Used Land Rover Defender (Mk1, 1990-2016) review - What’s it like to drive?

Sluggish performance and vague on road handling, but Defender is packed with charm and a supreme mud-plugger

By any objective measure the Defender is hopelessly outclassed on the road, where its heavy controls, imprecise handling, bouncy ride and breathless engines make it hard work. Yet it’s also satisfying to drive, with a delightfully mechanical feel. And when you get it off the beaten track, few can match the Land Rover’s mountain-goat ability to keep going no matter what the obstacles in its way.

Engines and performance

The last versions of the Land Rover Defender were powered by a 2.2-litre diesel engine borrowed from the Ford Transit. It isn't very environmentally friendly, but it has a strong towing capacity of up to 3,500kg and is reasonably flexible. The claimed 0-62mph of 15.8 seconds looks painfully slow on paper, but in the real world the torquey unit has no trouble keeping up with the flow of traffic.

The limited-edition Autobiography model had a power boost to 150bhp, which gave some added shove, but it was still very noisy and unrefined. That said, these models all got a six-speed manual gearbox that helped keep things a bit calmer on a longer motorway run and gave the Defender a more muscular in-gear response.

This 2.2-litre replaced a larger 2.4-litre unit, which was also sourced from Land Rover’s then parent company Ford. It features identical power and torque outputs as the later engine, but isn’t quite as refined and has higher emissions.

Before that there was the five-cylinder 2.5-litre TD5 diesel and the four-cylinder 300 and 200 TDi units, which all have plenty of mid-range grunt and, like all Defenders, can pull the heftiest trailers. Performance is even more leisurely from a standard start, while the standard five-speed gearbox means motorway journeys are even noisier.

The petrol V8 engines are rare, but if you can find one and can afford their insatiable thirst for unleaded, then they add even more character. They’re not much faster than the diesels, but they’re smoother and serve-up a brilliantly burbling soundtrack. 

The last-of-line Works and Works Trophy models packs an awesome 399bhp supercharged 5.0-litre V8 that combines with an eight-speed auto to deliver 0-62mph in a scorching 5.6 seconds. However, with just 150 of the former and 25 of the latter built, they’re rare and expensive.

On the road

What the Land Rover Defender lacks in refinement and on-road comfort, it more than makes up for off-road, where hardly any other rival can touch it. 

It has an incredibly solid chassis, high ground clearance, amazing axle articulation and four-wheel drive with low-range gearing. This means it can cope with almost anything the elements throw at it.

However, it's a totally different story on the road. The steering is very heavy and isn't very responsive. There are lots of turns lock-to-lock, but the turning circle is huge, and cornering is best done slowly. It also bounces around over rough tarmac.

That said, if you love driving then there’s real satisfaction to be had driving a Defender. It’s hefty controls require firm but precise operation to ensure smooth progress, while the car’s size, weight and relative lack of grip means your on-road anticipation will be sharpened if you want to drive it well. It’s a gloriously old-fashioned machine with a very direct mechanical connection between driver and car, and in this day and age that’s to be savoured.

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