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No One Should Buy a Classic Land Rover Defender. Here’s Why

Few vehicles summon up the sort of romance and nostalgia of the classic Land Rover Defender. The boxy, burly off-roader has stood for freedom and independence for decades, epitomizing the appeal of the outdoors even when trapped in the densest urban confines. Its rarity in the United States has pushed it even further into the realm of exclusivity; while most countries see them as farmland workhorses and stripped-down safari trucks, here in America, even high-mileage ones in mediocre condition often command pricetags that could buy far newer, better-driving and more reliable vehicles.

Here’s the thing, though: The old Land Rover Defender sucks.

Subjectively, sure, it’s super-cool. Objectively? It stinks. By the standards of modern vehicles, it’s crude, slow and unsafe. Hell, even by the standards of the 1990s, it was mediocre. Those final years of Defenders available in America were on sale alongside the storied likes of the third-gen Toyota 4Runner and 80-Series Land Cruiser, the XJ-gen Jeep Cherokee and the Mitsubishi Montero — all of which delivered more refinement and power than the Defender. Stacked against modern Land Rovers, Toyotas, Jeeps or other off-roaders, it’s even worse.

For the record, I’m not speaking out of a certain orifice like Ace Ventura here. Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to drive one of South Carolina-based Himalaya’s Defender by Himalaya models, which represents perhaps the best possible version of an original Defender. Off-road, traversing the deep wood trails of upstate New York at low speeds, it was delightful. But once back into the real world of, y’know, roads — paved and dirt alike — it rapidly proved irritating.

The seating position, close enough to the controls , made every shift a long, deliberate process. The open flanks that seemed so inviting in the quiet woods stirred up the air to tinnitus-inducing levels. The slow steering that helped place the front end so carefully at 10 miles per hour felt painfully, almost unsafely cumbersome at the speed limit. Which, for the record, is about as fast as you’ll go on a highway, considering the brick-like aerodynamics and lack of power.

Also, speaking of that new version: crash test results for the 2020 Defender haven’t been announced yet, but it’d be literally impossible for it to be less safe than the old model, because that car was pulled from the U.S. marketplace in 1997 because it no longer met safety regulations. Admittedly, that’s a compromise made with many old cars, but it’s still worth repeating, as is the following: in 1997, there were 268 million people in America and 42,013 auto-related deaths; 20 years later, there were 58 million more Americans, yet nearly 5,000 fewer people died on the road. It ain’t because we drove less, and it sure as hell ain’t because we turned into better drivers; it’s because the cars became safer.

The chief substantive draws of the old Defender, of course, are its incredible off-road capability, compact proportions and open-air flexibility. All of which are indeed appealing, and seem like fine reasons to snap up a second vehicle. Or at least they would be, were it not for a little vehicle called…the Jeep Wrangler.

America’s homegrown off-road icon does just about everything the Defender does, and it does it on the cheap. The least-expensive beater Defender you can find on Cars.com right now, for example, still costs $15,000; all but two of the ones found on the site cost more than $20K. Wranglers from the same era, in contrast, run as cheap as $2,000. You can snag a cherry of a YJ for that same $15K, or a very nice 2020-model-year JK that still has fewer miles than that $15K Landie. And fixing up those Jeeps is all but guaranteed to be cheaper and easier alike than trying to wrangle parts for a three-decade-old British ride.

So, no: you shouldn’t buy a classic Land Rover Defender. If you want a boxy, open-top off-roader from decades past, go pick up a Wrangler. Or, if you want a compact Land Rover for city driving and off-roading alike, you can snag a lease on a Discovery Sport for $329 a month right now with $3,495 down. Neither may pack quite as much curb appeal as a Defender, but you won’t care; you’ll be sitting inside, driving the damn thing. Which is what you should be doing with it.

(That said…I mean, I still want one.)

It’s a Land Rover Defender made better than new. But not too much better. Read the Story

Will Sabel Courtney

Will Sabel Courtney is Gear Patrol’s Motoring Editor, formerly of The Drive and RIDES Magazine. You can often find him test-driving new cars in New York City, cursing the slow-moving traffic surrounding him.

It’s a wrap! The remarkable new coating tech on Land Rover’s new Defender

By Mike Vousden | 3 October 2020

The Satin Protective Film will be offered on new Defender models like this indus silver five-door version

To celebrate the launch of Jaguar Land Rover’s gleaming new design centre in Gaydon, the British firm invited us to an exhibition of its latest vehicles and technologies.

