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Quick spin: 2016 Land Rover Defender 110

by Ronan Glon

Join us as we take a spin in one of Land Rover\'s most iconic models.

The Land Rover Defender, like Elvis, regularly makes headlines even though it's no longer with us. The similarities between the two icons don't stop there: you can find people who are doggedly convinced that neither the Defender nor Elvis are really dead.

While Land Rover stresses that no one is allowed to resurrect the last-gen model, a British businessman named Jim Ratcliffe claims that he might have found a way to bring the off-roader back in one form or another even without Gaydon's nod of approval. We'll know more about the project at the end of the year when the results of a full feasibility study are in. In the meantime, we hopped behind the wheel of a Defender to re-visit it one final time and see if the hype is justified.

What is it?

Do we really need to introduce the Defender? Love it or hate it, it's impossible to argue that it's not one of the most iconic cars ever to come out of the United Kingdom. The version tested here is a 110 (read: long-wheelbase) Heritage Edition, one of the three limited-edition models created as a farewell to the Defender. That makes it one of the last Defenders ever built. Heads-up, collectors: this is a future classic.

Like every Defender 110, the Heritage Edition stretches 188 inches long and 70 inches wide. However, the commemorative model sits on body-colored steel wheels wrapped by high-profile Goodyear tires that jack up the ground clearance by a couple of inches. Consequently, it's about 86 inches tall. In comparison, a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited measures 164 inches from bumper to bumper, 74 inches wide, and 72 inches tall.

The engine bay is home to a 2.2-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder that generates 122 horsepower and a stout 265 pound-feet of torque. It spins all four wheels through a six-speed manual transmission and a two-speed transfer case. The Ford-derived 2.2-liter no longer complies with emissions regulations in Europe, which partly explains why the Defender was phased out earlier this year after an illustrious production run that lasted over three decades.

Life aboard

Driving a Defender is kind of like driving a late-model, Brazilian-built Volkswagen Bus. You have to constantly remind yourself that it was built recently because it feels, sounds, and drives like it's from another era. It's an experience that very few other cars offer; most of the ones that come to mind are so-called people's cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Citroën 2CV, which was 42-years old when it was given the proverbial ax in 1990.

Step up -- way up -- into the cabin, sit in the tall seats and you're greeted by a dashboard that's almost completely flat, a steering wheel that looks like it comes out of a Bluebird school bus, and an emergency brake handle that rests right against your right calf when it's pulled up all the way. The stalks feel like they belong in a mid-1970s Austin Princess, a car that's a bad hangover from the days when British Leyland still aspired to international relevance. That's hardly a ringing endorsement. Oh, and there are no airbags. What have we gotten ourselves into?

The Defender, with its unabashed emphasis on function-over-form design, isn't for everyone. If you want an old-school SUV with heated seats, soft-touch plastics, Alcantara upholstery, and a touch screen the size of a MacBook, save up and buy a G550. It's glaringly evident that Land Rover has spent very little money on updating the Defender in the past three decades, but that's because it never really needed to. The average Defender owner wouldn't care if the turn signal stalk came out of a Yugoslavian-built Zastava or if the dash was made out of metal like in the Series II. The truck simply needs to be virtually unstoppable off-road.

How does it drive?

And unstoppable, it is. The Defender rolled off the assembly line equipped to tackle just about any obstacle mother nature can hurl at it. This is partly due to its high approach and departure angles, and to its nearly ten inches of ground clearance. Shift the transfer case into low gear when the going gets really tough, summon the engine's torque, and the Defender effortlessly crawls through or over whatever is in the way. It feels solid, sure-footed, and it lives up to its reputation of being exceptionally capable off-road.

The 110 model is a big truck but it's relatively narrow, which makes it easier to drive both on the trail and in small towns than, say, a Toyota Land Cruiser. The boxy, old-school design is an advantage, too, because gives the Defender ultra-thin A pillars and wide vertical mirrors. Visibility is better than in many contemporary SUVs. The same can't be said about its turning radius, and even the most basic maneuvers require a two- or three-point turn.

However, it's wide enough to comfortably accommodate three adults on the second-row bench, which is positioned a little higher up than the front seats, a configuration called stadium seating in Land Rover-speak. The seats in all three rows are comfortable and the upholstery feels durable, but we'd like the front ones to be more supportive. As-is, we tend to slide around when going over uneven terrain.

The Defender's on-road manners are surprisingly tame once you get used to the copious amount of body roll and the jarring ride. In this respect, the Defender differs greatly from its predecessors. The cabin is relatively well isolated against noise and vibrations, the heater is excellent, and the six-speed is crisp to shift. It's basic, make no mistake, but it's not primitive; this isn't the Lucy fossil of the SUV world that many are quick to write it off as.

It takes about 16 seconds to hit 60 mph from a dead stop, which isn't awful for a body-on-frame truck that's as aerodynamic as a Maersk shipping container, but once it's up to speed it effortlessly cruises at about 80 mph (the legal limit on most French highways) thanks in part to a tall sixth gear. Handling is acceptable all things considered, and we never reached a point where the Defender felt unsafe due to its simplicity.

MG's bottom line

We miss the Defender, but we understand why Land Rover decided that its time had finally come. While there was nothing fundamentally wrong with it, it needed comprehensive updates to comply with safety and emissions regulations, and to simply keep up with the times. The fact that it was complicated and expensive to build did it no favors, either. Land Rover assures us that a brand new model is on the horizon, though details about it are still few and far between.

However, we also understand why Ineos founder Jim Ratcliffe wants to bring it back as a low-volume model. It's certainly not for everyone, as we mentioned above, but there are still scores of buyers who are looking for a no-nonsense off-roader -- either as a weekend toy or as a work horse -- and who are getting increasingly left behind by automakers in the name of standardization and fuel economy standards. In spite of its flaws and eccentricities the Defender has charm, appeal, and character, all in spades.

Photos by Ronan Glon.

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