Rover Defender is
a rough but tough
wherever you find
one throughout the
world, you will have
also found a little
piece of England...
2008 IS THE 60TH ANNIVER-SARY OF LAND ROVER, but the Diamond anniversary year of this iconic British vehicle could see it change hands yet again this time from Ford to TATA, the Indian conglomerate of automotive and engineering companies.
It is ironic that Ford is now selling it off. Because under Ford's owner-ship, Land Rover has blossomed not only with new highly-rated models such as the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, the Discovery 3, the Freelander 2 and the evolution new Defender workhorses, but also with record worldwide sales for the third year running.
Last year the company sold 226,395 vehicles around the world and that's the first time in their history that they have broken through
the 200,000-sales barrier. Seventy-eight per cent of production is exported to over 140 countries; the company employs 9,500 people and supports another 40,000 jobs in the supply chain.
In the UK it was another all-time record, with 50,664 sales an increase of seven per cent on the previous year, making the UK
Land Rover's biggest market.
So it is bizarre that Land Rover, a jewel of Britishness but with growing worldwide appeal, is likely to become the jewel in the crown of the emerging Indian automotive industry. And this at a time when the com-pany is operating at a profit, and with exciting new technologies and models, such as the Land Rover LRX hybrid SUV, likely to be on the market by 2010.
Whilst there is no suggestion at this stage that under TATA owner-
ship British production will be affected, it is quite possible that the future supply of many components will come from countries such as India where the wages are much lower and which in turn means cheaper sources of supply.
It is also ironic that Ford's asking price for their Land Rover and Jaguar brands is reported to be a mere £1 billion, yet the British Government can bail out Northern Rock with a £25bn cash injection plus another £25bn of securities. To secure the future of two British icons not to mention British jobs and the fact that Land Rovers of all types are
used by the UK military and Police surely the Government could have played a financial part in restoring ownership of Land Rover and Jaguar from the USA-controlled Ford operation back to Great Britain. [We seem to be edging closer and closer to losing that 'Great' Ed].
Whatever the politics in play, Land Rover will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year. And it will do so with a new, special edition
of the iconic Defender the SVX.
Whilst most of the 25,000 Defenders produced each year (6,000 of them sold annually in the UK) are working tools for everyone from farmers and foresters to aid agencies and the military, the SVX is the most stylish and feature-packed Defender ever. Although the SVX will be sold worldwide, a total of 200 will be made available to the UK 140 two-seat Defender 90 soft tops; and 60 four-seat 90 station wagons with production beginning in the Spring and deliveries to customers starting in the Summer. Prices have yet to be announced.
Of the 1,900,000 Defenders sold worldwide since the first Land Rover was launched in 1948, the manufacturer estimate that an amazing 75 per cent of them are still going strong today. The latest versions of
the Defender still have engineering roots and design cues going back
to the original production model of 1948, with its steel chassis and separate alloy panel body and all-wheel drive system. Since that time, the workhorse Land Rover and the range has evolved along a rocky ownership path, but in 1990 the name Defender came into being.
The brand's ownership has changed many times but it still remains a British icon. From Rover, to its merger with Leyland, to joining with the British Motor Corporation to become British Leyland, to state owner-ship in 1975, to becoming a separate company (Land Rover Limited) in 1978, to being owned, along with Rover, by British Aerospace in 1988, to being acquired by BMW in 1994, to being sold to the Ford Motor Company in 2000, Land Rover with the additional Range Rover, Discovery and Freelander model ranges has not only survived, but has pioneered authentic 4x4s with a true breadth of capability.
Today's Defender is available in 90, 110 and 130 variants: these figures more or less equate to the wheelbase lengths of 93, 110 and 127 inches respectively. Looking through the latest price list I counted 27 different derivatives based on 14 body styles, but then there are the additional special vehicle conversions ranging from tipper chassis cabs to dropside chassis cabs to hydraulic platform variants. In addition to those, there is a huge range of specialist options on offer to tailor the vehicle to the customer's exact requirements, whether it is a specific workhorse or fashionable country-style transport.
However, the mainstream models are Pick-Ups, Hard Tops, Station Wagons and Double Cabs. Body style availability depends on which of the three wheelbase lengths is chosen. Prices for standard production models are just as diverse as the body options. Broadly speaking, the on-the-road retail prices, including VAT, currently range from £19,480 to £27,730.
