2013 Land Rover Defender 90 Review

Defending the madness that is Defender ownership
By Imthishan Giado

Land Rover Defender 90-09

I’ve never quite understood the Defender. An iconic design for sure, beloved by millions across the globe for its unrivalled ability and legendary durability, founded on a reputation that dates back nearly 65 years. But having grown up in the Middle East on a steady diet of Japanese SUVs like the Land Cruiser and the Patrol, the Defender was a rare sight on our roads, glimpsed only occasionally in desert camo in use by our Armed Forces. What you don’t see can’t impress you, as the proverb goes and so I’ve never driven a Defender, nor wanted to drive one.

What gives? Why does this car have such a rabid fanbase that speak of it in such hushed tones?  On paper, the specs are not impressive at all. Both the two and four door wagon are powered – if that’s the correct word – by a 2.2-litre turbodiesel that spits out just 122bhp, less than a Chevy Cruze.

2012 Land Rover Defender

Ah, but you’re thinking – it has a mountain of torque. Sorry to disappoint again: 266lb ft is all you get to move a fairly hefty 1771kg of offroader. 100kph comes up in a glacial 15.8 seconds. Fifteen seconds! Actually, nearly sixteen! Fully expecting the slowest road test of all time, I asked the good people to JLR to supply me a Defender to see what the fuss is about.

2012 Land Rover Defender

Want to know what the fuss is about? Just look at it. By being so resolutely unstylish, so defiantly blocky and function over form, the Defender has somehow managed to become one of the coolest cars on the planet, especially in stumpy two door form. This is the sort of the car Jason Statham would really drive, a hard-looking car for a hard man. Every square, vent and hole on the Defender is there because it has to be there, no superfluous swoops and creases to suit the designer’s pen. But don’t just take my word for it – driving the Defender around, people absolutely love it! Everytime I stopped somewhere folks would ask for a picture, children would wave as I drove past – when’s the last time that happened to you in Prado?

2012 Land Rover Defender

Open up the alarmingly thin door, mount the too-high step, haul yourself in and it feels like you’ve travelled back in time: truly, this is a close as you’re going to get to driving a new vintage car. By modern standards, the ergonomics are genuinely dreadful, if not downright dangerous. You sit high in a flat wide seat that doesn’t slide far back enough grasping a plasticky wheel that does not adjust for reach or rake, but is helpfully tilted at a schoolbus-like angle. Because you’re forced to sit so close to the non-adjustable wheel, the pedal box is very cramped, your knees rubbing constantly against the steering column. There’s nowhere for your arms either with the narrow body, so your left arm elbow is permanently on the window sill – great in a crash!

I’m nowhere near finished yet. Keeping to the truck theme, the clutch is heavy and bites uncomfortably high, while your right arm will be occupied with the long walking-stick of a gearshift that shifts with all the reassurance of a politician’s promise. Also not well thought out: the handbrake placed low down by your right knee, a positioning so genius that literally no other manufacturer has thought to copy it. Soft touch surfaces? In a Defender? Have you been drinking? Everything feels hard as granite and likely to survive any accident even if you won’t.

2012 Land Rover Defender

Toys? Believe it or not, the Defender actually has Bluetooth audio and telephony, courtesy of a very aftermarket-style Pioneer head unit. Electric windows? Don’t look for the switches on the doors, they’re mounted high up on the dash. There is air conditioning but brilliantly, the only vents are mounted on the centremost of the dash so all the cool air comes out of the centre of the car, leaving your arms to pick up a pleasing tan. And they will, because even though the A/C blows quite cold, there’s simply too much interior for two tiny vents to deal with, especially on a hot summer’s day.

2012 Land Rover Defender

But these ergonomic disasters can be excused if the Defender is great to drive, and conquers all offroad. Er…sorry to disappoint! By modern standards the Defender is a complete mess. The steering is ponderously slow and completely numb, operating the aforementioned clutch is like kicking an angry mule and the gearbox is stiff when cold and somehow even stiffer when hot! Or maybe I was just getting tired. The first day I drove this car was a truly exhausting experience – you have to concentrate so much just to keep up with traffic. Decent levels of torque mean that you can get off the line fine, but there’s no point beating on the poor 2.2 and revving the nuts off it to make progress – just keep in the meat of the midrange and wait it out. Which will take a while. And then when you need a stop – spongy, indifferent braking means lots and early use of the red pedal.

