The late-model Land Rover Defender is a wildly enticing forbidden fruit we got to sample briefly here in America. It’s a fruit we’re still craving, even though a shocking amount of effort is expended to keep them forbidden. So I leapt at the chance to drive one around Iceland for a few days, even though my driving route might have been the worst use case for a Defender imaginable.
One of the things to remember about forbidden fruit is that you can’t just serve it on anything; a forbidden fruit salad may be delicious, but slicing up a forbidden fruit and making BLFFs (Bacon, Lettuce, and Forbidden Fruit) sandwiches may be disgusting. I chose the path of disgusting.
That disgusting path I chose was actually a remarkably boring, normal path: I used the Defender as a highway driver and a city car. No real off-roading. What this made me realize is that the Defender is really only good at one thing (off-roading), and for everything else it’s delightfully and hilariously inept.
The reason I did this to myself was because I decided to take my wife on a Valentine’s Day trip to Iceland, because why not, right? The plan was we’d try to see some auroras (total bust, sadly), go to the famed Blue Lagoon (fantastic, do it if you get a chance), and explore the charming city of Reykjavik, get drunk, eat street hot dogs, check out that Big Lebowski-themed bar, that kind of thing.
I reached out to Geysir Car Rental, the good folks that hooked me up with the amazing Lada Niva I used the last time I was in Iceland, and asked them if they had anything interesting. It turns out, they absolutely did: a modified Land Rover Defender they called the “Super Defender,” something they usually rent out for people driving outside of the city.
I’ve always wanted to drive a Defender, so I did what I do in most situations, anyway: ignore logic and reason and made an objectively idiotic decision.
“That sounds great,” I told them.
Defenders haven’t been sold in America since 1997, and even then they weren’t exactly common. The trucks were only sold for a few years, in limited numbers, in the ’90s.
The current Defender has been around since 1983, a direct descendant of the original rugged and basic Land Rovers, and is still very much a simple, tough, maybe even crude machine. (An all-new one is coming and it may fix some of that crudity, but hopefully not too much.)
It’s a body-on-frame truck with a 2.2-liter diesel making about 120 horsepower and about 265 lb-ft of torque. It’s not really all that fast, but the torque is decent, and this Defender’s acceleration was a bit better than you might expect.
Geysir stuck on a snorkel as well, along with a roof rack that looked beefy enough to be a shark cage and knobby 33-inch tires. This is a machine designed to go where roads don’t. Again, just to be clear, it’s very good at the kind of driving I didn’t really use it for.
It’s look is exactly what you picture when you imagine a Land Rover: boxy and simple, with visible rivets and nothing really integrated into the body. Lights and hinges and door handles and bumpers and everything are bolted or screwed on wherever they’re needed.
The result is something that looks purposeful and tough. It’s a far cry from modern SUVs that have to artificially attempt to create an illusion of rugged competence, with overdone grilles and big wheels and headlights that squint at you with barely-contained rage like they overheard you say something salty and disparaging about their mom.
I love the look of these things, and that look is also brutally honest, letting you know exactly the sort of vehicle you’re getting. This is a book you can absolutely judge by its cover, and that cover may as well have a picture of a hammer and a rock on it.
The Defender is a vehicle born to do jobs, farming jobs, military jobs, that sort of thing. Being an easy-to-use daily driver for an urban environment is very much not one of its jobs.
The interior is pretty hilarious in the context that this is a vehicle sold in the 2010s. It could easily be from the 1980s to look at all of the acres of clunky black plastic and very basic instrumentation, along with the single-DIN rectangular radio. Modernity is just something this dashboard has seen in magazines, and even then it wasn’t interested.
The dash is incredibly tall and upright, and the passenger side doesn’t have a glovebox, just a strange, shallow shelf that would be tall and usable were it not for the massive chunky grab handle bolted into the middle of it.
The way the dash is set up and positioned, it feels sort of like driving a low armoire with a steering wheel jammed into it. It’s almost impossible to see the center stack climate and other controls without craning your neck, and the whole thing feels like it was designed by someone who thought ergonomics was some new-agey crap that involved burning eggs.
The interior is big but not exactly roomy-feeling, since this isn’t a unibody vehicle, there seem to be bulky support members and fat pillars all over the place. And the floor feels oddly close for something this tall.
Luggage accommodation isn’t bad with the rearmost seats folded clumsily to the sides, but it’s not great, either. If there was an ass in each of the Defender 110’s seven seats, you’ll be carrying most of their stuff on the roof rack.
Also, loading is understandably tricky with such a high ride height, and the rear cargo door is a pretty inelegant thing, laden with the spare wheel and having a handle that everyone seemed to have forgotten would be hard to get to behind that tire.
