Land Rover Defender (2012 - 2016) used car review

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By Jonathan Crouch

Introduction

The Land Rover Defender is one of those iconic cars that almost everyone recognises. The first generation version was - visually at least - hardly changed in over half a century of production, though in its latter years, quite a lot was done to update it. Here, we look at the very last first generation models produced between 2012 and the end of production in 2016, these equipped with a Euro 5-compatible 2.2-litre 122hp diesel engine.

Models

Land Rover Defender 90 & 110 - 2.2 diesel

History

Once upon a time, back in 1947, there was a man called Maurice Wilks. By day, he was Chief Designer of the Rover car company. By night and weekend, he was an enthusiastic amateur farmer at his small holding in Anglesey, aided by an old war surplus Willys Jeep. When one day, the Jeep spluttered to a halt, Maurice had a problem. Spare parts were impossible to get, as were replacement vehicles. Secretly, Wilks was rather pleased: he'd always rather fancied having an excuse to design something better. He did - and nearly seventy years and 2 million vehicles later, as you can see, it's still going strong.

First known simply as the 'Land Rover', this vehicle was first launched at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show as something much more than a motor vehicle. True, it could be used as a car, but it was also designed for use as anything from a power source to a small tractor, the ultimate Swiss army knife of farming equipment. Over the years, ownership of the Land Rover brand came and went but this iconic vehicle remained much the same, gaining coil springs and a slightly longer wheelbase in 1984, then the Defender name in 1989 to differentiate it from some of the brand's other products. The New Millenium saw this car with a rattly old Td5 diesel engine, eventually replaced in 2007 by a 2.4-litre diesel borrowed from Ford's Transit and good enough to power the vehicle for five more years until final changes were needed to meet Euro 5 legislation.

Which brings us up to 2012 - and to the version we're here to look at as a used buy, the last, historic throw of the dice by the Solihull brand that was the final 2012 to 2016-era version of the original Defender. This car could climb many obstacles but the biggest of all, the legislator's pen, ultimately defeated it. Even back in 2012, it didn't have efficient enough emissions to be sold in the States and by 2016, it couldn't be sold in Europe either and was deleted from the Land Rover range while the brand prepared a new-era version, eventually launched in the Autumn of 2019. But that model was almost unrecognisable from the car that began life on Maurice Wilks' farm. And if it's too pricey or doesn't really suit, you can still enjoy a 'proper' Defender it you search out one of these last-of-the-line first generation models.

Back in 2012, these gained a slightly cleaner Euro5 engine, a 2.2-litre Ford-sourced Duratorq diesel unit, fitted with a diesel particulate filter. Other updates - ventilated disc brakes, the option of more comfortable seats and upgraded stereo equipment - were more minor, but then the previous 2007 upgrade had already introduced a redesigned gearbox, extra sound insulation and a smarter, slightly more car-like interior. In fact, in this first generation Defender's latter years, quite a lot was changed to differentiate it from the Land Rover original - but ultimately, nothing was really very different. After the end of diesel model production, a final version - the Defender Works V8 70th Edition - was announced fitted with a 405hp petrol V8 and only 150 examples were made

What You Get

Is there a more iconic shape in British motoring than this one? We doubt it. This is a national treasure, a statement of Britishness that you'll find used by aid agencies, mountain rescuers and explorers the world over. Visually, little changed on this first generation model over the years, apart from the raised bonnet necessary to accommodate the larger, more recent diesel engines. By 2012, this part of the car, rather sadly, was no longer fabricated from long life aluminum but most of the other simple, flat, easy to repair panels you'll find around the bodywork still were, these still bolted, as ever, to a tough steel box section ladder frame chassis. You can even see the rivets.

There are some anomalies though. Climb inside and you'll find that though there are modern optional touches like an iPod socket and a full-house 10-speaker Alpine stereo, basics like electric mirrors and any sort of airbag are noticeable by their absence. Traction control and ABS are only optional on plusher models and you still can't have height adjustment for either the steering wheel or the seat. Engineering priorities we suppose. Still, how many other cars can offer a rear external power take-off, allowing you to take the vehicle anywhere and use it as a mobile generator?