Front and centre was the new 2020 Land Rover Defender. This model is the reinvention of an icon that went largely unchanged during its near-70-year production run but, while its background might be steeped in heritage, the replacement still manages to break new ground.

First production vehicle with a plastic wrap
In a room devoted to the new Defender’s materials and construction sat a display featuring paint samples and a few pieces of seemingly unremarkable plastic. However, closer inspection led by engineers from Land Rover’s colours and materials team revealed that this plastic was actually essential to achieving some of the new Defender’s most eye-catching finishes.

The plastic was, in fact, a multi-layer polyurethane-based wrap that Land Rover applies on the production line. The 2020 Defender is the first-ever production vehicle to feature this technology – dubbed a Satin Protective Film – from the factory, and its use reflects Land Rover’s expectation that Defenders will be used in tougher conditions than other models in its range. It’s only available on models finished in Indus Silver, Gondwana Stone and Pangea Green and serves a number of functional purposes.

Immediately obvious is its aesthetic effect – the wrap has a slightly translucent finish and, when applied over gloss paint, reflects light in a diffuse pattern to give the whole car a satin sheen. Satin and matte-finish paints are nothing new but they are hard to own because overzealous cleaning and polishing can cause them to become glossy – defeating their original purpose. Land Rover’s wrap eliminates this problem because the plastic can be washed as normal without any risk of losing its satin finish.

Enhanced off-road protection…
More useful to owners than the looks will be the level of protection the wrap brings. Being an off-road vehicle means the Defender will be subject to more than its fair share of scrapes and scratches from rocks and plants – not to mention errant trolleys in the supermarket car park. Thanks to the wrap’s self-healing properties, scratches and scuffs on the bodywork can be fixed with a hairdryer, hot water, or even just the sun’s energy – simply applying heat to the scratched area causes the material to flatten out and return to normal.

The material is applied by hand on the production line by skilled technicians in a process that takes a number of hours to complete. Considering this is the first-ever production application of this technology, Land Rover acknowledges that this process will probably become quicker as it refines its methods. Should the owner decide that they want to change the look of their vehicle later on, they are able to peel the wrap off and return to a regular glossy paint finish.

…and sustainable
With more emphasis on the sustainability of materials, and the impact of humanity’s over-reliance on plastics becoming more evident, introducing large amounts of plastic into the production process could be seen as a risk – both from an environmental and marketing perspective. However, Land Rover assures us that the wrap is sustainable, solvent free and fully recyclable. In fact, the brand claims that replacing the wrap is more environmentally sound than repainting a damaged panel.

The wrap features on a vehicle that already makes remarkable use of materials – for example, Land Rover’s colours and materials team were particularly proud of the structural magnesium beam that runs behind the dashboard. Rather than completely hide it behind plastic cladding, the team decided to expose the ends of the beam and form them into grab handles – making it both a structural element and a tactile touch point for passengers.

Odefender.com Review: Why Odefender Auto Store Is Very Risky

The time has come: CarAdvice has been granted special permission to drive the all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender. It’s not just a quick fang around a manicured block, either. We’re sliding into the next generation of this iconic nameplate in the wild, northern reaches of Namibia.

A small selection of international media will have three days’ worth of seat time, and there are some challenging conditions on the menu: rivers, rocks, mountains, sand and corrugations. Perfect, then, for Land Rover’s returning off-road legend.

Legend. Icon. Terms one should not use lightly, but this new Defender has got some mighty big boots to fill, too. Since 1948, Land Rover’s original and most focussed 4×4 has carved out an enduring reputation for capability, utility and durability.

Although loved by many, the original Defender was often appreciated from an arm’s length. The design was positively archaic, with parts and design that link it directly to the very first post-war model.

Regardless of how good it was off-road, the original model was an acquired taste on-road. Along with being unsafe for occupants and pedestrians alike, the Defender also ranked low in terms of technology, comfort and refinement.

After a four-year sales hiatus, the Defender is back. And after such a long history of stasis, the 2020 Defender has been comprehensively re-imagined.

The Defender will return to Australia in the middle of 2020 in five-door ‘110’ format, with the short-wheelbase three-door Defender 90 to follow later in the year. Pricing is indicated to start from $69,990 for the 110, with 90 pricing yet to be announced.