It’s not exactly uncomfortable, though, and the rubber floor mats make much more sense than carpet. While it sounds like I’m being critical, when you think about this thing in the context of what it was originally designed for, it all makes sense.
OK, again, I want to be absolutely clear that I used this thing in a non-optimal way, but that was sort of the point. I was curious. How would a Defender work as a city car? Could you do it, if you really wanted to? I just wanted to know, because, on many levels, I’m sort of a dummy.
The short answer is, duh, this thing makes a terrible car for regular city use. Hilariously terrible.
Of course, there’s the sheer size of the thing, which makes street parking a nightmare. Not only is it big, but it’s got unforgiving sharp edges and protrusions all around it, and the visibility is pretty crappy, especially when you’re trying to look below your hoodline to see if you’ve just intersected with the hatch of the Volkswagen Polo in front of you.
There’s also the turning circle, probably the largest on anything I’ve ever driven that didn’t have “U-Haul” stickered on the sides. Even taking what would seem to be normal corners become an exercise in wheel-cranking panic in the Defender, which almost always seemed to be more interested in visiting the lanes of oncoming traffic than in rounding a bend in the road. In traffic, it made normal driving an edgy chore.
Taking this thing through Reykjavik’s narrow downtown streets, full of pedestrians and other cars, was as exciting as wheeling a champagne pyramid on a cart over a gravel driveway.
The Defender is so deliriously unsuited to the task that just trying it feels like a perverse triumph, and when you somehow do manage to laboriously fumble and wriggle your way into a parallel parking spot on a busy street, the relief you feel afterwards has that same sense of long-sigh release as a long-postponed pee.
Maneuvering the brute through narrow streets choked with crowds of drunk tourists and locals is a hellish exercise in avoiding a bloodbath. It’s... exhausting.
On the highway, it’s not a hell of a lot better, either. It’s noisy at highway speed, in every possible way it can be noisy—engine, tires, gear whine, wind, creaks, groans, thumps—if you translated the symphony of noise driving this thing into visuals you’d probably get something that could pass for a Jackson Pollack painting.
Let’s be honest here: The Defender is full of stuff that, in the finest tradition of British motoring, somehow just doesn’t really work. Like the windshield wipers.
Windshield wipers aren’t exactly cutting-edge tech, but somehow the wipers on this Defender found their job pretty tricky to pull off. I had to pull over because the wipers, somehow, were missing the rain that was hitting the perfectly flat windshield.
When I climbed up on the hood to really try and figure out what the hell was going on, I saw that, incredibly, the wipers weren’t actually making contact with the windshield glass by a few millimeters or so. I bent the wiper arms a bit and got the blades to actually make contact, and that mostly worked, until they somehow backed off again.
How does that happen? I’ve never seen a car’s wipers do things like this. It’s actually impressive.
The interior also had issues with moisture, since none of the rubber door seals seemed to be able to actually, um, seal. I’ve heard this is a known issue with Defenders, and in a place like Iceland, it’s a big deal because it means you end up having to scrape the inside of the windshield, which, as you may have guessed, sucks.
This also meant that the floors always seemed to be getting wet, even if you don’t really remember wetting them. So, a tip: if you’re thinking of driving one of these through water, don’t. Yes, we had a snorkel for the engine, but those seals mean you’d want a snorkel for your lungs, too.
Oh, and for some reason, one of the rear side door latches just decided it was done with the whole latching and unlatching grind and clamped itself shut. I couldn’t get that door open no matter what I tried.
There were all kinds of things like this, parts that didn’t quite fit, or didn’t really move right or work they way you’d think, which makes the Defender a sort of paradox, kind of like how I found the Niva: an odd mix of indestructible and fragile, with the bones and core of the car seemingly bulletproof, but all the little stuff bolted to it feeling like they could be completely obliterated by a toddler with a bad attitude and a couple of shots in him.
I suppose you can think of the Defender like a cinder block with a bunch of plastic crap and sequins or something hot-glued to it. If you use it in any way, most likely all the plastic stuff will fall off, but the cinder block itself will be just fine.
I sort of fell in love with this thing, partially out of guilt and pity, and partially because the Defender is such an engaging machine, if only I had managed to use it as the great Rover of Land it is intended to be.
As it was, I dressed up a gorilla in hot pants and a halter top and asked it to serve cocktails in a crowded bar. I willingly subjected this machine to tasks it was never intended to do well, and it succeeded in failing those tasks with the flying colors of failure.
It’s so bad at the mundane parts of driving that I can only imagine how great it must be at the exciting stuff: clambering over rocks, slogging through mud (assuming you do something about those door seals), tearing-ass across a desert, all that.
One day I hope to try out a Defender in a place that makes sense. But until then, I’m still sort of perversely happy I got to drive one at all, even if I did it all spectacularly wrong.