January 7, 2011

2011, the year of the last good Defender

This model of the Defender might be the newest, but is it the best?
Maybe this is the model to go for.
No, I don't have a special insight into Land Rover management's thinking and really don't know whether 2011 will be the Defender's last year. I'm not even talking about the latest Defender. Let me back up: the current model was introduced here in 2007 so the last of the previous model are coming up to five years old, will have depreciated quite nicely, and some owners will be looking to replace them. In my view, the late previous models with the Td5 engine were the best Defenders of all. Despite looking good on paper, the 2007-on model has been developed beyond its potential and Land Rover should not have bothered.

It's easy to be seduced by the current model. Its "new" and slightly more powerful 2.4 litre Tdci engine from the Ford Transit van came to it with a good reputation. Even though it needed a bump on the bonnet to fit – an easy way to identify the model – it mated well to the driveline. The Ford engine is fitted to a six speed gearbox that provides a much deeper low first gear and a higher top for more relaxed highway cruising, so you'd think those would be real pluses. Meanwhile, the dash has been totally revised with integrated air conditioning. After decades of bolt-on aircon that only sort-of worked, that too seemed like a major step forward. In the back of the short wheelbase 90, the four inward facing seats, uncomfortable and unsuited to long trips, were replaced by two comfy-looking forward seats, another plus, you'd think.
That's a nice engine under that stuff.
But with the exception of the engine, the improvements have not served the Defender well and if I were in the market and could get a nice 2006 or pre-change 2007, I'd jump at it. Here's why:

• The low first on the new gearbox is really too low for most New Zealand conditions. American rock crawlers would love it but ironically the Defender is no longer sold there. Meanwhile, in town, the ratios are such that the driver is forever changing gears.
The dash looks interesting …

• The sexy looking dashboard is closer to the front occupants than before and, although hardly claustrophobic, the front interior is much more snug. There's no longer the space to put things and the integrated air conditioning is so underwhelming that I'm almost thinking the previous version was better.

… but the old one's more usable.
• The back seats of the 90 are not particularly comfortable and would be unpleasant for tall people. When folded, they eat up far too much cargo space. They'd simply have to go.

• The Td5 engine has proved itself to be good, easily repaired and with well developed non-dealer (ie less expensive) parts support. Update: Check the comments from readers with alternative points of view.

As an aside, Land Rover claimed cabin noise levels are significantly lower in the current model. They are lower, but not by that much. There then followed lots of silly press articles saying occupants could finally hear the radio, but you could hear it perfectly well in the Td5 and even in its predecessor, the 300Tdi.

This item was prompted by the appearance on Trademe of a 2006 90 with about 100,000km, some extras, and a $35,000 asking price. A new 90 lists at about $65,000. I suspect this example may be the first of a bunch of 2006s coming on the market this year; there's been a real shortage of decent used Defenders, especially the 90. And no, I don't even know who the seller is, but good luck to him!


  1. Interesting post. Was it not that LR had no choice but to go to the Transit engine because the Td5 could no longer meet Euro emissions laws?
    Two years ago my dealer kindly let me drive a new 110 for a day in the hope of a sale (I bought a used Disco, but that's another story) and I generally agree with your points, although I think you overstated the gearbox use in town. I did find it a little bit like stirring a pot, but by the end of the day had more or less sorted it out. I thought it was a relaxed highway cruiser, but never drove a Td5 so can't make a direct comparison. The big negative continues to be the fit and finish, which was pretty foul on the example I drove.
    Re your comment about low first being too low, I would have thought for off-road use, the lower the better. Also, I wondered if you had any comments about its electronic traction control.

  2. Thanks Mike. You are correct about the reason for changing engines, although there are differing opinions as to whether the Td5 could be engineered to meet the new standards, or whether it was just less expensive to do the engine swap. I asked this question of Phil Popham, the MD of Land Rover, when he was in New Zealand in 2009 and his reply was that it made "more sense" to fit the Transit motor. I took this to mean it was the cheaper alternative, rather than the only alternative.

    My comment about the gearbox in town may be coloured by years spent driving a 5-speed 300Tdi, which had a very flexible third that I used to regard as a "poor man's automatic"!

    I've found little use for the new Defender's low first gear off-road. It's too low even for some fairly steep descents and until I wised up, found myself sliding on a couple of occasions and facing a change to second – changing gear on a steep descent is one of the last things I'd rather be doing. I then almost always used low second on steep downhills, which roughly equated with low first on the earlier models.

    The Defender's electronic traction control is excellent – probably one of the best – but I still prefer mechanical cross-axle diff locks over any electronic solution. I'm not being stubborn and old fashioned here, they are simply better.

  3. Below is an entry from the Land Rover Engines Since 1948 website. As you can see, the Td5 was not exactly trouble free, as you suggest:

    2495cc turbodiesel, 5 cylinder, TD5: New and much stricter Euro emissions regulations for diesel engines led Land Rover to develop an all-new engine for the second generation Discovery, and this also found its way into the Defender. The TD5 features electronic control of the fuel injection system (with a control unit under the driver's seat), 'drive by wire' throttle and other refinements, all aimed at minimising exhaust emissions. Early reaction was mixed: the TD5 was much easier to stall than the earlier diesel engines (a characteristic shared by many of the latest generation of environment-friendly diesels) and there were reports of oil pump failures, cylinder head problems and other reliability issues - but not on anything like the scale of the 2.5TD fiasco in the Eighties. These early issues appear to have been resolved, but recurring reports of problems with the electronics, especially oil finding its way through the wiring harness and into the ECU. Dual mass flywheel can fail with heavy use. A truly lovely engine when running well, but late 300TDi Defenders fetch more money than early TD5s, so the market is trying to tell us something.

  4. Charles Manson livesJanuary 9, 2011 at 4:08 PM

    Yea, a good engine so long as U like getting youre ECU soaked with engine oil.

  5. Clarification: Presumably Mr Manson refers to the Td5, on which oil finding its way into the ECU is a known issue.

  6. I have a 2009 110 and find it excellent in every way. Your criticisms are completely unjustified in my experience.

  7. News flash mate nobody cars. Land rovers are the biggest peaces of shit ever made, bar none

  8. I think almost the opposite to anonymous who likes everything about his 2009 110. I find the aircon doesn;t work very well, the gears a chore in the city as you said and the dash looks good but is not very practical. No probs with the engine, but I don't think it's that much better than the Td5.

  9. I find most of these interesting comments as I'm sort of interested in a late model 90. I'm swinging towards a late TD5, partly because the rearseat setup in the new one is awful and I don't like the new dashboard. Still the new engine seems good and I dont mind the gearshifting too much but I don't have Auckland traffic to contend with. Keep up the good work.


  11. Most of these comments are useful - some are not. I am also thinking of a Defender and am torn between a new one or a good used model. My problem comes down to price - I just think the new ones cost too much for what you get. On the other hand, used prices are quite high. I don't think many 4x4s hold their price this well, certainly not other members of the Land Rover family.

    Thanks for a great and always interesting website.

  12. Having got a 2012 Defender the engine is indeed better than the TD5 -the new motor is quieter and more powerful, I like the 6 speed, especially on the open road and have become accustomed to it around town.
    The only gripe is the space consumed by the rear seats when they are folded up. However, they are comfortable folded down, and passengers can actually travel in comfort on longer trips, which was not the case with the old side facing seats.
    I ended up buying new as the price of the secondhand ones is too high - $50k for a 100km/5 year old compared to $70k for new with warranty...

    1. Thanks for this feedback from an actual owner. I have noticed the pricing thing – and that so few seem to come up for sale, especially the 90.