Then there’s the highway. We have a lot of highways here and the Defender is hilariously unsuited to them. Not only does it have the wind-cheating aerodynamics of Dubai Mall but with a top speed of just 150kph, the engine is screaming its tiny heart out just to maintain 120kph. This is the sort of vehicle which should come with in-car radios at standard.

2012 Land Rover Defender

But, but, you’re saying…you put up with the lack of speed, the uncomfortable, near-deadly interior, the impracticality, the catastrophic fuel economy and so on because the Defender is lord of the sands. Well sorry to disappoint again but the Defender isn’t much cop in the sand either. I’m sure in England’s muddy bogs and Europe’s grassy hills, the Defender ambles along amiably surfing on a seamless wave of torque. But it’s hopeless in the sand because it just doesn’t have the power to climb anything in high range. In fact, during the course of the shoot of the pictures you’ve been seeing, the Defender nearly got itself stuck on a bit of completely flat, hard packed sand that a Sentra could cruise through without issue. No jokes, I had to engage low range just to make sure it didn’t dig itself a hole to China and have the skinny Mr Sheikh push me out…

2012 Land Rover Defender

Don’t get me wrong – in the right hands, the Defender is an incredibly capable offroad vehicle, with superb approach and departure angles, good balance and stiff, tough suspension mated to an nigh-on unbreakable body. But in this guise, with this wheezy engine it’s a lot of hard work to maintain momentum in the soapy stuff. You’ll need to be in low range constantly just to make decent progress. If you’re really serious about dune running, look for a old V8 car – those are the ones all the serious offroaders use. With the indestructible Rover V8 under that bonnet, the Defender can finally fly over the dunes like you knew it would.

2012 Land Rover Defender

So the Defender – total disaster, right? Avoid it like the plague, yeah? All mouth and no trousers eh? Actually, no. This is the part where I completely cast away all my credibility away for all eternity so read on, Imthi-haters.

Truth is, hand on heart, I absolutely loved the Defender. Yes, it’s a complete bitch to drive and living with one every day would require a high degree of masochism (and perhaps insanity) but by God, it makes you feel cool! After a few days I didn’t want to give it back. After a while you forget about all the issues and just enjoy driving it – the Defender is such a visceral, physical experience that demands your complete attention and reminds you what driving a car is really about, in a world of fat heavy crossovers with fuel-sipping automatics and social media apps to distract you from the road. And it bears repeating – it will go anywhere offroad, you just have to be aware of the giant limitation that is the lump under the hood and compensate with the soft thing between your ears. On the highway once you get up to speed, it’s surprisingly stable, and the ride on big fat Continental tyres is always pleasingly supple.

2012 Land Rover Defender

Yes it’s expensive. A cheaper FJ will absolutely embarrass it for straightline speed and refinement. But you know what? I drove an FJ for two months and I ended that test without the slightest bit of affection for what is a very capable vehicle. By comparison, every time I got out of the Defender I was sweaty, tired and felt like a piece of pounded meat. And I wouldn’t have traded that feeling for all the gold in the world.

2013 Land Rover Defender 90
Price: AED160,000
Engine: 2.2-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder, 122bhp @ 3500rpm, 266lb ft @ 2000rpm
Performance (ha!): 15.8secs 0-100kph, 150kph, 8.3L/100
Transmission: Six-speed manual, permanent four-wheel drive
Weight: 1771kg

11 responses to “2013 Land Rover Defender 90 Review”

  1. Vinny Singh says:

    Dude! This costs 160k? What part of it is worth that price?

  2. admin says:

    [Imthishan] It’s hilariously expensive considering what you don’t get, but it is a *proper* offroader and they are built very tough to last decades.

