Defender Buying Guide: Choose your model

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But they all look so good... : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
In part one of our most comprehensive Defender Buying Guide ever, we walk you through the baffling number of wheelbase and body types on offer, to help you choose the right one to suit your needs

A wise man once said that there are two types of people in this world – those who already own Defenders, and those who want one. While that may not be strictly true, there’s no denying that the legendary Defender is likely the model that springs to mind when the words ‘Land Rover’ are mentioned to diehard car nerds, people without a shred of automotive nous, and everyone in between.

Although its unmistakable silhouette and ‘face’ have made it somewhat of a fashion icon in more recent years, the Defender’s talents are far more than that – its true capability and versatility are what have earned it rare status as one of the few vehicles that are not only truly classless, but able to adapt into exactly what you need from a 4x4.

This is in part thanks to the sheer choice available – three different wheelbases accommodate a host of body styles, and thanks to the Defender’s long production run, there are loads of engines to choose, with both petrol and diesel options. Add in long-travel coil-sprung suspension, live axles and a proper ladder-frame chassis, and you’ve got a Land Rover that’s almost unstoppable off-road and at least tolerable on it. And choosing your base vehicle is just the start.

Once you’ve got your Defender, there are almost never-ending ways to improve it, whether you put it to work, love greenlaning, set your sights on overland travel or just want to boost its day-to-day practicality. Maybe you just want one because they look cool? No one would blame you. Whatever your penchant, the aftermarket is absolutely bursting with goodies to make Defenders last longer, go faster, handle better, be quieter, comfier, better off-road; the list goes on and on.  

Whatever you choose to use a Defender for, you can guarantee looks of admiration from anyone lucky enough to set eyes on it. After all, no one buys a Defender by mistake. It’s a very deliberate and bold choice, and while they may have their foibles and quirks, no matter the age or model, they demand respect.

Obviously, the Defender’s reputation precedes it, but not always for the right reasons. You’ll have to put up with a cramped driving position, relatively poor fuel economy, rattles and creaks from the interior, daylight being visible through door gaps, water leaking in and oil leaking out, to name but a few. But, just like a loyal old dog that occasionally makes a mess on the floor and tests your patience, you can’t help but love it. If, however, these characteristics sound painful to live with, it’s probably a better idea to look elsewhere – maybe even to the second-generation Defender, if budget allows.

Over the next few features, we’ll also discuss budget, engine choices, explain where’s best to buy one and what common issues to look out for when doing so, and see what’s out there to improve your new purchase to get the best from it. 

But first of all, you need work out exactly what size and type of Defender you want...

 

So much choice!

The biggest considerations to make before actually going out to view Defenders are the wheelbase you want and the type of body that will suit your needs best. Yes, Defenders are known for their brilliant adaptability and the ease with which you can swap panels about, but if you can find one that’s already right, it’ll save a lot of time and money getting roofs and sides painted, or cutting holes in existing ones.

If you’re after a weekend toy or occasional leisure user, you can be a bit less stringent about what you choose. Maybe a soft top would suit? But if the Defender is to be your main mode of transport, you need to really think about what length and body style will fit your lifestyle and requirements. It could mean the difference between a vehicle you love and cherish, and one that becomes a big inconvenience that you no longer look forward to using.

 

Soft top

For summer cruising and old-school looks, canvas is hard to beat

One of the most aesthetically pleasing and fun versions, a full-length soft top gives you the option to roll the back and sides up to retain some protection from the sun (or, more likely in the UK, rain) or remove the whole top for true open-air motoring.

Soft tops are ideal for weekend cruising, summer greenlaning and will get you tons of likes on social media, but the long-winded access into the back, limited security and flapping fabric at higher speeds can wear thin as a daily driver. On the upside, they often retain heat inside and keep water out more effectively than their hard top counterparts.

 

Truck cab

Single cab pick-up is beloved by off-roaders

The off-roader’s choice, especially in 90 guise, what the truck cab lacks in interior space it makes up for by having a completely separate load bay that you can chuck all sorts of mucky stuff in without worrying about it making a mess in the cabin. Taller drivers may find the lack of cab space a problem though, as you can’t recline the seat back as far, and there’s very little in the way of dry, secure space to store stuff. The area behind the seats gets cluttered very quickly.

Of course, you can add a canvas tilt, tonneau cover or hard canopy to the loadspace to keep the weather out, but it still won’t be an impenetrable fortress for transporting anything valuable. If you need undercover space, you’re better off with a hard top, but if you want the ultimate off-roader with less bodywork to knock about, a truck cab is a good choice. Being a smaller space, the heater warms the cab up quicker than other models, too.

 

Hi Cap

Need all the load space you can get? You want a Hi Cap

Available in 110 and monstrous 130-inch wheelbases only, think of the High Capacity pick up as the ultimate utility truck. Boasting a separate load bed rather than the standard tub of the basic truck cab, it’s wider, longer and offers a full-width tailgate which really helps when loading big items either by hand or with a forklift.

The cab is the same, so still has the practical challenges when it comes to keeping valuables safe and dry – but as a pure workhorse a Hi Cap takes some beating.

