Right now Land Rover’s design team is halfway through a programme to redesign the world’s most famous <a href="http://www.landrover.com/gb/en/lr/" target="_blank">4x4</a>, the Land Rover Defender. The goal is to take the key elements of the iconic car and create a cool, new and modern version of a design that has remained mostly unchanged since 1948.
For the time being, however, the car remains the same, with its reassuringly old-fashioned, boxy, no-frills silhouette. Driving the latest Defender on the Roxburghe Estate in the Scottish Borders, it is clear that this Model Year 2012 Defender is anything but modern. Despite having such a large and passionate following – and I must confess to having a soft spot for it – the Defender is beginning to feel its age despite its new, more economical and, importantly, cleaner engine. I’m one of those people who would quite like if the Defender remained unchanged. In fact, I’d like it if Land Rover created a Defender for the 21st Century but still built this one for the loyal faithful.
Up in Scotland we are surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in the British Isles. But rather than having the Defender’s upright screen frame such a marvellous view, my colleague and I are driving on a specially-prepared <a href="http://www.landrover.com/gb/en/lr/owners/land-rover-guides/guide-to-off-roading/" target="_blank">off-road</a> course in near total darkness. Winding our way through the mud and ruts of a forest, fording rivers, sees us in water so deep it is over the doors and across the floor, under our feet. At others the car slips sideways alarmingly as we cross wooden platforms before the Defender regains its grip and doggedly soldiers onwards. It is a little scary but a lot of fun. Okay, the course may be man-made but it still feels like quite some adventure. As a display of the vehicle’s capabilities it’s impressive. But more that that it leaves me feeling a little wistful, contemplating my unfulfilled inner soldier or Indiana Jones.
Outside, it is very cold and it’s a little cold inside too. It turns out we were rather more dressed for dinner than we realised and we’re underprepared. According to Land Rover, the Defender has a powerful heating system good for the most extreme climates. Based on its heritage it’s clear that the motor has been in some very extreme environments. But scrabbling around in the dark I realise that we made quite an error not turning the heating on before we headed off. Trying to switch it on in the dark whilst being bounced around all over the place in a car with such poor interior lighting is tricky. Once found, though, the heating proves effective enough.
This MY12 Defender has a new 2.2-litre diesel engine which replaces the 2.4-litre diesel of its predecessor. Though it delivers the same power, torque and economy it is a little cleaner, though it’s never going to win any environmental awards. Performance is similar, and the 122PS unit is good for getting the Defender up to 90mph (previously 82mph), though it’s certainly a leisurely pace to get there. Emissions have been reduced somewhat. The new engine emits 266g/km for the 90 and 295g/km for the 110 and 130. Engine noise is reduced too – thanks to a new engine cover – which does something to improve the refinement (although if it’s refinement you’re after this is definitely not the 4x4 for you).
None of this matters, though, because we don’t get the Defender above 20mph. Its performance is all about what it can do at low speeds. The MY12 Defender proves to be exactly what it should be: basic, albeit a tad less basic than its predecessor. It’s as rudimentary an experience as you can have driving a car.
I still love it and I crave a country pile just to have an excuse to buy one. There’s a purity of purpose and honesty about it that remains as satisfying as it always has and that’s just what Land Rover hopes to retain in the design of the new Defender. I wish them good luck with that. I think they’ll need it.
THE FACTS: LAND ROVER DEFENDER MY2012
TOP SPEED: 90mph
CO2 G/KM: 295g/km
MPG COMBINED: 11.1mpg
VALUE FOR MONEY ****