Ultimate Defender Blings Up Land Rover’s Old Warrior
By Andy Bannister
The Defender may be absent from North America these days but it is still available in a large number of markets around the world, selling a steady 25,000 or so annually in a style which has hardly changed in 60 years.
In Britain they are used by everyone from the army, police and coastguard to farmers across great swathes of this green and pleasant land. Her Majesty The Queen has been known to drive one around her Scottish estate, and trendy city types love them.
In a country where SUVs are fast becoming public enemy number one, the Defender somehow seems exempt, even cultivating a “green” image as the chosen mode of transport for conservationists.
To celebrate Land Rover’s 60th year of existence, small numbers of what is dubbed the ultimate Defender – the SVX, carrying more than its fair share of designer “bling” – are now trickling on to the market at a cost in excess of £30,000 (almost $60,000).
The original Land Rover made its debut at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, and was intended to be in many ways a stopgap for the Rover company, which can hardly have dreamed what success lay ahead. Rover was at that time struggling with its middle class saloons in the austere world of post-war Britain, where there wasn’t enough steel to go round to make all the cars buyers craved.
The Defender shares plenty of DNA with that pioneering model, although the current Defender design (if not the name, which came later) was actually launched back in 1983 by then-owner British Leyland. Stylistically, it was hardly changed from the original. By that time the little Land Rover was a national institution, having seen off its one-time home-grown rival, the similar-looking but much-less-successful Austin Gipsy.
Despite growing slightly more sophisticated over the years, the Defender has always been a pretty slow, uncomfortable vehicle to drive on tarmac, though you would never think so judging from its popularity with buyers who rarely use its off-road capabilities. Its driving position is less than ideal and the interior has always been spartan, although a 2007 facelift certainly moved it forward in leaps and bounds.
The special SVX model comes only with metallic black paint and grey decals, which sit slightly uncomfortably with the utilitarian appeal of the design. It possibly runs the risk of appearing a little bit too customised for a venerable old vehicle – particularly the grille and roll cage – although Land Rover is hardly likely to struggle to sell the few hundred it is producing.
In the UK the SVX is based on the short Defender 90 (it has a 90-inch wheelbase), available as both a station wagon and – for the first time in the UK for many years – a soft top. Perhaps disappointingly the SVX shares its mechanical layout with the standard Defender, including the recently revised 2.4 litre four-cylinder Ford turbodiesel engine, although better damping means a smoother ride.
Equipment includes Recaro seats, alloy wheels and distinctive bright work, including a silver coloured grille and headlamp surround. There’s also an iPod connection, uprated sound system and sat nav.
Some owners will never find out but the Defender performs as brilliantly off-road as it has always done, thanks to great ground clearance, excellent axle articulation, a locking centre diff and clever traction control.
Interestingly, Australians also have the chance to buy (in tiny numbers) their own version of the SVX, but this time based on the longer-wheelbase 110 station wagon with five doors and seven seats
Whilst the Defender is not the world beater it once was – Japanese models like the Toyota Land Cruiser muscled it out of the way years ago in many markets – the SVX undoubtedly has a certain presence, though personally a standard model in a time-honoured shade of olive green would be more to my liking.
One of the problems Tata – Land Rover’s new owner – will be wrestling with is what form the promised 2012 Defender replacement should take. The design is increasingly out of step with modern legislation and simply can’t go on for ever.
Still, sales are up on recent years and the Defender seems to be enjoying a golden autumn. Whilst an anniversary special is well and good, let’s hope they don’t do TOO many tricked-up special editions. The old warrior deserves a dignified last few years.
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