At the wheel in what Land Rover calls its 'Command Driving Position', you gaze out through the traditional flat screen and in a post-2012 model, sit on plusher more supportive seats, so it remains refreshingly utilitarian. Having said that, despite the rows of blanked-off switches, it's now much smarter than the cabin you'll find in more elderly Defender models, thanks to instruments borrowed from the Discovery and a one-piece dashboard with fresh air eyeball vents, a fascia unit that eliminates a lot of the creaks and rattles you used to get. We'd certainly want a car fitted out with the useful - but sadly optional - 14-litre centre storage box. Some of the old throwbacks remain though: the upright handbrake; the key that can't be turned when the headlamp switch is in the 'on' position; the after-market stereo; the restricted rearward front seat travel; the weak headlights; the wipers that clear just a part of the screen; and perhaps most initially annoying of all, such ridiculous cabin narrowness that you're constantly bashing your elbows on the windows during low speed maneuvering.

The original designers, you see, prioritised other things. At night in the Gobi desert, you're going to be more interested in the fact that this vehicle has a volcanic heater, than the reality that the column stalks date back to the original Austin Metro. And during the day there, you'll care that the air conditioning offered on plusher versions cools the cabin twice as quickly as it did on more elderly models. It all reminds us that in older, tougher days, air conditioning on this car used to be supplied by a flap at the front, freezing your hands on the steering wheel in Winter, and though that was improved after the turn of the century, it wasn't by much: before 2007, this car didn't even have side window demister vents.

For passenger-focused owners, there are two main 'Station Wagon' wheelbase shapes. The three-door short wheelbase Defender 90 has just four seats that, rather uniquely, you can only access through the rear door - no MPV-style slidy-foldy chairs here. Still at least rear occupants do sit facing forward rather than perched on the side of the vehicle as they used to be. If you want a bit more passenger versatility, you'll be more interested in the five-door long wheelbase Defender 110 variant which, thanks to its extra length, can accommodate up to seven folk, with the third seating row again these days conventionally forward-facing and sited ahead of a vast boot which is even carpeted (a bit odd that, given that you're supposed to be able to hose the cabin out).

Cabin legroom is in fairly short supply but with the boxy, airy, high-set interior, you don't really notice it too much. Headroom is at a bit of a premium too thanks to the way that this second row has been perched up so much higher than the seats at the front. It makes this car a great vehicle to ride in: you can just imagine yourself on a jungle safari.

What You Pay

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What to Look For

Build quality isn't exactly to Rolls Royce standards, as you would expect, but these are basically sound and well-built vehicles. As with any 4x4, be extra careful that the chassis is straight and that the engine and gearbox have not been abused either by rough off-roading or by too heavy a tow-load (the '110' long wheel base version is a favourite of the horse-box set). Dents and bumps under the car and noisy diffs and smoky exhausts are the telltale signs. Check for bodywork corrosion, especially on the underside of the car but rust is usually not much of an issue, as body panels are aluminium, though the separate steel chassis needs to be checked. There have been reported issues with leakages from the power assisted steering, a problem often paired with a failure in the timing belt.

Replacement Parts

(Based on a 110 TDi and approximate, excluding VAT) A radiator will be around £242 and a thermostat about £20. Front brake pads are in the £10-£42 bracket, depending on the brand you choose; rear pads sit in the £10-£45 bracket. Front brake disc sit in the £30-£66 bracket, though you can pay in the £85-£100 bracket for pricier brands; rear brake discs sit in the £60-£66 bracket, though you can pay up to £110 for pricier brands. Air filters sit in the £80-£25 bracket. Oil filters sit in the £6-£13 bracket. Fuel filters sit in the £22-£58 bracket. A water pump sits in the £49 bracket, though you can pay in the £100 bracket for pricier brands.

