Land Rover Defender – a British classic on long-term test

Land Rover Defender 90 XS Station Wagon RJ Bespoke Edition - rebecca jackson long-term test
Land Rover Defender 90 XS Station Wagon RJ Bespoke Edition - rebecca jackson long-term test

The demise of the Land Rover Defender was, to some of us, a great loss. To others it was the long-awaited extinction of an obsolete design, one that should arguably have been consigned to the history books in the Eighties. But while the venerable British icon no longer rolls off the production line at Solihull, there are enough companies out there willing to breathe new life into this venerable beast. 

Our car: Land Rover Defender 90 XS Station Wagon RJ Bespoke Edition List price when new: £29,824 (£24,854+VAT) Price as tested: £34,995 (includes £7,500 of extras) Official fuel economy: 27.7mpg (EU Combined)

Read more long-term tests

February 6th, 2018

Fuel economy this week: 25.4mpg

The last four months living with an RJ Bespoke Land Rover Defender as a daily driver have been enlightening in many ways. Starting with the positives, every journey has felt like an adventure - I felt part of a club, almost guaranteed to get a wave from the driver of any other Defender passing in the opposite direction, which made me smile every time.

Land Rover Defender RJ Bespoke L/T test
The modified Defender has been fun - and it's not the chore on long journeys that you might expect

The most surprising revelation is that despite the lack of creature comforts, long journeys were not the laborious challenge many may think. All the RJ Bespoke extras enhanced the British icon for all the right reasons, improving handling and performance as well as aesthetics and technology.

The only downsides is that elbow room is poor for tall people, there are no Isofix child-seat mountings and a modified Defender such as this is fairly expensive to buy and fuel, although residual values are strong.

It’s been a fun few months and my next long-term test car is from the same group, although far more refined!

December 4th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.6mpg

We know that a Defender can be driven almost anywhere and that this RJ Bespoke customised example is not completely devoid of creature comforts, but how practical is it really?

Okay, there are no door bins, however there are two cup holders between the front seats, a copious central cubby, which in the case of this vehicle has a beautiful diamond-stitched padded top to complement the retrimmed seats.

Land Rover Defender RJ Bespoke - Rebecca L/T report 04/12/17
The rear seats tilt upwards to provide a van-like load bay

A small shelf under the front passenger grab rail is great for a few loose items but it's in the rear where you'll find the most practical of features.

The front-facing rear seats tumble and fold away to turn the station wagon Defender into a van - and it is possible to remove the seats completely with some basic tools if even more space is needed. Thanks to its tall dimensions, there’s a good amount of height for taller loads.

The large, square rear door that swings open wide makes it even easier to load it all in. Overall, it’s a very practical vehicle and a large load can be easily squeezed into the back.

November 28th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.6mpg

It’s true that the Defender’s roots stem back to a more agricultural application with inspiration taken from the military Willys Jeep developed during the Second World War. Until very recently, it was the sheep farmer’s vehicle of choice and has been a working vehicle across many farms - and far more challenging applications - all over the world.

Its rugged nature and sturdy construction mean it can withstand some tricky conditions. It served our troops in Northern Ireland and Iraq as the bullet-proof “Snatch Defender” in the Nineties and now it is the accessory vehicle for any respectable family living in a flood or snow-risk countryside. It’s also loved in the cities, so there is no rulebook.

Land Rover defender L/T report 281117
Land Rover defender L/T report 281117

And, snobbery is absent. Old, new, modified or standard, the friendly ‘Defender wave’ or nod of approval is customary when seeing one pass in the opposite direction; a shared recognition that you both know exactly what they’re like to drive and own. Defenders are unique.

The rugged nature and strong construction were key points. The Defender has an impressive towing capacity. For road use it is 3.5 tonnes, although place your bets as to how many farmers worldwide have towed a lot more than this off-road. Some farm trailers weigh 3.5 tonnes unladen, so you can imagine how heavy they can get.

This RJ Bespoke Defender has had an easy on-road life without towing anything but it’s only £450 extra to get a tow bar fitted if you own a boat or caravan.

October 30th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.2mpg

One of the greatest pleasures of Land Rover Defender ownership is the car's astounding off-road ability.

