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Driven: Land Rover Defender Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.

Driven: Land Rover Defender Heritage
Saying goodbye to the British icon as it bows out after 68 years.

 



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Land Rover Defender Heritage

4 4 4 4 4

Good points: unsurpassed image, masses of charm, relatively inexpensive for a seven-seat 4x4

Not so good: driving experience won't appeal to all, no longer in production, fuel economy

Key Facts

Model tested: Land Rover Defender Limited Edition 110 Heritage
Price: Defender Heritage from 27,800, 110 as tested 34,200
Engine: 2.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel
Transmission: all-wheel drive, six-speed manual with low-range transfer 'box
Body style: five-door, seven-seat off-roader
CO2 emissions: 295g/km (Band M, 1,100 first 12 months, 505 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 25.5mpg
Top speed: 90mph
0-62mph: 15.8 seconds
Power: 120hp at 3,500rpm
Torque 360Nm at 2,000rpm

Our view:

Confession time: for a supposed motoring journalist, and - perhaps more relevantly - a car enthusiast, I'd never driven either a series Land Rover nor its Defender 'offspring' prior to this Limited Edition 110 Heritage version arriving on my drive at the start of 2016. Shocking, really, given this vehicle is such an icon of the automotive world and that it has now officially been killed off after almost seven decades of production, but there we are.

I'd had exposure to Land Rovers before, of course; in sixth form, a friend's family had a short-wheelbase Series II (or was it a IIA? Might have been a III, actually) in cream. In retrospect, I accept that it was probably the coolest first car anyone could wish to have, but at the time - travelling in it as an occasional passenger - it seemed to me to be a more troublesome, noisy and uncomfortable way of getting to school than simply hopping on the old Bristol VR double decker bus provided by Stagecoach. Another good friend's dad also had a 1986 D-reg 90 County, which was more reliable and warmer, but still not something that lit my motoring fire.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I'm not, and never have been, a frothing-at-the-mouth Land Rover fanatic. Like the passion engendered by Issigonis' Mini, another vehicle that I can take or leave, I understand why the Landie has such a special place in people's hearts; ultimately, enduring longevity will transform anything into an object of desire, save for the possible exception of old 'chicken thighs' herself, Madonna. But I can also see the other side of the Defender argument, the one in which folk who are extremely clued up about cars say that the Land Rover is a relic that should have been killed off years ago and that its shockingly primitive driving manners have no place whatsoever in the 21st century.

Naturally, Land Rover itself ignored such naysayers and instead used 2015, the final year of UK Defender production, to celebrate the model's 68 years of service. It did this in two ways: first, it drew a bloody massive version of the Land Rover on the sand at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey, the place where Maurice Wilks famously sketched out the shape of the pioneering Series I in 1947; and then it created three special, limited run-out editions of the Defender. The Autobiography was the fully loaded one and it was farcically expensive at 61,845, with only 80 built; while the Adventure had external body protection and some other toys, with 600 produced at a cost of 43,495 each.

It's the Heritage Edition, though, which most tugs at the heart strings, even of the previously indifferent like me. Painted in Grasmere Green with an Alaska White roof, fitted with 16-inch green steel wheels on knobbly Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tyres, and featuring some classic touches like the exposed silver door hinges, silver bumpers and the red/yellow rings on the transmission levers inside, this vehicle is deliberately made to look like the earliest series Landies. Such schmaltzy self-indulgence might be considered crass elsewhere but somehow the Defender pulls it off - and that includes the 'HUE 166' number plate decal on the nearside front wing and tags with the same identifier on the front seats inside; that's a direct reference to the registration of the first ever pre-production series Land Rover, nicknamed 'Huey' by fans of the model.

Whatever - to these eyes at least, this retro-inspired look results in a gorgeous creation. The touches are judged to perfection and with its mud flaps (only the Defender and anything that's got a link to rallying can pull these appendages off), heritage radiator grille, old-fashioned Land Rover 'Z'-lined logos everywhere and the front lights shorn of the black plastic that normally surrounds them on regular Defenders, its unapologetic bluffness is stunning, especially in more appealing 110 long-wheelbase guise. The same goes for the interior, which is simple but effective. The almond green cloth seats are nice, as is the body-coloured panel on the centre console. Land Rover fits a heated front windscreen, electric front windows, remote central locking, heated front seats, air conditioning and the one thing we emphatically don't like, an ugly, modern Alpine CD unit, all of which obviously would not have been on the earliest models, but by modern standards the specification remains basic.

Also, the steering wheel is enormous and the driver's seat doesn't go a long way back, while a classic Land Rover ergonomic issue ensures the high-set driving position isn't comfortable - and that issue is the lack of right-elbow room. You sit butted up to the doors, which means your arm always feels constricted. And it'll take you a while to learn a good way to get behind that massive wheel, because the floor of the Defender is set at an altitude that some commercial airliners cruise at. That means you end up sitting so high that you can see over the roofs of piffling little vehicles like Volkswagen Touaregs and Range Rovers at traffic lights, but if you're out of shape (like me) you'll probably have pulled a thigh muscle or two in the process of just getting into the car.

