image 1
Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

JTurn's Cars to Drive Before You Die - Part 3

Last year, I read an article in CAR magazine entitled "25 British Cars to Drive Before You Die"; included in the list was a '60s Lotus F1 car, a £15m vintage Blower Bentley and the current McLaren P1 GTR - a car you'd be lucky to even see before you die, let alone drive.

Call me a cynic, but I feel that the bulk of the list was out of the reach of the common man and the list in its entirety likely out of reach of anybody at all. To be fair to the magazine, I think it was mainly designed to serve as a launch pad for the publication of various recent road tests, interspersed with some of British Motoring's "greatest hits" to emphasise the renaissance currently being experienced by the country's performance car manufacturers.

JTurn's mantra has always revolved heavily around public-spiritedness and accessibility. To that end, I have compiled a much shorter list of more attainable lifetime motoring goals - refusing to be a slave to base-ten conventions, the list numbers just 7.

Flying in the face of a recent referendum result, it also seems needlessly small-minded to limit the list to British cars so Japan, Germany and, erm, Norfolk are also included. In no particular order;

5. Land Rover Defender

If you thought an Elise was compromised, you really haven't seen anything yet. The Land Rover Defender is the greatest terrible car you will ever encounter and proof that charisma and satisfaction can often have no objective measure.

Where to start really, a sublime lack of performance, muscle-busting controls, poor manoeuvrability, terrible refinement and laughable reliability; and yet...what an event.

If you're used to driving a PCP Eurobox or user-friendly supermini you can really have no comprehension what an occasion it is every time you clamber up into the high driving position, thread your knees between the steering wheel and gearknob (leaving them splayed if you're over 5'10") and set off on any journey in a Defender. BMW could spend 20 years engineering a 3-Series to ace every single benchmark test and the whole car would still have less charisma than a Defender has in its front door handle.

One of the few objective areas where the Defender is strong, if not class-leading for quite a while now, is off-road. Forget about adjustable suspension, electronic 4x4 and selectable drive modes - the Defender makes you do it yourself. With permanent four wheel drive, the only configurable option is the reassuringly chunky diff-lock/low range selector just in front of the gear lever.

For those who have ever wondered how all the electronic gubbins in a modern off-roader conspire to keep you moving when the going gets tough, the Defender takes you back to first principles.

When engaged, the low-range transfer box sends drive through an extra drop gear in the transfer case, roughly 3 times that of the high range gearing. This gives a huge mechanical advantage and multiplies the torque at the wheels, also allowing the engine to work in an area with greater torque availability when creeping around at off-road speeds. One of the few electrical-widgets appended to the Defender during its lifetime was that of anti-stall, which allows the car to keep crawling along (and indeed up and down) without modulation of the throttle or clutch. Hill starts without the use of the handbrake are made possible with one foot on each of the clutch and brake.

The diff lock does exactly as suggested, mechanically locking all 4 wheels to each other so that they all keep on turning no matter how much (or how little) grip they have individually. The shortcoming of a normal road differential is that torque is sent down the path of least resistance, meaning that if you cock a wheel or lose grip on one or more corners when off-roading, no matter how much you rev the engine you will at best be contributing only to the size of tractor that will be required to pull you out again. Even modern electronic differentials are only reactive and must detect a degree of wheel slip before torque can be apportioned (albeit ultimately more accurately based on grip levels). Once the Defender is in off road mode, it won't deviate and there are no electronic controllers trying to second guess your intentions.

The beauty of all of the above is that you do it yourself. Like the MX5 before it in this list, the Defender flatters you into thinking that you are a driving great. Where a modern Discovery or Range Rover will carry you over most obstacles in leather-lined, air-conditioned comfort without even the need to engage low range; the Defender is and has always been all-action. You get bounced around in your seat and have to muscle the steering wheel around on the inevitable three (plus) point turns. The clutch and gearchange are unforgiving and would be completely alien to anybody who peddles a hatchback around most of the time. When in low range, unrefined throttle pedal stabs are met with a violent response as the wheel torque ratio is so much higher than normal.

The Defender sales trucked on steadily in spite of global recessions and advancing competitors throughout its extraordinarily long lifetime; residuals remaining high due to its die-hard appeal and unwavering ability. The end of production last year has served only to swell those residual values, with fears swirling that any replacement won't stay true to the original's philosophy. It's perverse really, that the Defender - by far the most heavily flawed vehicle on this list - is the most expensive to get into.

One thing such a long production run guarantees is a wealth of knowledge and experience around the car, all its variants and foibles. I won't bother charting the lifeline and the numerous tweaks between Series and engines - this is all covered much better across the many forums or information sites.

The Defender is not a car with attributes I would traditionally value, although as my tastes continually evolve I could easily end up coveting one in the future. Generally with models with a long lifespan, it's best to tend towards the end of the production run, when all/most/some of the known faults have been rectified.

Although I did quite like the run out Celebration Series, I could never decide if the Heritage version was retro-cool or just a bit naff. If I was spending my own money, I think I'd go for a 300Tdi or the pre-DPF Ford Puma (not that one) engine.

The 2.5L 300Tdi was around from 1994-98 and was the final evolution and refinement of Land Rover's 4 cylinder diesel engines before the, rightly or wrongly, mistrusted electronic engine management took over for the Td5. With 111bhp, performance is obviously glacial but we've already established that really isn't the point of a Landy. Whilst a lack of performance is often offset by better fuel economy, don't go expecting 40mpg in the vein of current diesel 4x4s either. The simplicity and relative refinement of the 300Tdi makes it the preferred choice for more rugged touring and off-road excursions.

Prices unfortunately currently range from around £3-4k up to £20k for something seriously tricked. Condition will vary just as widely, as drive cycles can range from the car spending most of its time waist-deep in muddy water to occasional weekend toy; without pretention, the Defender wins a favourable audience at any point in the social spectrum.

For more regular and mundane use, the 2.4L Puma of 2007-11 was equipped with luxurious modern fripperies like a proper dash, variable geometry turbo and a sixth gear but before the, rightly or wrongly, mistrusted DPF was introduced to see the Defender to Euro5 and the end of its life. With 120bhp, performance was still crap and fuel economy on a par with a current V8 Merc S63 AMG. There's worse news on the values front, as anything less than £12k would be lucky to get you a 2007-on Defender and later cars are already reselling for far more than they were worth when new.

Model-wise, it seems wrong to discriminate given the Defender's classless appeal, but I was always a fan of the meat-and-veg 90 Hard Top (i.e. 3 doors and no rear side windows). I'd hesitate to dub it the Defender Coupe, but I prefer it to the 110 5 doors in the same way I prefer 3 door hot hatches. The 90 is slightly more able off-road, with a shorter rear overhang and a smaller turning circle, but obviously slightly handicapped when it comes to carrying people (post 2007 it was reduced to a 4 seater).

The 90 also looks to wear mods better to my eyes. It's down to personal preference really but whilst a bit of chequer plate and a snorkel can lend some purpose to a Defender, it's certainly possible to overdo it - showing up at Waitrose with a lift kit and a shovel strapped to the bonnet can look a touch stupid.

As cars that gleefully defy logic go, the Defender is in a league of its own. In the modern world it fails to conform to any conventions regarding price, attributes or demographics - a timeless anachronism that will only become more revered now that its production lifetime is over and people realise we will never see the like again.