Land Rover Defender RJ Bespoke - L/T report 301017
Ready to rumble off-road. Rest assured any Defender can negotiate terrain that's a lot more challenging than the average green lane

Not all four-wheel drive systems are the same. In some, athough all four wheels can receive power, depending on the grip they do not necessarily get it - the power goes to the wheels with least resistance. Therefore on a really slippery surface you could have three wheels not moving and one spinning merrily and the vehicle not moving.

Although modern Land Rover products employ complex electronics to apportion drive to the wheel(s) with the most grip, the Defender has a mechanical differential lock in the centre, which allows equal power to be directed to the front and rear axles. With a bit of momentum, this power distribution facilitates being able to overcome the loss of traction.

There is also a low-range set-up, which provides much greater control over tricky terrain and down hills.

So in summary, there are four modes: high range, diff locked or unlocked; and low range, diff locked or unlocked. The easiest way to know which set-up you require is by considering how fast you are driving, and is traction an issue? If traction is low, select the diff lock, and if you are driving slowly select low range:

Low range/diff unlocked: low-speed manoeuvring.

Low range/diff locked: tricky terrain up and descending inclines.

High range/diff unlocked: normal road driving.  

High range/diff locked: low-traction surface and reasonably high speed such as wet grass or sand.

Land Rover Defender RJ Bespoke - L/T report 301017 low ratio transfer box
High and low ratio operation is selected by a secondary lever alongside the main gear lever

In terms of fuel economy while venturing off-road, if you let the torque do the work, it is amazing how little fuel you use. On the same count, I found that with using some revs and momentum it helped the diff do its job.

It is highly satisfying using low range and the Defender’s incredible suspension travel to pic you way over a plethora of obstacles. The fact that the fuel gauge hardly moves i a welcome bonus.

This is in contrast to my usual experience of circuit driving in a performance car, where the fuel level goes down perceptibly.

Although most RJ Bespoke Defenders will not see such extreme off-road adventures it’s reassuring to know that they live up to Land Rover's "go anywhere" tradition. if required.

October 20th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.7mpg

This vehicle may not be the sportiest car I have ever driven, although thanks to the modifications it is far more sporty than a standard Land Rover Defender.

One of its most impressive qualities, which makes Defender owners worldwide rather smug, is its ability to drive almost anywhere. You may never venture off-road, but isn’t it reassuring to know that if you wanted to you could, or when there is deep snowfall or flooding, you are safe in the knowledge that no amount of extreme British weather is going to stop you getting to your destination?

Most of us wear watches capable of surviving many metres below the sea surface, yet we leave them in the hotel safe if we go diving. The Defender, however, enjoys adventure and can be jet-sprayed clean of mud.

Owners who take part in extreme off-roading, which can lead to bodyshell damage from bashes against rocks, usually fit a whole host of modifications, including raising the suspension and fitting external roll cages.

This equipment isn't fitted to my RJ Bespoke example, but nevertheless my next update will show what this one is like with a mild off-tarmac excursion, and the various settings to facilitate better off-road performance. 

It is a Land Rover, after all.

October 16th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.7mpg

Defenders are like giant toys, for grown-ups and kids. In fact kids fall in love with them straight away. It could be the high up seating position - in any row, the novelty value, or even the way they appeal visually. Whatever the reasons, any of the Defender's foibles don’t seem to factor into a child’s or Defender-lover’s view of how great these iconic British 4x4s are. Myself included.

Land Rover DEfender RJ special edition / upgrade
Rebecca's Defender is a bit more posh than the norm, but you have to be aware that Isofix-compatible child seats may not fit

In fact the foibles lend them character. If you plan on driving your children around in a Defender, however, it’s worth noting that Isofix child seat mounting points were never an option on the Defender - depending on their age, they may be okay with just a booster seat or bottoms planted on the diamond-stitched seats.

Young children will require a non-Isofix child seat. More information on the rules regarding child seats can be found at uk/types-of-seat/

October 6th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.3mpg

Over and above the standard spec, £7,500 has been put to good use on this XS 90 by adding not just the aesthetics mentioned previously, but also the kit and technology that help make this 4x4 really stand out.