There’s no shortage of options and accessory packs to choose from, along with six spec levels: 110, S, SE, HSE, First Edition and X. At the top of the tree, you can blow 135-large on an optioned-out Defender will all of the fruit.

Pricing is certainly higher than the old model, but Australian-delivered models get a generous list of standard specification: air suspension (other markets have coil springs), 10.0-inch infotainment with digital radio and smartphone mirroring, surround-view camera, autonomous emergency braking, keyless entry and push-button start, dual-zone climate control, automatic LED headlights and wipers, lane-keep assist and trick ‘Defender’ puddle lamps.

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We’ve got two variants of the new Defender to sample: a diesel 177kW/430Nm Defender 110 D240, and a petrol 294kW/550Nm Defender 110 P400 with a 48V mild hybrid system. These have starting prices of $75,900 and $95,700 each, but both have been outfitted with extra kit.

Nothing superfluous, by the way: roof rack, snorkel, ladder, electric winch and side storage case. Plus, they’ve all got Land Rover’s most aggressive tyre option: Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs.

Trying to replace something so targeted, so unique, so loved and recognised, is fraught with danger. The Defender was always 100 per cent about off-road and hard work, but shortcomings spewed forth thick and fast.

Corners demand to be taken precariously in an old Defender, and conversations must be tackled with vigour. Ergonomics? Steering wheel adjustment? Safety? Infotainment? Afraid not, guv’nor.

Open the window, poke your elbow, flick on the crackly radio and start rowing through the gears. I dare you to not grin uncontrollably.

Likeable antique appeal isn’t enough for commercial success, however. The new Defender needs to grow its overall appeal – attack the mainstream and fight its way onto the consideration list beyond rusted-on Roverphiles. That means those things it once laughed at – refinement, comfort and safety – need to be taken seriously.

Can you be truly adept at two polar-opposite disciplines? Can you maintain all of that off-road heritage and cred, while also competing with the broader 4WD and SUV market? Land Rover says yes. A proper attempt at it meant the design needed new ideas, and an injection of hybrid vigour. Land Rover needed to change the recipe.

And boy, oh boy, didn’t it go in guns blazing. While the Defender was once firmly entrenched in that hallowed sanctum of live axles and ladder chassis, Land Rover has torn down that temple and built anew.

Firstly, the steel ladder chassis fell victim to a new aluminium monocoque platform called ‘D7x’. It’s similar to what you’ll find underneath a Discovery or Range Rover (D7u), but it’s beefed up with special steel subframes, stronger suspension components, and multiple uprated driveline parts.

Live axles make way for independent suspension – double-wishbone front and integral-link rear. While coil springs are available in other markets, Australian-spec 110s get the cross-linked, height-adjustable air springs as standard.

Some familiar, key ingredients remain: a low-range transfer case behind the ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox. Permanent all-wheel drive also remains, and the locking centre differential is now joined by a rear locker. While the Defender was once manual only, it’s now the other way around.

In that quest to modernise the icon, the new Defender gets the full suite of Land Rover’s off-road electro-wizardry at the ready. Terrain Response is standard fare, but you can go the full enchilada with newer Terrain Response 2.

Along with the usual mix of driving modes (Grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock), the more advanced system gives you configurable terrain response, wade aid, all-terrain progress control and an auto function.

While certainly reminiscent of the old design, the look of the new Defender is very much its own. It’s a bold and modern take on that iconic silhouette, with smatterings of historical cues: alpine lights, a flat back, rear-mounted spare, and that hip line.

Without burdening you with my own opinion (I’m sure you’ve made up your mind), I’ll say it is much more impressive to behold in the flesh than in pictures.

This new Defender is gunning for a five-star NCAP (and ANCAP) safety rating, and the team seem confident they will get it. That means advanced active safety, consideration for pedestrians, crumple zones and driver warnings all need to be included in the design. The old Defender literally had none of those. If it were tested to today’s standards, it would probably get minus five stars.

The drag coefficient of the old Defender is a relatively brutal 0.62. New, on the other hand, starts from 0.38. That’s much slipperier thanks to a host of tricks and tiny details. Sure, they could have done more, but they still needed to keep that Defender look intact.

