The Land Rover Defender may not be the most obvious fleet vehicle to discuss from the British firm’s portfolio, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
With around 25,000 Defenders sold every year, which is a figure it has sustained regardless of recessions or any other fluctuations, the classic core of the Land Rover range is profitable and popular.
It’s mostly popular with business customers too, with relatively few being sold to the retail market and private buyers. Those who do pay with their own cash are also far more likely to buy a Defender for business use, such as farmers, tree surgeons and many others who need a serious 4x4 to carry out their job.
This is why the Defender has soldiered on for many years passed its realistic lifetime. Of course, it helps that the Defender is seen by many as a modern classic and there’s a massive industry built around supplying parts and upgrades for enthusiastic owners.
However, for new Defenders, business users are its key demographic rather than weekend warriors. There are plenty of professional warriors who rely on the Defender, though, with the British Army being one of the major purchasers of this styled-by-set-square Land Rover.
This is what makes the Defender such an unusual fleet choice. Having just spent time with the updated-for-2012 Defender, I can confirm it is every bit as coarse and crude to drive on the road as it ever was, perhaps even more so as many of the cars that are its competition in the broader sense become ever more refined.
The Defender is not about refinement, though this new Jaguar-engined 2.2-litre model is quieter in the cabin than the outgoing Ford-powered 2.4-litre model. As for the older five-cylinder TD5 model, the new Defender is streets ahead despite its smaller capacity and lower cylinder count.
With 120bhp and 266lb.ft of torque on offer from the detuned Jag engine, the latest Defender has as much power and punch as the previous model. However, it now meets more stringent EU5 emissions regulations and now emits 266g/km for the short wheelbase 90 model and 295g/km for the long wheelbase 110 version.
For the specialist market, Land Rover also continues to offer the extended wheelbase 130 model, which shares the 110’s 295g/km emissions.
So, the Defender is cleaner than ever before while retaining all of the oomph it needs to negotiate tough terrain. Again, I can tell you categorically the latest Defender is still the most able off-roader on the planet short of spending many thousands on purpose-built all-terrain vehicles.
Granted, the Defender does trade an awful lot of its on-road comfort and quiet in the pursuit of its dirt-defying abilities, but it’s worth it when you head into the woods.
And this is the crux of the Defender conundrum. As a car, it’s woefully flawed, crude to drive, slow and the driving position would be a joke for an orangutan, never mind a human being.
But, and this is a huge but, if you need to cross country that would defeat most SUVs in a muddy instant, the Defender remains one of the very few vehicles that will get you there and get you back.
Many business users who need just this capability recognise this in the Defender and carry on buying it. It’s why Land Rover still sells such a considerable volume of Defenders and it’s also why Murray Dietsch, Land Rover’s Director of Engineering Programmes, confirmed to Fleet Voice that the Defender will remain in production in its current form until at least 2015.
For a vehicle that was supposed to be axed in 2012, that’s quite a stay of execution and there’s no reason the Defender could not continue its life beyond four years’ time.
For Europe, the Defender’s emissions are likely to be its undoing, leading to an all-new Defender that shares on its name with its illustrious ancestor.
However, the original Defender we have now could carry on its life in other parts of the world where regulation is not as strict. Dietsch would also not rule out the possibility of the Defender being built in India, where it would fit in nicely with the ambitions of its parent company Tata to construct cars for the local Indian market.
When asked if the Defender might also have a life after its replacement as a Classic Defender model in the same way the original Range Rover persisted, Dietsch remains open-minded.
He says: “It might be tough in Europe and some other parts of the world because of the emissions regulations, but the Defender is such a popular car and so central to Land Rover’s philosophy we won’t just kill it off for the sake of it.
“If there’s a business case for the car staying in production, either in the UK or elsewhere, we’ll consider it.”
All of which begs the question of how do you replace the Defender? One answer came from Land Rover in the shape of the DC100 concept at the Frankfurt Motor Show this year.
Shown in three-door hard top and gaudy open-top Sport form, neither garnered the critical acclaim that was met by the LRX concept that has ultimately led to the Range Rover Evoque.
There is some suspicion among pundits that Land Rover’s chief designer. Gerry McGovern is not the ideal man to recreate the Defender for the future. This idea stems from McGovern’s liking for jewelled lights and other styling flourishes.
The Defender community could not be further from this end of Land Rover’s spectrum, so it seems necessary that the next Defender sticks with the current car’s preference for function over form.
Dietsch is quick to ally fears on this front and points out the DC100 concept is only one of five projects being considered for the next Defender.
As far as this column is concerned, here’s hoping the DC100 is consigned to the styling department’s waste paper bin for good.
Speaking to owners of the current Defender, they simply want more of the same but with greater economy, lower running costs and improved reliability; these are all points Land Rover is very aware of.
In the meantime, for business users looking for a practical, versatile car should avoid the Land Rover Defender. If, however, you need the best tool for the job of taking you and your kit to the furthest flung parts of the country, the tried, trusted and gracefully aging Defender really is still the best four by four by far.