On a diabolical off-road trail in Maine, the Land Rover Defender takes some hard-earned R&R. Alighting from the driver’s seat into what looks like a Civil War battleground—mud, mire, the shattered trees of a wood-chipping operation—I assess the wounded in our group, including the Defender’s lopped-off shotgun-side door handle. Despite being clawed by more scary trees than the cast of Evil Dead, the Defender’s pricey adventure accessories are blessedly intact: the air-intake snorkel on the A-pillar, the hinged “Gear Carrier” on the Rover’s right flank, the folding ladder that leads to the Italian-made rooftop tent where I’ll be spending the night. The triage uncovers a figurative wound as well: a very large chip on the Defender’s shoulder.
If the Defender were a rookie athlete—disrespected and nearly dismissed by nostalgia-peddling auto journos before it set foot on the field—it would be forgiven the urge to spike the ball and wag its trainer-sculpted ass in their faces. Yes, this spectacularly reborn Defender gives only a nod and a wink to the original’s enduring design, including that military-posture tail and a finely drawn waistline that demands a sergeant’s eyeball-level inspection to appreciate fully.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
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But let’s be honest: Retro design is easy, the dorm-room Van Gogh of originality, the place where corporate imagination dies via a thousand committee cuts. (It’s one reason the Detroit Three are prone to Greatest Hits collections.) Certainly, Land Rover’s restless design director, Gerry McGovern, he of the modern London outlook, healthy company clout, and a designer ego to match, is too smart to fall for it. If you thought McGovern was going to press the “Defender” button on the photocopier and sign his name to the result, you’ve never met the man.
In America, too, Defenders have been more pith-helmeted, Born Free myth than roadgoing reality. Jeep Wranglers have never been more popular, luring 200,000 customers a year. Fewer than 7000 Americans bought a new Defender in its entire history in the country, which spanned from 1993 to 1995 with an encore in 1997.
So with the crocodile tears finally drying, the Defender benefits from a clean break with its illustrious yet bygone past. That includes eliminating the live axles that date to the Land Rover Series I’s postwar birth in 1948—inspired by America’s Willys-Overland Jeep—in exchange for a fully independent suspension. This clean-sheet Defender still loves getting dirty, but it knows where the modern SUV earns its keep: on pavement, where the Defender’s aluminum monocoque, standard air springs (for the longer 110 model), and winning 395-hp, 3.0-liter inline-six help carve out a unique niche in a saturated SUV market.
With dual forced induction from a turbocharger and electric supercharger, juiced by a 48-volt mild hybrid system, the Rover generates a heady 406 lb-ft of torque from just 2000 rpm. It scampers to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. That dusts most lumberjack 4x4s, as does a 129-mph top speed. The Defender’s polished handling and drum-tight cabin further whip a Wrangler and even a Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The Rover’s charm grows with every mile and husky engine bark, even if it’s nothing like driving a vintage model. It’s a marvel how a purpose-built 4×4 can glide through corners with such command. Oh, and every Defender can tow 8201 pounds, versus a maximum 3500 in a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
It’s also hard to imagine the truck-based Ford Bronco out-handling or out-hushing this Defender. For one, Rover says its aluminum-intensive unibody is three times as stiff as leading body-on-frame designs. A two-door, 2022 Defender 90 starts from a reasonable $49,050 (with a 296-hp turbo four), less than an options-laden Jeep or Ford. Even our 395-hp, four-door Defender 110 SE starts from $66,450, about half the price of a $132,800 Mercedes G 550. Stuffed with extras, this tester rings up $77,775.
No-BS off-road ability remains the Defender’s trump card, even if some buyers will save it for a rainy, sloppy day. That includes the selectable Terrain Response system, segment-best approach and departure angles, a two-speed transfer case, locking center differential, and available electronic rear locker. An 11.5-inch full-lift ground clearance and a 35.4-inch wading ability—aided by an on-screen depth sensor that’s like dipping a digital toe into water—both beat the Wrangler Rubicon’s best.
I’d already bouldered a new Defender up the rugged shoulders of Mt. Equinox in Vermont.
