2015 Land Rover Defender review

Driving the last of the Defenders, as Land Rover lays the 30-year-old brute to bed

Rugged, crude, and timeless, the Land Rover Defender is ultimate expression of efficient, function-over-form design.
Rugged, crude, and timeless, the Land Rover Defender is ultimate expression of efficient, function-over-form design.
Rugged, crude, and timeless, the Land Rover Defender is ultimate expression of efficient, function-over-form design.

Highs

  • Time-proven design
  • Extraordinarily capable off-road
  • Well-mannered around town
  • Unique on the market

Lows

  • Out of production
  • Outdated interior

DT Editors' Rating

Car nameplates are recycled on a regular basis. You can’t buy a new third-generation C-Class anymore, but you can drive home from your local Mercedes-Benz dealership in a vastly improved fourth-generation model that benefits from the latest advances in automotive technology. For three decades, The Land Rover Defender has managed to eschew this evolutionary pattern, so its demise marks the end of an entire era, not just the retirement of a nameplate.

Presented in 1983, the Defender is an icon on four wheels that no longer requires a formal introduction. The version tested here is a 110 (Land Rover-speak for long-wheelbase) Heritage Edition, one of three limited-edition models launched to mark the end of the Defender’s illustrious production run. It stands out thanks to a retro-inspired design with a classic grille, vintage-looking emblems on both ends, body-colored steel wheels, and a two-tone cashmere green/Alaska white paint job. The “HUE 166” decals on the fenders are a reference to the registration number worn by the very first pre-production Series I that was built and registered in 1947.

If it ain’t broke…

Land Rover hasn’t made any mechanical modifications to the Heritage Edition. It’s powered by a stock, Defender-sourced 2.2-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel engine that sends 122 horsepower and a generous 265 pound-feet of torque to all four wheels via a six-speed manual transmission and a two-speed transfer case. The oil-burning four has been the only unit offered for the past couple of years, though the Defender has previously been available with four-, five-, six-, and even eight-cylinder engines.

We need to dispel a myth before we go any further: The rugged Defender shares more than a passing resemblance to the Series I, II, and III models built from the late 1940s to the early 1980s, but the only components it shares with its predecessors are the small retaining plate that helps hold the hood in place and the rear underbody support strut. In other words, it’s not nearly as old as you might think.

That said, its age undeniably shows behind the wheel. It has the turning radius of a Batillus-class supertanker, and it understeers through corners with the body lean of an Airbus A380. At over 82 inches tall, the Heritage model won’t fit in most parking garages, which adds a dash of excitement to an otherwise mundane late-night beer run on the outskirts of Paris, France.

Wellies optional, but recommended

Calling these eccentricities faults would be missing the point entirely. No one’s ever bought a Defender thinking they were getting a supremely comfortable SUV brimming with state-of-the-art gizmos. It doesn’t need an infotainment system with voice commands or wall-to-wall leather upholstery because it has a 48.7-degree approach angle and it can drive through 20 inches of water. It can venture where most other SUVs only dream of going, and that’s more important than any creature comfort for its target audience. It’s built primarily to work, not to strut its stuff at the mall.

Spectacularly rugged, the oldest member of the Land Rover lineup eats SUVs for breakfast and snacks on crossovers.

With permanent four-wheel drive and nearly ten inches of ground clearance, the Defender is extraordinarily capable off the beaten path; it eats SUVs for breakfast and snacks on crossovers. It powers through a foot of mud with surprising aplomb, and it makes rocks and other obstacles routinely encountered on the trail feel like the speed bumps in a 20-mph school zone. The two-speed transfer case helps it soldier on when the going gets really tough. Take one out for a jaunt in the woods and it’ll quickly become obvious why it’s been the vehicle of choice for emergency services and globetrotters for decades. It’s unique on the market because its practical, no-nonsense design has stood the test of time remarkably well.

Job well done

The Defender is surprisingly well-mannered on the tarmac, though the suspension willingly shares every road imperfection with your spine. It’s fast enough to keep up with other cars while pulling away from a stop light and it’ll hold a steady 75 mph on the freeway with no fuss. Driving an older Series III through a small town takes as much effort as riding a bull, but the Defender offers peace of mind in the form of light steering, responsive brakes, and great visibility thanks in part to ultra-thin A-pillars. As an unexpected bonus, it’s so big that motorists trapped in late-model econoboxes are downright afraid of cutting you off or tailgating you. We’ll consider that a passive safety feature. Every little bit helps in a vehicle that’s not fitted with airbags.

2015 Land Rover Defender
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends
Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

When viewed from the outside, the Defender looks like it was teleported from the early 1980s. For better or worse, the same applies to the interior. Sitting behind the wheel is like witnessing a parade of hard plastics and outdated parts such as dinky turn signal stalks that feel like they were pulled out of an Austin Mini. The classic car vibe is further accentuated by the fact that there’s about as much elbow room as you’d find in an air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle. The Defender is crude, but it’s the ultimate expression of efficient, function-over-form design. It’ll effortlessly carry seven passengers from point A to point B, even if there’s a mountain range somewhere in the middle.