On the Road

At last, a driving experience that really is that, a 'driving' 'experience'. It won't suit everyone of course: if it did, Land Rover would have no need to offer Freelanders, Discoverys or Range Rovers. An acquired taste then - and the Defender's loyal following would have it no other way. You sit high up of course - and bang your elbows on the doors until you get used to twirling the huge wheel. The Getrag 6-speed gearbox is still a bit notchy, the suspension is very firm (crashing you over the slightest bump) and there's an enormous turning circle which will make you think twice about tight multi-storey carparks.

All of which will irritate if, rather unreasonably, you expect this vehicle to be some sort of stripped-out Discovery. Approach it looking for something a little different and the faults become endearing foibles. You almost wish for a storm to blow up on the way to the Chinese takeaway or a 'road closed' sign to tell of flash flooding on the school run, for here of course, your Defender will come into its own. For the other 350 days of the year, when there's no excuse to properly exercise the permanent four wheel drive system by engaging the low range gearbox and locking the centre differential, it'll keep up with the traffic on road and get you where you want to go as you cheerfully wave passing other Defender owners, members of the almost secret society that appears to be entitled by ownership.

What more do you want from a vehicle that will tackle at 45-degree slope going forward or backwards? A car that will wade through water half a metre deep without modification and traverse a 35-degree hill? Use the low range transmission you'll need in really rough terrain and you'll find that first gear is ultra-short, leaving you in a sort of 'crawler' mode where the car moves slower than an ambling pedestrian. With this engaged, thanks to the clever anti-stall system, you can just take you feet off the pedals and do little more than keep the steering pointing in the right direction as your Defender clambers easily over obstacles you couldn't even walk across.

There aren't many 4x4s you could call rivals and those that potentially are - say Jeep's Wrangler - lag way behind in extreme rough stuff. Take the Defender's astounding 47-degree approach and departure angles: the Jeep offers just 38 and 32-degrees respectively - and it calls itself 'unstoppable'! To maximise this Land Rover's mud-plugging prowess, I'd want to specify mine with the brand's optional 'Off Road Pack', which gives you an Under Ride Protection Bar, All Terrain ABS braking with Electronic Traction Control, a heavy duty steel spare wheel and the tow bar that almost all owners will want. There's no option for the Terrain Response system more car-like Land Rover models have which automatically sets the vehicle up to suit the conditions you're travelling through - but then I get the impression that a typical Defender driver would be rather patronised by that.

And that 2.2-litre diesel engine, installed as a supposedly cleaner replacement for the old Transit-derived 2.4-litre unit? Well, the improvements here were pretty much all in terms of the environmental hoops Land Rover had to jump through to provide a Euro 5-compatible powerplant. The power and torque on offer were exactly the same as before - 122bhp and 360Nm - so there was no loss or gain in performance. What's important though is that like its predecessor, this more modern unit lent itself well to off road adventures, with a healthy dose of pulling power that gets you smartly off the line, is crucially accessible low down in the rev range and ticks over happily whether climbing steep, slippery hills or fulfilling the Defender's enormous 3,500kg potential towing capability. Motorway cruising was improved (thanks to an acoustic engine cover) but still noisy: rest to sixty takes 14.7s and the maximum speed is limited, perhaps wisely, to a modest 90mph.

Overall

Despite the Defender's 2012 model year refurb, it remained as solid and uncompromising as it had always been, with off road ability to worry a Challenger tank. Approach it as an alternative to modern family 4x4s and you've missed the point. Buy a Discovery for that. Here instead, is the hardest wearing, most capable and most cost effective proper off-roader that sensible money can buy.

Equipped with its Euro 5-compatible 2.2-litre diesel engine, this is the go-to choice if you're looking for a used 4x4 from the 2012-2016 period ready for really hard off road work that will keep going when other SUVs have ground to a sorry halt. Arguably, it's still the toughest thing out there.

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