    That sort of engineering doesn’t come cheap – have you have seen the price of a Land Cruiser lately? Considerably more than your average FJ, and for a good reason.

  3. marc says:

    well written article, very very funny!! good job

    hilarious car. understand the heritage, but would hate to own one..

  4. TJ says:

    I’ve been thinking about why I always wanted, and on and off drove cars that where far from subtle, luxurious, or whatever makes the latest Landcruiser, Petrol, Pathfinder, Pajero, FJCruiser etc. the bestsellers that they are. In part, the answer is in the word “latest”. All “regular” cars that I’ve owned I became bored of after a while, particularly when their successor was introduced, which was so much better and up to date that you would inevitably loose your affection for your current vehicle and ultimately give way to the desire to upgrade to the “new model”. The euphoria however never lasted, and you would start looking around again for other cars. Until I realised that this is exactly what car manufacturers aim at. A model has to be renewed in order to keep the business running, not the car. When I was younger a car had an economic life span of about 5 years. Today it’s a mere 2 years before you are unconsciously allured into procuring the latest model. Over the years I developed serious doubts about how we deal with sustainability, resources, consumption etc. The Defender is perhaps the last vehicle on the market that survived that profit driven renewal cycle. No, it’s not the best 4×4 by far anymore, and in many respects it has its shortcomings and imperfections. But driving a Defender frees you from that ever recurring feeling that you need something new to satisfy your automotive desires. That, and the fact that I can walk on the bonnet, throw fire wood on the roof, drill holes in it to fit funny gadgets and functional equipment and modify the vehicle to my liking is what makes the Defender my car of choice. It’s sad to know that the legend is soon coming to an end, and the next model no doubt will be a perfect car superior to any off-roader on the market. At least for two years.

  5. Arif Al Yedaiwi says:

    Hey Imtishan.. WTH!!

    I just hold my hands from pounding on the keyboard and smashing the office computer screen while reading your article hahaha.

    The Defender is not a vehicle. You cannot review it in a motoring magazine or car show. The Defender is a lifestyle that should be featured in E! or Forbes magazine. By modern vehicle standards, its performance, comfort and reliability is a bit compromised. But if you look at it from a longevity point-of-view, a 2013 Defender is likely to be driven around admired by the eyes and hearts in 2033 more than a 2013 FJ/Cruze/Sentra would (if they survive till then).

    Thank you for featuring this legend in Motoring ME and appreciate the time and effort you took to admire it. I guess it would be a different kind of article if Fraser was behind the wheel :p

    • admin says:

      [Imthishan] Thanks for reading Arif, we always appreciate the input of the Land Rover Faithful 🙂

      I wanted to write this story because despite its (many, many) flaws, people need to know why the Defender is such an icon of the class – because the new one is going to be very different, and not necessarily in a good way!

  6. Richard Holliday says:

    Thank you for the write up,not 100% accurate on its off road sand ability as it does a lot more than you think when you learn to drive it, I think one of the best things about the Defender is everyone that owns one loves it even with its faults, it’s an icon of a vehicle and 75% of them ever built are still driving you can not say the same about any other vehicle. Another great thing about it is not everyone likes them which means not every one will buy one and that keeps them a best kept secret for the few that did buy one. Mine is 13 years old and has spent 80% of its life driving off road, I would like to see a Nissan patrol do that. Thanks for the write up though it’s negative enough to keeps these cars in the hands of the lucky few.

  7. Ken says:

    When the zombies come, you’ll all want a Defender.

  8. mansky says:

    I hope this article doesnt change the minds of JLR honchos who are bent on coming out with a “new & modern” Defender design come 2015. Gentlemen, just proceed with your intentions. It’ll be great for us owners of the Defender-as-we-know-it!!!

  9. Saif says:

    I own the same landy, and must say its a nice article, but the landrover isn’t for anyone. and it never gets stuck on sand unless your a beginner, And the Gear is a bit tough for beginners too. Its a wonderful car both on sand and road and good to have 1. you drove it once so must be hard for you to keep up lol.

  10. Chamark says:

    XL883R,355,911(80s) and the Defender are just the same bravo love it!

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