Sliding into the interior, the first thing you notice is the dashboard design. It’s simple, uncluttered and dominated by the one-piece magnesium plate right across the front. It’s a structural piece, by the way, and very reminiscent of pre-1971 interiors.

No mean feat when you consider all of the safety they need to pack in. The long parcel shelf, terminating in grab handles at each end, also screams Tdi and Td5 vintage Defender to me.

The 10.0-inch infotainment display is very un-Defender, as are the dual-zone climate controls and electronic gearstick mounted onto the dashboard. It’s an enticing mix of old and new – paying respects to the past, while also getting with the times. Pared back, but also premium-feeling.

That infotainment unit, by the way, is a completely new system that debuts in the new Defender. It’s got maps, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, digital radio and software updates over the air. It’s a nice clean design, as well, fast to respond and easy to use. There’s a huge amount of features packed into it, however, and many of which are hiding behind menus and buttons. Take your time to get to know it.

Both petrol and diesel engines fire into life almost unnoticeably from inside, the modern Ingenium power plants and active engine mounts emitting nowhere near the rattles and vibrations of previous iterations.

Chuck on the seatbelt, shift that eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox into D (the electric park brake releases automatically), and you’re moving.

Before we get on to the driving, a few notes on interior practicality: storage is good, with the entire dashboard acting like a shelf for your bits and bobs. Depending on your configuration, you’ve got two-storey storage fore of the decent-sized centre console.

If you opt for the jump seat up front, there’s less overall storage, but you still get two cupholders. The door bins are decent, and there is a litany of power outlets – 12V, USB and even USB-C.

The relatively long wheelbase (3022mm or 118.9 inches, despite the 110 label) affords good space and comfort in the second row, with good head room and leg room. There are additional power outlets here, as well, along with air vents and controls.

Behind the second row you’ve got a good-sized load area, almost square in dimensions and measuring 1075L up to the roof. Drop the second row down (they go almost flat) and you’ve got 2380L. The Defender is a long unit at 5018mm, and you can feel it through the amount of available space.

The first thing you notice about driving the new Defender is, for the breed, an utterly ridiculous level of refinement. Beyond that, its refinement levels easily equal other high-end offerings.

The powertrains remain quiet, with barely any engine noise getting into the cabin, even under heavy loads. The lightweight electric-assisted steering feels easy and responsive, and visibility from the driver’s seat is good.

Both powertrains we drove were effective in their own way. The petrol engine wins on outright power and urgency, revving happily and hard for an indicated 6.1-second 0–100km/h time. The diesel is no slouch either, as peak torque arrives at 1400rpm. It’s a surprisingly happy revver, as well, with frequent visits to 4000rpm no problem for the oiler.

In both instances, the ZF eight-speed gearbox provides familiarly smooth and painless operation. It’s a popular choice amongst high-end applications for a good reason: it’s a top-shelf gearbox.

It was hard to get a good gauge on fuel efficiency during our time, mostly because we spent plenty of time either crawling in low-range or churning through sand. Although, it’s worth noting during this that the petrol-powered Defenders were using almost twice the amount of fuel in comparison to diesel.

Our experience of on-road driving was extremely limited, as blacktop is in short supply around northern Namibia. We got multiple servings of rough, rocky, corrugated and undulating unsealed roads punctuated only by sweeping bends, harsh washouts and goats.

In these conditions, the Defender’s steering and suspension proved to be superb. The steering has sharp reactions from off-centre inputs, which is quickly followed by a responsive and playful rear end. You quickly gather confidence behind the wheel, regardless of the fact you’re piloting pre-production units in remote areas with a hideously high price tag.

The suspension is even more impressive. You’d be fooled into thinking the roads only looked bad, because the ride was so adept at handling potholes and corrugations.

Plow too hard into a washout (like we did a few times), and you’re greeted by a flat and composed bump control unfazed by the big event. It’s seriously good, and right up there with the Ranger Raptor for these kinds of conditions. I can’t think of another 4×4 wagon that rides as well.

These are all attributes absolutely alien to the original Defender, I think you’ll agree. It’s thanks mostly to all of the underbody technology and complexity that is equally foreign. Land Rover has done a brilliant job dialling in an enjoyable drive that feels so engaging. The only real negative about this new Defender is that it loses that outright mechanical simplicity of the old model.

