After 14,000 miles in the Land Rover Defender, what's the verdict?
If you’ve read these reports since the Defender first arrived, you’ll be aware that it hasn’t all been smooth running over the 10 months or more we’ve had with this 90. We’ve had water sloshing in the sills, aircon packing up, power loss and coolant leaks. At times it’s been a pain. But none of us wanted this day to come. Because we’ve loved running this car. Can you separate reliability from enjoyment? Depends on your tolerance level. Go in with your eyes open. So this car, it’s nothing like Defenders that went before, but it’s just as capable and absolutely in tune with the times right now.
Rowan Horncastle and I have spent more time and done more miles in KN71 DZX than anyone else – including one six week period over the summer where I nailed out 5,000 miles over 15 degrees of global latitude.
RH: You what?!
OM: I thought that was a suitably Land Rover way of phrasing how far I’d been. But here’s another way: Northern Scotland to Southern France. Towed the Bruder caravan north, then took the family south.
RH: Both epic trips. In fact, imagine if the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum had gone the other way. The amount of times the Defender has crossed the border to Bonnie Scotland, we’d have been permanently in a customs queue. In fact, as soon as the car arrived the first thing I did was drive it to Edinburgh. Via the Yorkshire Dales. And the Lake District. Then the Peak District on the way back. I’ve honestly lost count of how many off-road weekends, road trips and impulsive adventures I did with it. My favourite weekend was with the Land Rover nuts in Wales; a female skewed community of flannel shirt wearing mud pluggers who like to have a laugh with cars. It was the capability of it. Even on all-season tyres (we never found the need for chunky knobblies) the digital wizards hidden in the ‘auto’ element of the Terrain Response sorted out everything and drove the car in, out, around and over everything. The beauty of it was that it was so simple anyone could do ‘off-roading’. I’ve never found a car to be such an enabler – it’s approachable, durable and not precious or overly pretentious. What’s your favourite memory?
OM: Neither Northern Scotland or Southern France I don’t think, because the caravan was the star in Scotland, and in France the aircon packed up when it was over 40 degrees. No, my favourite was a solo trip down to Exmoor with my MTB and a roof tent back in the spring. It was out of season, warm and bright, the Defender was a talking point, both admired and teased by farmers, there was a pub across the fields to eat and drink in, I did some off-roading to remote spots, then hopped on the bike to explore further. My version of an integrated transport solution.
RH: Preach. It made me live for the weekend and want to explore. But I’ve found the Defender remarkable for the day-to-day, too – something the old one could never do. How the hell Land Rover has gone from having some of the most visually lacklustre and uninspiring infotainment to now being a market leader is a minor miracle. The bigger 11.4" Touchscreen (£140) and fantastic driver display house JLR’s Pivi Pro system but the thought and execution of the graphics and data is easy to find and wonderfully displayed. It makes you feel like you’re in the Range Rover – which is a properly luxurious car now. Surely you’ve got some spec highlights. What did you love/hate?
OM: Steel wheels. Free. Set the tone for the whole car. Never once worried about kerbs. £1,080 on cabin pre-conditioning was a waste of money – never used it. £1020 on the electronic active differential was money well spent - this was more engaging as a result. The £3775 paint protection film was a fortune, but has brilliantly shrugged off scratches, the £815 centre jump seat is just the thing for karting small nephews around in and there’s so much other storage around the cabin you don’t miss it in the console. I know I’ve banged on about this a lot before but the outer gear bugs me because it hasn’t been well developed: the roof rack whistles, the pointless box blocks visibility, the ladder is a pain to use. For the money they’re charging, it should all be so much better. Instead it feels like no-one from Land Rover was checking what came in from suppliers. But the biggest waste of money was the £284 portable rinse system. I assumed this would be a 12 volt plug in pump for hosing down the exterior, mucky bikes and dogs. Instead it’s one of those pump-it-yourself weed killer-type dispensers. A complete rip-off.
RH: Couldn’t agree more. Loved the look of the ladder and lunchbox on the side as they’re a battle-ready statement to every other road user. But I couldn’t find a single use for the lunchbox (it’s such a bizarre shape and doesn’t even fit a pair of walking boots in it) and I crimped the skin off my fingers trying to get the ladder out once so never did it again. Plus, each accessory came with a duplicated set of keys that all look the same. So you end up jangling around like a prison warden with 10 keys on you but you don’t know which one does what. But I loved the jump seat. It’s a great solution for the occasional mate and when not in use a thick, comfy arm rest full of proper cubby holes. In fact, the Defender’s interior is cubby heaven, especially the rubberised guttering running the length of the dash – I’d chuck keys and wallet to the left of the steering wheel, phone to the right. And the Defender is incredibly practical for lugging actual humans around – even the 90. Once you’ve got the slow electronic seat to curl forwards and slithered in the back there’s stacks of leg and head room in the elevated theatre seating. Shame there’s absolutely no room for anything in the boot. But if you put the two seats down you have a cave to load stuff up with. And I’d rather the 90 as the 110 looks a bit odd and isn’t as easy to move around town. As for the new 130, that looks ridiculous – like someone got drunk and fed a 110 into Photoshop’s warp tool. Would you take the 90?
