This is a rarity for the Motoring Research Retro Road Test: a review of car that’s only just gone out of production, the Land Rover 90 40th Anniversary. Yes, after 25 years, the Land Rover Defender production line has now ground to a halt. And that’s doing it a disservice – the Defender name is 25 years old, but it can trace its roots as far back as the 1948 Land Rover Series I.
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The Defender on test here isn’t actually a Defender at all – it’s from 1988, so predates the Defender name by three years. It’s a special 40th Anniversary limited edition model – very limited edition, in fact. Industrial action at Rover Group at the time meant just two were made before the special edition was binned.
What are its rivals?
It kind of lives in its own sector, the Defender. Sure, there are cheaper, tougher, more comfortable 4x4s that make a lot more sense from a practical perspective. But none of them are a Defender. If you must look elsewhere, consider the likes of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class or Toyota Land Cruiser. Or a Unimog.
What engine does it use?
Being a Ninety as opposed to a later Defender, E40 KDU is powered by a fairly asthmatic 2.5-litre turbodiesel. It was replaced in 1990 by the more popular 200Tdi, which then became the enthusiast’s favourite 300Tdi. Later models used a range of BMW and Ford turbodiesels – all of which were more efficient and offered greater performance, but lacked the bush-mechanics simplicity of the earlier engines.
What’s it like to drive?
It’s got a lot of charm, the Defender. We’d argue that an early 90 such as this is the best compromise between old-school simplicity and modern-day comforts. Its coil springs (as opposed to the leaf springs fitted to Series Land Rovers) offer comfortable (if slightly bouncy) ride quality, while the steering is vague in a way only Defenders can get away with.
Reliability and running costs
“If you want to go into the Outback,” the Aussies say, “take a Land Rover or a Land Cruiser. If you want to come back alive, take a Land Cruiser.”
Yeah, Land Rover Defenders aren’t known for being reliable. And they’re not the most efficient vehicles – expect early-20s MPG. But they’re well catered for in terms of owners’ clubs and online forums – and they’re generally easy to fix if (when) they go wrong.
Could I drive it every day?
It takes a special kind of person to drive a Defender every day – but people do manage it. You have to be prepared for water coming in when it rains, and don’t expect a great deal of comfort. Still, enjoy looking down on other motorists, and be prepared to give other Defender drivers a cheery wave.
How much should I pay?
Defender prices have always been strong – now more so than ever, with production finally coming to an end. Pay as much as you can afford – concentrate on condition rather than age, and try to get a desirable station wagon over a commercial variant. You’re not going to lose out on a Defender (until you start taking running costs into account).
What should I look out for?
Rust is the biggy – have a good poke around with a screwdriver, particularly checking the rear crossmember and the bulkhead. They can be replaced, but it’s not cheap. Other than that, look for one that’s been pampered by an enthusiast. Although earlier engines can take more abuse than later ones, look for evidence of regular servicing. Also check that the four-wheel-drive system works as it should – ensuring the low-range engages and disengages easily.
Should I buy one?
Objectively, there are many better, more sensible alternatives. But none of them are as cool or iconic as the Defender. Buy now while they’re still attainable, and have a great deal of fun while watching prices rise even higher.
The 2,000,000th Defender left Solihull towards the end of last year. It was a unique special edition, built with the help of Land Rover brand ambassadors and celebrities including Bear Grylls and Adam Henson. It sold at auction for an incredible £400,000.