Things are about to get messier. Our trailmaster is Bruce Fowler, a Maine real-estate manager who is helping to save some wicked trails in perpetuity for 4×4 fanatics. Fowler owns a small slice of 9000 acres in the Sebasticook River watershed, near the town of Unity, population 2099. When area bridges washed out in 1934, cutting off easy access, farmers who’d worked the land for two centuries drifted away. An unmaintained dirt road is the only entry point to 18 miles of gnarly, terraced trails over six elevations. An annual Winter Romp here draws more than 100 Rover owners. We’ve luckily arrived about a week before a temporary closure of lower trails, mainly because Fowler is tired of 3 a.m. calls to come rescue vehicles—some driven by, um, trail-intoxicated youngsters—that have sunk to their axles in mud.
It occurs to me that Fowler might be among traditionalists who’d scoff at the Rover’s city-slick parvenu. The Defender 110 SE glistens in silver and black, batting dramatically frosted LED eyes with illuminated lashes. The muted thump of Sault, the British R&B collective, leaks from inside via a knockout 700-watt Meridian sound system. After years of delinquent Jaguar Land Rover infotainment systems, the excellent new 10-inch Pivi Pro touchscreen is refreshing.
That interior is functional and industrial-chic, with exposed Allen-head bolts, integrated roof skylights, and the dashboard’s signature naked, powder-coated magnesium crossbeam bookended by grab handles. Seats pair leather with woven-textile inserts (seemingly dirt-prone) inspired by vintage Rover canvas tops. It’s no Range Rover but is still pretty swanky, with available Windsor leather and open-pore wood. Our SE skips the optional folding center jump seat up front. Tot-size, soccer-dad third-row seats remain stowed. Now please, Lord, don’t let Bruce see the goddamn puddle lamps. I needn’t have worried: Fowler likes the new Defender quite a lot.
“We grow, we evolve,” Fowler says, referring to truck and audience alike. He’d love to buy a new Defender 110, but not one so fancy that he’d be afraid to muck up the interior.
We set off on trails with ski-run names like Teabag, Defibrillator, and Ice Wall, with similarly variable levels of difficulty. Fowler’s green 1956 Series I Land Rover leads the way, skinny tires churning below an 88-inch wheelbase, its windshield cracked like an old shaving mirror, the cabin a corroded tub. But it moves, ably.
“It was bought to oversee a woods operation and spent its entire life here,” Fowler tells me. “It’s never seen the pavement.”
Fowler’s Series I, purchased new in Bangor, has spent 65 years and 700,000 miles wandering the Maine woods like some fairy-tale huntsman. (Remind me again how Rovers are hopelessly unreliable.)
Dialed into low range, the widebody, digitally enhanced Defender churns stoically through deep ruts and splashes through bogs. Cameras in exterior mirrors serve up helpful on-screen views of obstacles as they pass near the front wheels. For a hot minute, I dial up the All-Terrain Progress Control and set speed for 5 mph, letting the Rover hike the trail like a semi-autonomous Tesla.
Soon, the Defender is encased in mud like Trent Reznor at Woodstock ’94. We mosh toward the so-called Pit of Despair via the Screaming Eagle trail. An approaching off-camber section doesn’t look remotely perilous, but appearances are deceiving. It’s like driving in a giant parfait, layers of soft-serve mud with a ribbon of ice and a crunchy topping of corn snow. Skirt the steep sides of this frozen dessert glass, and the Rover just can’t find traction, especially with road-compromised, 20-inch Goodyear Wrangler tires. The Defender slews sideways off the trail and comes to rest against some thin trees, which at least prevents a potential rollover. I try to drive it out and succeed only in tearing off a door handle. Time to stop and assess.
Tow hooks, we later learn, are discreetly hidden behind the Rover’s aesthetically pleasing front fascia. Four panhead screws let you hinge down a lower panel and pop off the upper. (Rover recommends doing this before hitting tough trails, but who reads a manual?) Forced to improvise, we shackle a recovery strap to the rear receiver hitch and use a nearby tree as a makeshift snatch block. Fowler is Boy Scout prepared, tugging a chain saw to life to clear saplings and avoid further body damage. Hooking the Rover to our photographer’s Chevy Colorado ZR2—the trailing vehicle on this needle-thin trail, now our only hope of extraction—we succeed in yanking the Defender sideways until I can hook up traction and escape.
