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Car reviews - Land Rover - Defender - SVX 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Off-road ability, tough underpinnings
Room for improvement
Massive turning circle, lack of safety features, ergonomics

Land Rover logo22 Dec 2008

THIS was not meant to be an obituary, but there is a strong sense of finality about the Land Rover Defender 110 SVX.

This special-edition, limited-run of 82 vehicles for Australia (out of 1800 built), is meant to celebrate Land Rover’s 60th anniversary, yet it also feels like a last encore for the Defender as it inevitably inches towards the end of production.

In 2007, the Defender was given its biggest overhaul since 1999, with a new 2.4-litre turbo-diesel engine (borrowed from the Ford Transit), gearbox, bonnet, grille, lights, dashboard, air-conditioning and seats.

This ‘new’ Defender will only meet European emission requirements until September 2010, when the Euro V requirement is phased in. While Land Rover won’t talk much about a replacement, it is possible something built on a T5 (Discovery/Range Rover Sport) will take over from the Defender.

Meanwhile, as a purchase proposition in today’s market, the Land Rover Defender SVX is the kind of vehicle you either understand completely or that you are completely mystified by.

People who understand the $63,000 special edition Defender 110 SVX will also admire - or at least understand the rationale behind - the Toyota Land Cruiser 76 Series or Jeep Wrangler. Those who do not understand will wonder who on earth would buy an old outdated 4WD when they could buy a perfectly modern Prado.

Even though the Defender might seem like the world has well and truly passed it by, there is a certain appeal in an old vehicle that can still be bought new.

The Defender is like having a factory-built vehicle along the lines of what the modified car scene call ‘retro-tech’, where you insert modern mechanicals and convenience items such as air-conditioning into an old car to make it a more practical, day-to-day vehicle. You can feel like you own part of history without feeling obliged to run the whole museum.

The SVX looks mean in its black livery but the discreet ‘60th’ decals might make the uninformed wonder if the Defender is advertising a new city restaurant. The black metallic paint does not successfully hide the dented aluminium panels and rivets that are part of the Defender ‘charm’.

Crack open the driver’s door and it’s a climb up and into the cabin - a manoeuvre made a little easier with the SVX’s side steps.

The SVX’s Recaro front seats are a very comfortable place to sit and you are faced with a simple, modern-looking dashboard, complete with a SVX limited-edition numbered plaque.

The controls are a little fussy - and the Clarion sound system fitted as standard has tiny buttons that are a challenge to get right when driving down a bumpy road. The main instruments are clear and easy to read and the aluminium gearknob and transfer case knob are cool to touch.

The pop-up sunroof fitted to SVX helps vent some of the built-up hot air in the cabin but there is no sunshade fitted, so even though it’s tinted, you’re always under glass - and can you can really feel the sun beating down, too.

The air-conditioning worked well enough in the 30-degree heat during testing, but the ventilation system is not really up to the volume and cooling effect of more contemporary designs.

The second row and third row seats provide a fair deal of legroom and headroom, and the 60-40 split second row usefully dedicates the narrower split to the kerbside.

Folding down the second row to climb into the third row is a relatively easy operation for adults, although the step-up from the tailgate is even more user friendly for adults.

While the interior space is quite generous for occupants, the padding on the seats is not. While the front-pew Recaros are excellent, the same can’t be said of the second and third row seats, which are short in the base, flat, too upright and hard. If you travel interstate with kids, don’t expect to last the first hour without them squealing. Unless they are young enough to be in childseats, which will need tether points the Defender does not have. Because it is imported as a commercial wagon, the tether points manditory in passenger vehicles are not required, so you’ll have to get them fitted by an approved fitting station.

The ‘Puma’ inline four-cylinder turbo-diesel pumps out impressive torque - 20Nm more in fact than the 340Nm produced by the Rover petrol V8 fitted to the Discovery II.

There is little of the low-rpm turbo lag you expect to feel in such a design, and the mid-range is reassuringly strong yet linear in delivery.

The engine also revs out quite quickly to around 4200rpm before it slows its climb up the tacho. While there is no redline, you know to change gears before you reach 4500rpm anyway, because the noise and vibration coming from the engine scream at you to do so. This is not a smooth or quiet engine by any stretch, and while I’d like to forgive it for the nice fat mid-range it delivers, it is hard to see it as anything but third world in NVH.

Fuel consumption averaged 11.5L/100km on test.

The six-speed transmission feels as if the first-gear ratio is too short, with typical urban stop-start running seeing a first-to-second gear change barely a second after letting the clutch out in first gear. This makes much more sense when towing anything heavy, when you really appreciate that relatively short first gear. The gearchange itself is a little notchy but not objectionable, while the clutch is heavy and has a surprisingly short travel.

If you are used to driving passenger cars, driving the Defender will come as a shock. Even a 10-year-old Discovery II feels positively lush to drive in comparison to the Defender.

That’s not to say the Defender is bad - it’s just that there are better handling and riding 4WDs. Once you get into the groove of driving the Defender, it is not a problem, and at least it doesn’t suffer a great deal of bodyroll through corners, and appears reasonably stable on the road. The ride is firm but doesn’t wind you in the way a leaf-spring ute can.

Off-road, the Defender should be king, and in some respects it still is. The sturdy separate chassis and live axles are something 4WD purists will point to as being vital for true toughness and longevity when used in the bush, and with its excellent articulation and traction control, there are not too many impediments to the Defender off-road.

Yet its 500mm wading height is 200mm short of the Discovery 3 and other sophisticated modern 4WDs - such as the Discovery 3 - will be technically as good if not better than the Defender.

The Defender SVX is an interesting vehicle for its composite of old and new when almost all other manufacturers have jettisoned their old ‘icon’ models to the museum. But the Defender is a living museum piece, one that in SVX trim is certain to find happy curators to keep the faith.

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