My test model was the latest Defender 90 XS Station Wagon, which has an on-the-road price of £26, 235. XS is the top luxury specif-ication, and then the vehicle had several extras including the smart chequer plate protection panels at an extra £278 and a tow ball and electrics which add a further £260.
Like all new Defenders, this model has a Ford-sourced 2.4-litre, four-cylinder, common rail turbodiesel engine producing 120bhp. It also puts out 266lb ft of torque available from 2,200 to over 4,350rpm but 232lb ft is available from just 1,500rpm, giving this engine a very wide torque band as is essential for challenging on- and off-road work.
An anti-stall device is also fitted, which adjusts the fuel mapping so
it can operate at low engine speeds in deep mud conditions. Land Rover claims the engine is 30 per cent quieter than the previous unit. As always, permanent four-wheel drive is standard fit with a high and low ratio transfer box and differential locks. A new six-speed manual transmission gives much wider spread gear ratios, which improves, in particular, off road towing performance and on-road cruising speed refinement.
Other specification changes and design tweaks for the latest Defender include a revised bonnet (the only notable exterior change). But inside, you will find a notably better full-width facia of improved quality and ergonomics including a new higher output, easier to use heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The seating comfort is also improved, and the command seating positions make for good all-round visibility.
The Defender 90 Station Wagon has four individual passenger seats; the rear ones, which are forward facing, also fold sideways. Access to the rear seats is via the side-hinged rear door. The XS specification has a good array of equipment that includes air conditioning, elec-trically-operated front windows, stereo radio/CD system, carpeting, central door locking, alarm, part-leather upholstery, heated front seats, anti-lock braking and traction control. Be warned, though cheaper versions come with very little in the way of specification as they are working vehicles and appeal to people who buy them first and foremost for their off-road and towing capabilities. Buyers into the country lifestyle fashion are more likely to go for the XS variants.
Because the core function of the Defender is to be a durable working 4x4 it is not very sociable to drive or ride in if you are a 'fashion' user. By its very nature, the Defender has long travel, firm coil spring sus-pension. That is great off-road, but on-road it gives a bouncy, rough, uncomfortable ride with lots of cornering bodyroll. On the road, the power steering is vague, the clutch heavy and the gearchanges cum-bersome.
Off-road it is simply the best there is. And because it is tough and durable it should, like all good tools, last a lifetime if used and treated with respect. Suffice to say that its off-road capabilities are legendary. The short front and rear overhangs mean the body's approach and departure angle, combined with the extra ground clearance, are such that clearing obstacles is generally easy. The all-wheel drive system is terrific, and having low ratios and locking differentials means the Defender can cope with just about anything the countryside can throw at it.
The new diesel engine is Euro IV compliant and should also prove hard-wearing. It is geared well enough to give a top speed of 85mph but
the legal maximum of 70mph is plenty fast enough, given the poor quality of road holding. The acceleration figure isn't important, but for the record 15.1 seconds gets the vehicle from zero to 60mph. Average fuel economy is 28.3mpg which is more or less what my test car achieved. Of more importance to 'real' Defender users are the facts that the maximum braked towing weight is 3,500kg and the wading depth through water is 500mm (20 inches).
Were the Defender a person, it would have the fortitude that epitom-ises the historically-tough-but-fair British character not minding one jot when I mention its faults: unsophisticated on-road handling, vague steering and not that comfortable. It would remain genuinely modest when I described its sterling qualities: designed specifically for the rough, it excels at off-road work. It's tough, durable and a true British icon. The only show of emotion it might let slip is when I say that it
will soon be owned by TATA.
So, if you are royalty, farmer, land owner, lord of the manor or con-struction worker to name but a very few the Defender is right up your estate. If you are not one of these but an urbanite buying into a country lifestyle, you should look at the Discovery, Range Rover, Nissan X-Trail, BMW X3 or Jeep anything but a Defender. It isn't likely to suit you, nor are you likely to suit the Defender. David Miles
Land Rover Defender 90 XS Station Wagon | £26,235
Maximum speed: 85mph | 0-60mph: 15.1 seconds
Overall test MPG: 28.3mpg | Power: 120bhp | Torque: 266lb ft
CO2 266g/km | VED Band G £300 | Insurance group 12
Visit Land Rover's website