Range Rover SVR and a clever DAB/Nav system which fits into the stereo’s original slot. And even though the Nav screen is the size of a matchbox, it does at least drag the interior some way into the modern era. I say ‘modern’ but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that there are still no airbags, side impact protection or any of the kind-of-useful safety systems we tend to take for granted in an SUV that can now out-accelerate a Honda Civic Type R.
The exterior fettling is arguably more successful if you like your Defender more Chelsea Tractor than Crofter’s Companion, and lucky owners can choose from eight different body colours, with all 150 Works cars having black roofs to help differentiate them from the last set of limited editions. Y’know, the ones we were promised were definitely (probably) the last of the line. Mind you, snide comments aside, the saw-toothed alloys look the part, and the billet aluminium door handles give a lovely initial touch point. It’s still a handsome, chunky thing, full of purpose.
So what does it drive like?
You may have sensed that I’m not totally swayed by the idea of the Works. Probably because I’m a little bit biased: I’m lucky enough to own an original 1988 Defender V8. It’s tatty, it’s dependable, it’s happier when muddy and it will literally tackle and defeat pretty much anything that you throw at it. If you want numbers, it also cost 1/25th of the Works, and has roughly (no one’s really sure) 1/4 of the power.
Being a V8 with a - cough - ‘homemade’ exhaust, it sounds fabulous but has the accelerative prowess of a supertanker, and our current Vmax is somewhere happily within the legal UK motorway limit. And to be frank even at that speed it was terrifying. In short, at no point during my ownership have I thought: ‘You know what? This needs 400bhp and a 5.6 second 0-60 time.’ I approached my first drive of the super-Defender with caution.
Opting to test the 90 - the same as my short-wheelbase car - I waited for it to turn up. And as it arrived, the first thing that struck me was how quiet it is. In an F-Type, this motor is theatrical and noisy, but in this installation it’s all very civilised. Inside it’s more familiar: climbing behind the wheel the seating position is standard Defender, relatively cramped (open the window for elbow room) and upright. The sports seats are fairly hard but supportive, and can be adjusted fore and aft and reclined, which is nice, but the steering wheel doesn’t adjust.
For those who have driven Defenders before it’s all a little better than usual, if still mildly uncomfortable for a long journey. The 8-speed ZF box comes complete with an F-Type gear shifter, and it falls easily to-hand, although it does look a bit incongruous. But the ‘box itself is a highlight: silky when left to its own devices, but capable of delivering fast shifts if placed in semi auto mode.
Performance is both staggering and mildly terrifying, being docile enough at low-speed, but filled with alarming intent if you boot it. In fact, full throttle on a damp road sees the V8 scrabble for grip before heaving itself at the horizon, acceleration showing no sign of slowing before self preservation kicks in and you remember that this isn’t a hot hatch. It’s a 1,902kg brick. It’s an… experience.
Does it stop?
Thankfully the brakes - 335mm front and 300mm at the rear, nicked from Land Rover’s armoured vehicle department - haul the Defender to a stop relatively effectively, but brake hard and there’s no hiding the mass versus physics face-off as the V8 squirms on its suspension. Talking of which, the overriding impression of the V8 on our relatively short first outing was how stiffly sprung it was, which makes the car feel busier than it needs to be. Basically it transfers a lot of road surface imperfections through the sports seats and never really settles into a relaxed cruise. That sort of stuff would get tiring on a long journey.
Does it go round corners?
A bit. Sort of. Ish. Firing any Defender at a corner at speed requires a certain amount of pluck, and firing a 400bhp V8 Works 90 at a corner with commitment is attention grabbing. And also requires specific technique. Push too hard and the front end will wash out, so you’re better off with the old slow-in, fast out, mindful that you can’t just flatten the throttle or it’ll try and spin all four wheels. Suffice to say we left the traction control switch fully armed.
But cornering really isn’t the point - and to be honest, tackling curves (and even straight roads) isn’t helped by somewhat vague steering. It might be true to the Defender vibe, but it does leave you a bit disconnected from proceedings even if it is ‘authentic’. Mind you, it keeps you awake and focussed.
So would you buy one?
Sadly all 150 Works V8s have already been spoken for twice over, which goes to show that the love for the Defender shows no signs of dying any time soon. It also increases the inevitable pressure to nail the replacement. Which means that the Works V8 is an amusing toy for those who have the budget (and clearly there’s a lot of them), love the Defender shape and want a bit of limited edition madness in their lives. For that it should be applauded. But 400bhp in a Defender needs to be treated with respect. You have been warned.