We’re off again, momentarily. I secretly feel a bit better when Fowler gets stuck in his heavy-duty Series I. And I’m fully exonerated when the Chevy—its black paint taking its own winching beating—gets hung up on a stump. Ultimately, the new Defender makes it in and out of this winter blunderland under its own power, with only a missing door handle to show. It’s an impressive feat for a luxury SUV with neither knobbies nor chained tires. Veterans here tell me the Sebasticook torture track regularly ensnares or breaks even heavily modified 4x4s, which then have to be dragged out over miles of forbidding trail. Bottom line? This Defender will tackle terrain that some pampered owners wouldn’t hike in, let alone drive in.
A chilly night of solo camping in the Defender’s rooftop tent follows, aided by a campfire and a lovely Chinon from Loire master Bernard Baudry. (Hey, we’re not animals here). Packing up after dawn, I hustle back to Portland, Maine’s biggest city. The Rover also seems itching to return to civilization, easily outrunning a few curious SUV owners who can’t resist a morning blast. Gripes? The electronic console shifter, bad enough in a Jaguar F-Type, is recalcitrant and a prissy stylistic match for a Defender. This Brit also quaffs premium unleaded like free pints at the pub; one highway run returned 13 mpg at a 72-mph average.
An even less fuel-efficient version arrives this summer. A 2022 Defender V-8 brings 518 hp from Rover’s artillery-grade supercharged 5.0-liter, marching to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. Priced from $98,550 in two-door guise, that Defender will still undercut a Mercedes G 550 by more than $34,000, with a 102-hp advantage over the G-
Wagen’s twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8.
Fortunately, long-denied Defender fans don’t need to spend 100 grand on a V-8 model to feel like they’re getting a square deal. And unlike the Defenders of yore, Land Rover will gladly ship one your way, no gray-market shenanigans required.
Land Rover Defender: 110
Price: $77,775 (as tested)
Engine: 3.0-liter turbocharged,
electrically supercharged I-6
output: 395 hp @ 5500 rpm 406 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
Curb weight: 5035 lb (mfr)
0–60 mph: 5.8 seconds (mfr)
The old Defender is still the perfect canvas.
America’s vintage Land Rover Defenders are becoming yet another protected automotive species: restored for Ralph Lauren budgets, too valuable to risk in the wild. But for many true believers, early Defenders still pile up honest miles as toys, tools, or both. They’re the Havana taxicabs of the truck world, a hodgepodge of parts born of necessity to keep aging iron going—with the advantage of well-preserved aluminum bodies, a happenstance led by the scarcity of steel in postwar Britain.
They include a Defender 90 built by Matt and Hallie Hawkes as a post-wedding project in 2011 and 2012. He’s a firefighter and former Rover mechanic in Portland, Maine, who’s owned more than 50 Landies. Hallie, a middle-school guidance counselor, grew up in a committed Rover family. The canvas-roof 90 is as off-the-grid as vehicles get, just a few DNA strands from a soldier’s truck or a farmer’s friend. I climb up and aboard, over 35-inch bias-ply trail knobbies, at windswept Kettle Cove Beach on Maine’s Cape Elizabeth.
No stickler for historical accuracy, Matt specced the rugged steel dash of a Rover Series versus the Defender’s painfully Nineties plastic affair. His-and-hers muck boots perch in the open cargo area. I ignite the Buick-based, all-aluminum Rover V-8 that became Britain’s go-to hot-rod engine. The Hawkes stroked it from 3.9 liters to 4.6, netting 270 horses, about 80 more than stock.
Unsurprisingly, the beefed-up Defender steps out much better than the era’s 85-hp turbodiesel models. Chris-Craft steering seems suited to this oceanside drive, though Matt’s aftermarket Bilstein steering damper avoids excess jounce. Salt air mingles with a whiff of motor oil and a hearty V-8 chug in the breezy cabin. The clutch and manual shifter, the latter long enough to double as a walking cane, are surprisingly cheerful, less work than Nineties-era Wranglers. Thank the full-synchro gears of the toughened R380 gearbox, found in all manual Rovers from 1994 to 2006. An H-pattern mini shifter locks the center diff or drops into low range.The Hawkes built everything around a galvanized steel Richards chassis, with Matt fabricating bumpers and rocksliders at the hot-rod shop where he moonlights. That includes a Detroit Locker diff out back and stout chromoly axles: “Hallie likes to blow up axles,” Matt says.