OM: Absolutely. Mainly because of what it says to other road users. Mainly that I’m not doing a school run. It is better to drive, too, significantly nimbler. You’re right about the packaging though. Dogs need not apply for boot residence. When I needed to carry more I just attached it to the outside with straps, which made me feel rugged. Or used a Thule backbox which added 500 llitres of capacity on a towbat bike rack. Plus I did some actual towing, from small trailers through to that amazing Bruder caravan. It shrugged off the small stuff, but the Bruder had a 165kg noseweight (i.e. slightly forward weight distribution) and that made the Defender’s short wheelbase porpoise over undulations. How did you find it for long drives?
RH: Effortless. Aside from the whistling outer accoutrements you’ve already covered, the all-season tyres and diesel are surprisingly smooth and refined. The seats are mega too – my arse or back never complained and you sit at a lovely height above the road with fantastic visibility. You can eat miles for fun. But also fuel.
OM: Ditto with the seats… and the fuel. Yeah, it could go a long way without refuelling – way over 500 miles – but only because it had a massive 89-litre fuel tank. My most expensive refill was £179. I’d been playing fuel light chicken driving back from Anglesey and got over 84 litres in it. That was also the best economy I got from it - 29.9mpg. I never broke the 30mpg barrier, but then Land Rover only claim 30.4mpg for it. Most of the time it settled in at 27-28mpg. Shoving a load of stuff on the outside only knocked another 1-2mpg off, but towing the Bruder took it down 10. Question for you - would you have had a plug-in hybrid instead?
RH: Nope, lugging that extra weight around would have ruined the fun of punting the 90 around like a hot hatch. And a V8 just seems over the top.
OM: Diesel the only choice for me - that reassuring rumble just speaks of a burly-shouldered car ready to tackle anything. As for the rest of it, it’s eminently fit for purpose in the modern world and brilliantly fulfils the role Land Rover envisaged for it. However, it’s not a tool any more and that means in years to come it will never resonate in the same way as the original. What it needs is a showcase, a new global challenge in the mould of the old G4/Transworld expeditions.
RH: But would it make it? Because it pains me to say this, but our time has ended a bit abruptly due to some, erm, technical faults. Which, I might add, happened after I handed the car to you. The only issue I had was self-inflicted but I ultimately pin down to a design fault. When I decided to go all Red Cross and save people from a flash flood in Devon (this is the kind of ambition that the Defender fuels) I headbutted a rather impressive amount of water which came back over the bonnet and ripped the optional front bumper off. That was fine, as once the water had subsided a few hours later, I recovered the bumper and just popped it back on. But that’s when I realised it’d taken all the parking sensors and camera wiring with it. So they had to be reattached. Oops. But as for the water sloshing in the sills, aircon packing up, power loss, coolant leaks, terminal electrical failure – you’ll need to fill me in on those. And have I missed anything?
OM: Don’t think so! I do need to reflect on a couple of those. The aircon issue was down to a missed step in the PDI (Pre-Delivery Inspection), and the power loss was due to a little hose that came adrift from the air intake, so the engine management was seeing ambient pressure, not airbox pressure and getting confused.
RH: But the hose was just pushed on - it should have been attached better.
OM: It should. I think a lot of the niggles were down to development not being rigorous enough. The one I do want to touch on was the most recent: the electrical gremlins that shorted out the system and stopped it starting. That was probably my fault.
OM: Remember my makeshift fix for the snorkel when the single clip that holds it to the A-pillar broke? I basically reattached it with tie-wraps and sticky pads. I was quite pleased with myself, but didn’t seal the hole where the broken clip had been. Land Rover reckons that water trickled down inside of the A-pillar, and got into the electrics. I mean, maybe it did, but even so I’d have imagined everything would have been sealed better. One broken clip on an already vulnerable snorkel and the whole car shorts out? Not good. Look, there’s not another off-roader to touch it, it’s a genuine 4x4 and stands above every SUV, but I’d live in fear of the warranty running out. Between us all we did over 14,000 miles in this D250, and shadowing every single one of them was a niggling fear that something would go wrong. We’re car enthusiasts, we love the product, we understand it and found ways to cope with most of the issues. But most owners aren’t like us. They won’t forgive and forget. And yet despite all that, I’d still have one. It’s the only 4x4 on sale today that actually deserves the tag.
RH: Until the Grenadier comes along. But I know what you mean, the Defender has personality and that’s such a rare commodity these days. I actually preferred it to the Bentley Bentayga I ran for three months this summer. Yes, the Defender doesn’t have any posh wood veneers but it felt more luxurious at times. It was more comfortable and relatable. It also fed you spoonfuls of ambition and became a mate. Plus, with trick diffs, a 900mm wading depth and plenty of ground clearance, it allowed you to go anywhere – which is the real luxury.
OM: Because it’s rougher and tougher and that fit-for-purpose vibe matters more to you and I than luxury. I think it’s the best car Land Rover makes.
RH: I think it’s better than that. I think it’s one of the best cars in the last decade. And one I’m desperate to own. Well, if they sort out the reliability issues. It’s all I – and a lot of the motoring population – would ever need.