Review: Land Rover Defender (1990 – 2016)

Rating:

The most capable and agile off-road machine you can buy, latest 2.2-litre diesel engine offers strong pulling power, retains its resale value like no other utility vehicle.

Cramped driving position, load space is useful but not as generous as in most of the competition, great off road but terrible on it.

Recently Added To This Review

3 September 2012

Land Rover Defender customers seeking a higher level of specification can now enhance their vehicle even further with three additional options and a choice of two new exterior body colours, Barolo Black... Read more

9 July 2012

Land Rover launches XTech Special Edition with unique Orkney Grey or Nara Bronze paint colours. Part leather interior and air conditioning are included in price that starts at £27,995. Read more

15 August 2011 New engine launched

Ford-derived 2.4-litre engine is replaced with Jaguar Land Rover’s own 2.2-litre common rail turbodiesel with 122PS and 360Nm of torque. It increases top speed of Defender to 90mph while improving... Read more

Land Rover Defender (1990 – 2016): At A Glance

Few things have been around as the Land Rover Defender in its various guises. Just about as soon as the wheel was first made, Land Rover came along and used four of these new fangled devices to carry people and cargo to places that previously seemed impenetrable.

The Defender took over from the Series Land Rovers in 1984 and it has slowly continued to evolve. That evolution has been more rapid in the twilight years of the Defender than ever before, with improved engines in 2007 and 2011, plus a six-speed gearbox to improve the rudimentary driving manners.

While some still buy the Defender as a lifestyle accessory or for leisure off-roading, the majority of customers choose it for the peerless off-road workhorse it remains. If you need to get somewhere inaccessible, the Defender will get you there.

Admittedly, this mountain goat ability means plenty of compromises in other areas, such as comfort and refinement but the Defender is endlessly configurable for any need. It’s also one of the slowest depreciating machines on sale.

Land Rover Defender (1990 – 2016): What's It Like Inside?

You know a car has attained a certain status in life when its owners can be recognised just from the tan line on their right arm. This is the Defender tan, brought about by the driver hooking his or her right arm over the door frame with the window wound down. It’s not about being cool, in the style or temperature sense, but it is about fitting in to a Defender.

The problem is not, as you might think, the Land Rover Defender’s cabin is too narrow, but the driver’s seat is set too far to the right so that it’s in line with the steering wheel. It’s the lesser of two evils, we suppose, as otherwise you’d end up with a bad back from being seated at an awkward angle. Instead, you find yourself resting your right arm on the window so that it’s not clouting the door.

On the plus side, the Defender’s driving position affords wonderful scenic views across the bonnet and that square-rigged styling. This makes it easy to judge the corners of any Defender model, even the van versions with their panelled rear sides. It can be a bit of a hike up and into the Defender’s cabin, but the commanding view is worth it.

Land Rover comprehensively revamped the dash of the Defender in 2007 and it now has air vents that sprout from the dash top. They can be angled to blow cool or warm air on to the driver and make the Defender’s interior a much more pleasant place to be whatever the weather. Optional air conditioning also greatly improves the interior experience, while the latest models have a heater that does more than merely gently heat the driver’s left foot.

The main dials and centre console are more logically laid out than in previous generations of Defender, but some drivers may find their view of the main instruments obscured as the steering wheel is fixed in position. This is compounded by the driver’s seat only adjusting fore and aft.

There are only two seats in the front of the Defender now, so there is ample room for the left arm and a large central cubby. Land Rover also provides other storage options in the front cab but it’s not as generous as a Ford Ranger.

In the back, you can order a Defender with a straightforward panel van arrangement, pick-up, or with two, three or five additional seats depending on which model you choose. There is also a choice of high capacity pick-ups based on the longer wheelbase models, a crew cab pick-up and a chassis cab for conversion.

With a payload capacity of up to 1351kg and a 3500kg towing maximum, the Defender makes the most of its workhorse approach. It furthers this with superb entry, ramp-over and departure angles for off-road work. It can also wade in water up to 500mm deep without the need for a snorkel, so the Defender can take on almost any job straight from the showroom floor.

The rear door of the panel can and station wagon models opens to more than 90-degrees and the opening is unhindered. Wheelarch intrusion is more of an issue and shows the Defender’s ageing roots more clearly than most other elements of its versatile nature. With the pick-up models, the tailgate drops flush with the load floor, though the load sill is quite high off the ground for heaving up weighty cargo.

What's the Land Rover Defender (1990 – 2016) like to drive?

It’s as well many of the Land Rover Defender’s customers come from the farming community as this 4x4 will at least seem a little more civilised than a tractor. For everyone else, the Defender is among the slowest, least refined and unwieldy vehicles in its class. A Ford Ranger, Isuzu D-Max or Volkswagen Amarok are all vastly more comfortable and easier to drive.

These rivals will also go off-road way beyond what most users will ever need or demand from such vehicles. However, there are those who need the full gamut of off-road skill and this is where the Defender comes into its own. Six decades of developing cars to cope with the worst terrain has resulted in Land Rover building a car that will take endless abuse and still be there with a willing smile on its chops. Think of the Defender as a faithful Labrador dog: it might be getting long in the tooth, but it will always be up for that next stroll in the woods.

Keeping the Defender ahead of the competition in the rough and keeping it relevant is a 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine developed within Jaguar Land Rover. It’s much the same engine as found in the Freelander or Jaguar XF, albeit adapted for the Land Rover. It has a mere 122PS, which doesn’t sound like much for this type of vehicle. However, 240Nm of torque is more than enough for the Defender to make light work of the worst track or field.

A low ratio transfer gearbox helps when plugging away in the dirt and it also helps the Defender carry up to 1351kg depending on which model you prefer and tow 3500kg with a braked trailer. These figures exceed most rivals at a canter, so no wonder the Defender still has the faith of many.

While the new engine endows the Defender with greater speed, acceleration, economy and lower emissions than ever before, you would be hard pressed to describe it as anything other agricultural. The motor itself is decently smooth and punchy in this application, but the aged design of the Defender lets too much noise in from under the bonnet and into the cab. There’s also a lot of wind noise due to the barn door aerodynamics and road noise is also audible at higher speeds, though this is dependent on what sort of tyres are fitted to a large extent.

As for the six-speed gearbox, it’s also a basic device and needs a firm, steady hand to guide the gears home. A heavy clutch is not too much of a problem, but the poor driving position forces some drivers into contortions to operate the clutch and other pedals with any sort of fluidity.

The steering is still quite heavy despite power assistance on all models and the turning circle has more in common with the QE2 than a car from this millennium. As for the ride and handling, there is some of each, though you would be a brave soul to push the Defender very hard round a corner. Hit a bump in the road and you will be wholly aware of what effect it is having on your spine. The only defence of the Defender here is the suspension copes brilliantly off-road and offers super axle articulation.

Real MPG average for a Land Rover Defender (1990 – 2016)

Real MPG was created following thousands of readers telling us that their vehicles could not match the official figures.

Real MPG gives real world data from drivers like you to show how much fuel a vehicle really uses.

Average performance

103%

Real MPG

22–36 mpg

MPGs submitted

11

Diesel or petrol? If you're unsure whether to go for a petrol or diesel (or even an electric model if it's available), then you need our Petrol or Diesel? calculator. It does the maths on petrols, diesels and electric cars to show which is best suited to you.