The arguably basic stereo system has been whipped out and replaced with a DAB radio set-up with Bluetooth and smartphone connectivity, which has been teamed  with some extra powerful speakers and amplifier unit. Okay, so travel at motorway speeds and the road and wind noise is still quite intrusive, but if you like your music this a well worthy addition.

The standard suspension, satisfactory at best and allowing a fair bit of lean in the corners, has been upgraded with a one-inch lower, more dynamic springs and dampers kit. It’s never going to handle like a sports car but this upgrade massively improves its road manners, and it’s quite surprising how capable a Defender can be when driven briskly on winding country roads.

This is further aided with an ECU remap resulting in 165-170bhp and 450Nm of torque (compared with factory figures of 122bhp and 360Nm, so it’s quite a step up). And as we have seen from the fuel consumption figures, the engine still returns decent economy.

It also has a brighter reversing lamp to eliminate the anxiety of reversing in the dark - the original light was more akin to a candle than a floodlight, even if these oddities do give the Defender its traditional charm.

And, to stick with the lights theme, the RJ Bespoke joins its modern cousins with some upgraded daytime running lights fitted to the front bumper.  

September 21st, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.6mpg

Before all the luxury trimmings were added by RJ Bespoke, the standard specification of this Land Rover Defender 90 XS was still pretty Spartan when it rolled of the production line, despite it being the top of the range.

The basic, entry-level Defender was (I'll stick to the past tense, as the Defender is long out of production), well, basic. It runs on steel wheels and even a radio is an optional extra. This ruggedness does have a certain appeal and charm, but moving up to the County specification brought you central locking, alarm and immobiliser, cloth seats and electric windows.

If you think that is positively luxurious for this British-built 4x4, closely related to the original Land Rover of 1947, then the XS trim will blow you away with its part-leather interior, heated front seats and screen and even air-conditioning. So it is not necessarily the case that you have to slum it with spec when it comes to these trusty vehicles.

Next week, I will delve into all the additions that turn a workhorse into a luxury off-roader.

September 15th, 2017

Fuel economy this week: 25.5mpg

Warning: skip to paragraph two if maths bores you. To work out the fuel consumption, due to the lack of a trip computer, is easy. I covered 116 miles and needed 20.67 litres of fuel to fill the tank again. There are 4.54 litres in one gallon, therefore 4.55 gallons in 20.67 litres. 116 divided by 4.55 is 25.5, which gives us our mpg figure.

Moving to the more exciting subject of aesthetics! It is easy to see straight away that this is no ordinary Defender. The seats have been re-trimmed with silver/white diamond stitching akin to a sports or supercar (think the quilted look of a Bentley) and the exterior is vastly different to a standard Land Rover, too.

land rover defender long-term - rebecca jackson
The seats are rather more plush and stylish than you'd find in a regular Defender

It has coach grade tinted glass in the side and rear windows, with a gloss black grille, light surrounds and wheel arches. In addition it has RJ Bespoke's "Black Badge Pack" which consists of black Land Rover badges front and rear, a black Defender swoosh on rear, black Defender badging across the front of the bonnet and RJ Bespoke badges tagging the designer status of this quirky 4x4.

Lovely 18-inch glossy black Nemesis wheels complete the monochrome theme.

September 7th, 2017

My new long-term car to report on is far less sporty than the Mini I have just said goodbye to, however it can probably drive over most obstacles in its path and, just like the MINI, every journey is an adventure!

It is a British icon and the last one rolled off the production line in Solihull on January 31 2016, so if you have not guessed it, I will put you out of your misery and announce it is a Land Rover Defender. The one I'm driving is an RJ Bespoke, modified by my team of experts at RJ Prestige Cars.

There is no on-board computer to assess miles per gallon so the trip meter and brimming the fuel tank each week is my only option, along with some simple maths, to share its performance in terms of fuel consumption with you. Official figures say a 27.7mpg average, so let’s see how close I can get.

I’ll share with you each week what it’s like to drive, how practical it is and generally live with everyday along with the competition it has to stand up against.

A modern classic? Of course.

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