The romantic Out of Africa body actually traces to Cleveland. That’s where Matt tracked down crated panels of a 1986 Rover 90. Remarkably, that now 35-year-old alloy body, its aircraft-style spot welds visible below the skin, required only a coat of paint—a Toyota color, but near enough to Rover’s Coniston green—and no repairs.
Shaker-level simplicity hides robust over- engineering, Matt notes. Fully floating live axles are the stuff of commercial trucks. If a shaft breaks, the wheel doesn’t fall off. Matt, like many dedicated Landy owners, has slipped a broken axle out of a Defender and installed another, all on trail.“The Defender is like a Lego set, the swapability is insane,” Matt says. “You can basically take them apart with a Craftsman tool set.”
The Defender’s coil-sprung suspension, first introduced on the Range Rover, represented a major leap over the Series’ leaf springs. Charming bits of primitivism abound: A vent knob hinges a mail slot below the windshield to let in breeze, insects, rain—whatever. Yet as someone who grew up around woody Wagoneers and International Harvesters, the Defender takes me back like a right-angled time machine.
A Different Way to Camp
I’m not sure who wants or needs a $4000 rooftop tent. Kids who fight over the top bunk, definitely. People who hate tent poles, maybe. But the Land Rover Columbus Rooftop Tent, by Italy’s AutoHome, sprang erect in seconds (via gas struts) and gave me lofty shelter in Maine, where winter bobcat-hunting season had just wrapped. (I tossed some leftover food before turning in.) The triangular tent attaches to the Defender’s optional Expedition roof rack, with a foam mattress, pillows, and an LED reading light inside. The only hassle is scaling its ladder or the Rover’s side-mounted folding ladder. Especially when the urge strikes in the middle of the night. But kids won’t mind a bit.
How a blunt tool became a national treasure
Britain’s automotive values transformed after World War II. Luxury sedans, once its premier offering, were no longer in demand. The country needed something new, something rugged to help it get back on its feet. Rover, traditionally a luxury-car company, had the solution.
The vision was a vehicle that could literally rove the land. In 1947, the company built a prototype based on a Willys Jeep. It had a central driver’s position and not an ounce of thought given to comfort. The production version that debuted in 1948 reverted to a conventional driver’s position, but otherwise hewed closely to the prototype’s model of postwar austerity.
That initial Land Rover was a donkey in vehicular form, a tractor with a license plate. There was no pretense about it. And it was a massive hit.
Almost immediately it became the vehicle of a nation. The British Army used the Rover as its transport of choice. Farmers and others in England’s less developed countryside flocked to the Landie.
It even entered service with the royals, transporting the queen and other family members on trips to the countryside. In less than 20 years, Rover built half a million of the slow and uncomfortable little scamps.
The Land Rovers were so unflinchingly straightforward and without artifice that they didn’t even get proper names for the first 40-plus years of production. Instead, when Rover made enough updates to a particular model run, it would simply add another capital “I” to the end of the name to mark the newest version: Series I, Series II, etc.
The Land Rover became as much an iconic identifier of Britishness as the Mini later would. But like many vehicles that become icons, Rover’s utilitarian tool also became a status symbol. After it was renamed Defender in 1990, the model’s cult following grew. The trucks started popping up in cities, being driven by people who, a few years earlier, wouldn’t have even considered such a rude, old beast.
As popularity increased, Rover made concessions to the tastes of wealthier buyers. Interiors got nicer, engines gained power, and trim levels that favored on-road operation became more common. The plethora of special editions, modern updates, and wild color schemes of the era were weirdly incongruous, like a colorized version of an old black-and-white film. But the Defender never lost its original calling card: rugged capability. The American market’s sporadic exposure to the truck makes for a disjointed, if intriguing, narrative.
The new Defender marks a paradigm shift for the nameplate. It is a reinterpretation of a Defender, not one more update in a long series of tweaks stretching back some 70 years. Here’s hoping we see as many new Defenders off-road as we will in the parking garage at the galleria.
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