Off-road, a 4×4 needs a handful of things to be good: clearance, traction and stability. And when you read through the specs, like 291mm ground clearance, 38° approach, 28° rampover and 40° departure angles, locking rear and centre differentials, and cross-linked air suspension with half-metre articulation, all of the ingredients are there.

In our testing, the Defender proved to be very good. Van Zyl’s Pass, near the Angolan border, is your textbook rutted, rough and shaly mountain track where you can only alter your line slightly, and you need to let the car do the hard work. The Defender ate this up calmly and comfortably, exhibiting all of those trademarks of a good off-roader.

Land Rover pioneered Terrain Response back in 2005; a specialised and configurable off-road traction-control system that has since been copied by many. Land Rover’s latest iteration is noticeably effective in the new Defender.

Sand mode, for example, sees the Defender hold its gear right up to the upper rev range, and stability control takes a longer time to kick in. The throttle tightens up, as well, giving you that surging momentum you often need in soft sand.

Conversely, rock mode dulls the pedal right off and clamps down on wheel spin aggressively, allowing you to slowly crawl through obstacles much easier. Also controlling the two locking differentials, Terrain Response 2 is one of the best, if not the best, off-road traction-control systems out there.

The only real negative that turned up was the overzealously tuned brakes, which proved difficult to feather in technical, low-speed crawls. The pedal felt too switch-like, making smooth progress tricky.

When our path to camp was blocked by a surging river fed by record rain, we were forced to improvise the plan. Backtrack on a massive loop on dirt tracks? Bugger that, let’s cut a new track in a narrow tract of land between said river and a tall and barren mesa.

Soft rocky hills slowly evolved into steep ravines, where we tacked like a yacht trying to find a passable route. The sun went down and our ETA of 5:30pm quickly turned into 9:30pm.

Classic, right? Normally this sort of thing happens on my own hare-brained trips, but it’s a rare occurrence on press events. Typically, these kinds of first-drives are premeditated, planned and executed with numbing precision, meaning nothing outside of the plan has a chance of happening.

Not this time. We had no track to follow, or any idea of what lay ahead. Dougie our trip leader told us there was 27km between us and a G&T (naturally), and we had to take it on whatever lay ahead.

There were some hairy moments and proper challenges. Cars churned against rock, dragging up clouds of soft, silty dirt around them. Reverse back, adjust your line, add a pinch of momentum, and try again.

The terrain got steeper, forcing us right down to the river bank at one point. Other than back-tracking, our only option was clambering into a washed-out ravine, and hard on the throttle for momentum and traction.

I wasn’t sure the convoy would be able to do it – a rare feeling on press events. I was proved wrong.

All of this driving really put the Defender to the test. We weren’t babying the cars – we had no choice.

And although some carried wounds of flat tyres and heavy bush pinstriping, we all made it into camp grinning like kids and congratulating each other. I dodged the gin and grabbed a beer. Damn, it tasted good.

Although it’s inevitable, you can’t spend too long comparing the old and new Defender against each other.

While the old model holds a special place in many hearts, the cold light of day shows the next-generation Defender is significantly better across the board. In fact, this new model puts many other new 4WDs on notice in terms of overall ability.

If you still want an old Defender, that’s fine. It’s off to the classifieds, and don’t forget to set aside some coin for the required repairs and refurbishments. Not that it’s a bad thing; I still love the old Defender. More than I probably should.

Old has something that new will never have, and that’s rugged mechanical simplicity. Simple suspension components, old-tech drivelines, and significantly fewer sensors and inputs needed to run properly.

It’s a much more straightforward proposal to modify, as well. In that sense, the old Defender will never be completely replaced.

And if old-school is still your jam, don’t forget options like the Jeep Wrangler, Gladiator, LandCruiser and Jimny still exist.

The world has moved on for the Defender, however, and this new model is able to plonk itself right at the pointy end of the class as a modern take on a rugged off-roader.

It has all of those elements required to sell and compete in over 160 markets around the globe, and is future-proofed as well. It carries on the spirit of the old Defender without stepping on its legacy.

Doing that, while bringing it back in a new and modern form, is no mean feat. Perhaps, it’s one of the toughest challenges out there. I’m thankful that Land Rover took this challenge head on, with a bold and definitive take on its legendary off-roader.

While many will lambaste the new Defender simply because it’s a new Defender (and not an old one), I challenge them to keep an open mind. And wait until you drive one, because it’s bloody impressive.

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