And now the problems start coming thick and fast. Fire the 2.2-litre diesel engine up and you'd be forgiven for thinking you've accidentally been given a tractor rather than a 4x4; it also has pitiful official economy of 25.5mpg and emits enough CO2 to punt the Defender into the highest VED tax bracket going, resulting in a 1,100 first year's fee. Yikes. It takes a massive prod of the accelerator to get the 2,125kg 110 moving, a direct corollary of a feeble output of 120hp, and then you find yourself ripping through first, second, third and fourth gears in a fury of clunking upshifts... and you're only doing about 28mph at the end of it all. The handbrake, located to the left of the driver's footwell, is a sod to operate if you're in start-stop traffic. And, sweet lord, the worm-and-roller power assisted steering is heavy, extremely slow-witted and 'blessed' with double-digit degrees of vagueness around the straight-ahead.

But you persevere and the speed (slowly) builds, and now the most extraordinary level of tyre roar, all generated by those colossal tread blocks, shoulders its way into the cabin, to be joined by levels of wind noise hitherto unseen outside of a manufacturer's aerodynamic test tunnel. Stones ping into the underside of the chassis with such an alarming 'peeeyow' noise that it's like you're being shot at in a warzone. There's a lot of body roll and masses of imprecision about the way the Defender turns in, which makes it feel borderline unsafe at first. It's not good.

However, that's all in the first few miles, where you're treating the Landie with the namby-pamby inputs of a person softened up by modern power steering systems and super-slick manual gearboxes. Get your head in the game and start treating the Defender, er, roughly, and it responds marvellously. Yes, it's still noisy and old-fashioned and unlike anything else on sale, save for perhaps the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (which, incredibly, has even worse steering than the Landie), but now you're thumping home each gearchange with gleeful force, the transmission responding with a reassuring 'ker-chunk' as the clutch re-engages; you make sure your driving inputs are firm and decisive, and suddenly even the steering doesn't seem so bad. The ride's bearable too, although that might be down to the 110's longer wheelbase.

Sure, it's a bracing driving experience. But it's nothing like as awful as its fiercest critics would have you believe. In fact, once those first few difficult miles were out of the way, so much fun was I having behind the wheel that I started driving the Defender everywhere - into the heart of Nottingham at rush hour for a medical appointment for my son, over to the supermarket in the nearest town, to a family meal at a pub out in the countryside. And I loved every single mile that passed beneath those big, vocal tyres. I even contemplated 340 motorway miles in it to Farnborough and back, although in the end I wimped out of it in favour of a Volvo XC90 instead. Shame on me.

Aside from an utterly weird optical effect caused by its vertical front and rear windscreens - in which, at night, a 'ghost' view of the road and cars ahead of the Defender is visible in the rear-view mirror - it took just a few days for the 110 Heritage to have me considering living with it on a longer term basis; as in, for the rest of my natural life. Just 400 of these celebratory Landies were made, at a cost of 27,800 for the 90 and 34,200 for this 110, and it starts to look like good value for an absolutely massive, practical seven-seat 4x4 that should prove to be ultra-dependable come hell or (in this country) high water. That you'd also end up as the owner of what is probably the only truly classless vehicle on the roads - you could be an eccentric millionaire or a penniless farmer, and no one would be any the wiser - is a bonus.

After 250 mud-spattered miles in the Defender, it eventually had to go back. And I was very sad to see it (and hear it, howling away on its MT/R tyres) go. While my head says that, from a critical perspective, the Defender is at the absolute best deserving of a two-star rating, my heart insists quite the opposite. Cars with genuine, incontrovertible character like the Land Rover are extremely thin on the ground nowadays and despite its whole repertoire of flaws, I reckon the world is a poorer place for its passing. I might not have been a Land Rover aficionado while it was still in production, but the Heritage Edition has made a convert of me in the space of seven days. And it might do the same for you doubting Thomases too, if only you can get hold of one now the Defender has become a valuable commodity.

So long, Land Rover Defender - it was truly amazing knowing you.

Alternatives:

Ford Transit: a lofty driving position, excessive noise, basic cabin, reacts well to a damned good thrashing - yes, somehow piloting the Defender engenders the same strange feeling of misplaced imperiousness as being behind the wheel of a Transit (other white van makes are available).

Mercedes-Benz G-Class: the only other old 4x4 Trojan soldiering on well past its sell-by date. Hideous to behold and with woeful steering... and they let AMG stuff massive V8s into it!

Series Land Rover: Landie devotees will tell you these late Defenders share next to nothing in common with the hallowed original, so seek out a classic for the hardcore, unfettered experience. If you must.


Matt Robinson - 7 Apr 2016









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2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.



2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 

2015 Land Rover Defender 110 Heritage. Image by Matt Robinson.
 






 

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