Few will be surprised to find out that the assembly process at Land Rover’s Solihull, England, factory has remained roughly the same since the early 1980s. Current members of the Land Rover lineup like the Evoque and the Discovery Sport are built by robots, but the 7,000 individual bits and pieces that make up the Defender are still largely assembled by hand. It consequently takes 56 man hours to build one from start to finish; to put that figure into perspective, building a Discovery Sport takes 48 hours. The painstakingly long production process partially explains why a Defender 110 carries a base price of £27,620, a sum that converts to approximately $40,000, in its home country. The short-wheelbase Defender 90 starts at £25,265, or about $33,200.

Conclusion

There’s one obstacle the Defender can’t tow out of the way or simply drive over: lawmakers. Stringent safety and emissions regulations finally got the best of it, and the last example has rolled off the Solihull assembly line, meaning it’s too late to buy one new. It’s the last of its breed, too. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class has morphed into a $120,000 luxo-barge, the Jeep Wrangler focuses more on leisure than on work, while Lada’s Niva – summed up as a Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis by USSR officials in the early 1970s – is equally outdated and even more rustic, but not as capable. Even the Toyota Land Cruiser inevitably makes a few concessions in the name of opulence.

A second-generation Defender is coming before the end of the decade but details about what form it will take are vague at best, likely because they haven’t been finalized yet. It might keep the outgoing model’s tough body-on-frame construction, it might not; it might feature a rear-mounted spare tire and throwback round headlights, it might not – only time will tell. What’s certain is that it will have bigger shoes to fill than any new car introduced in recent memory.

Cars

Jeep’s outdoorsy Gladiator pickup truck bares it all ahead of schedule

Jeep will introduce the long-promised Wrangler-based pickup truck at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show. Named Gladiator, the model was designed to conquer the great outdoors, not for the construction site.
Cars

Land Rover shows its artsy side by previewing the 2020 Range Rover Evoque

Land Rover made life-sized wire sculptures to preview the 2020 Range Rover Evoque. The all-new SUV will make its debut during a private event held in London on November 22, and deliveries will begin in 2019.
Cars

Where are you going this weekend? These 5 off-road vehicles say 'anywhere'

The body-on-frame SUV is going extinct, but there are still several options for buyers looking to skip the asphalt. To help you sort the good from the bad, we've rounded up the best off-roaders currently available.
Cars

Meet the born-again Ford Bronco that will soothe your ’90s nostalgia

Ford has confirmed it will bring the Bronco back to American showrooms in a few short years. While it's still very much a work in progress, this is what we expect from the Blue Oval's born-again off-roader.
Digital Trends Live

DT Daily: Waymo’s driverless cars, ‘Fallout 76’ tips, and Racella

In today's episode of DT Daily, we discuss Waymo's foray into the ridesharing sector, along with various tips for making the most of the recently launched Fallout 76. We also sit down with singer Racella to chat about her new EP, Waves.
Cars

Want to keep connected on the road? Here are 5 ways to add Bluetooth to your car

The best way to make an old ride feel young again is to bring it up speed with the 21st century. Here's how to properly add Bluetooth to your vehicle, via independent kits, vehicle adapters, or aftermarket head units.
Cars

Many adults believe fully self-driving cars are already traversing U.S. highways

The American Automobile Association tested cars with features such as lane-keeping and adaptive cruise control and found them lacking in real-world conditions. Forty percent of surveyed U.S. adults think self-driving cars exist now.
Cars

The hamster-friendly 2020 Kia Soul will rock out at the Los Angeles Auto Show

Kia has released a teaser image to preview the next Soul. Scheduled to make its debut at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, the 2020 Soul will keep the outgoing model's boxy proportions but it will wear a sharper design.
Cars

2020 Toyota Corolla sedan aims to offer sharper handling, better tech

The 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan gets the same upgrades as the recently-introduced Corolla hatchback, including a firmer foundation, new engine, and more tech features. Will that be enough to keep the long-lived Corolla nameplate relevant?
Cars

Startup Rivian exits stealth mode with a bold promise to electrify off-roaders

Electric car startup Rivian has finally turned off stealth mode and provided details about what it's been working on since 2009. It will build battery-powered off-roaders instead of taking on Tesla and others in the luxury EV segment.
Cars

Honda will squeeze another model into its SUV lineup at the Los Angeles show

Honda will introduce a new SUV with a familiar nameplate at the 2018 Los Angeles auto show. It envisioned the 2019 Passport as a five-seater alternative to the eight-seater Pilot. The two models will share a platform and many tech features.
Cars

Uber rolls out rewards program that lets its most loyal riders lock in prices

Uber launched a new loyalty program today called Uber Rewards. It offers frequent riders credits to Uber Eats, car upgrades, and the ability to lock in prices on their most traveled routes.
Cars

The world’s first 3D-printed titanium wheels are so intricate they look fake

HRE Performance Wheels and GE Additive have teamed up to create the world's first 3D-printed titanium wheels. They are not only impressively durable, but extremely lightweight as well.
Cars

Fisker failed. But now the EV pioneer is ready for an epic redo

Henrik Fisker has already had a career most executives can only dream about. He designed the BMZ Z8, a couple of Aston Martins, and his own Fisker Karma. But he’s got a plan to disrupt the auto industry, forged by lessons learned over the…