 

Hard top

Hard tops make good daily users. 110s are ideal overland trucks

A decent all-rounder, the humble hard top does away with the downsides a soft top and truck cab present. You get a proper metal roof and sides, with locks, and a good amount of useable interior space. A 90 can be limiting if you carry bulky stuff regularly, but a 110 is positively cavernous, offering 60 per cent more capacity than its short-wheelbase cousin. The 110’s six-foot load area means they make great camper conversions and overlanders, and you can bolt on a roof rack and add side storage lockers into the tub, giving even more practical space.

The other bonus to a hard top is that you can lean the front seats back further, especially with a centre bulkhead removal kit, which is a big bonus to taller drivers.

Downsides include noise, condensation and visibility at junctions. The hard top is essentially a big aluminium can on wheels, so you can expect plenty of resonance at speed, and any moisture will cling to the bare metal roof and drip off as you start driving. On the upside, these issues are easily rectified with sound-deadening and by fitting a headliner in the back, and adding windows to the side panels helps to eliminate the pesky blind spots.

 

Station Wagon

Station wagons are generally the most refined body style

The comfiest and most refined Defender – because of its numerous seats and often higher trim level – a station wagon represents the most useable version if it’s passengers you need to transport rather than stuff.

Be aware that on models up to 2007, the seats in the back are inward-facing and don’t offer the greatest protection in a collision, but then again nor does the rest of the vehicle. Defender TDCis replace the side-facers with two forward-facing seats in the loadspace, which are better and safer for both kids and adults, but take up a lot more room even when folded up.

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If you need seating for four or five on a regular basis, a 110 is a much better option than a 90. This is because once you’ve got that many people in a short-wheelbase, there really isn’t any room left for luggage. In a 110, you can fill the first and second rows, and put any stragglers in the back with the gear. And with the second-row seats folded, it has almost as much space as a hard top van with the advantage of extra side doors.

There was no 130 station wagon available from the factory, but conversions by specialists such as Foleys do exist for almost limo-like levels of seating.

 

Utility

The versatile Utility was added to the range in 2007

Introduced to the range in 2007 alongside the Ford-derived TDCi engines, the 110-only Utility blends the ability to carry five or six people while retaining a proper loadspace with windowless van panels. This really does give the best of both worlds if you don’t need the extra passenger space of the station wagon, with all-forward-facing seats and enough room in the back for all their stuff, out of sight of prying eyes.

If you’re in the market for a pre-2007 Defender 110, you can always remove the windowed panels of a station wagon and replace them with 88in Series van panels to create your own Utility, though you should inform your insurance company.

 

Double cab

Double cab combines passenger space with a separate load area

​​​​​​Double cabs – available as a 110 with standard rear pick-up bed or 130 with wider Hi Cap tub – do as they say on the tin. You still get the exposed loadspace, which can, of course, be covered by a canopy, as well as seating for five or six people, depending on whether there’s a front centre seat fitted. The cabins are more cramped than station wagon and Utility variants, and the loadspace on a 110 is even less capacious than a 90 truck cab. They do suit those with outdoor hobbies or work that requires space for dirty equipment, but if you’re buying one as a family vehicle or daily runner, a Utility or station wagon probably makes more sense. They definitely look cool, though.

 

Let’s talk wheelbase

Wheelbase choice is slightly less critical on the L663 model, thanks to its modern independent suspension and generous steering lock. The original is the one where you really need to choose wisely.

The 90 (actual wheelbase 93 inches) is as manoeuvrable as Defenders get, with a stumpy rear overhang and that helpfully-short distance between the axles; even with the relatively poor steering lock, it’s more than manageable and the nimbleness is a real advantage in some off-road situations. The payoff is that it feels twitchier at speed, and the back end of commercial variants can feel over-sprung and damped on bumpy roads when unladen.

110 is the happy medium. Yes, it can take a bit more thought in tight spaces, but the extra inches make all the difference both on the road and off it. The ride is smoother and less choppy on B-roads, and the extra stability when towing is appreciated for those who regularly pull long trailers. Off-road, you’ll find that thanks to the longer wheelbase each pair of wheels lose and regain grip at different times, which helps keep the vehicle moving.

The 130 is a true behemoth, and you should give serious thought to whether one is really right for you. For outright capacity and the ability to bolt on different rear bodies and appliances, the single or double-cab variants can’t be beaten. But don’t expect to be able to fit in a normal parking space. Or even into the car park itself, if there are tight turns involved – oil tankers have a better turning circle.

 

L663 90

L663 90 hard top is a nod to Defender commercials of old

You either love the proportions of the new (L663) 90 or you hate them. The chunky, stubby Defender offers you three doors, and up to six seats – yep, you can spec a centre seat in the front, just like the original. Boot space is very limited with the second-row seats in use, but okay for most day-to-day work otherwise, and it’s manoeuvrable and fun to drive.

You can get it in hard top guise too, which does away with the back seats and gives you a hard-wearing loadspace and bulkhead.

 

L663 110

Defender 110 has been the top-selling L663 since launch

The most popular of the L663s (newest Defenders), the 110 gives spacious seating for up to six, depending on trim, and a much more useful boot than the 90 even with the second row in play. Again, you can choose to have it as a passenger car or hard top commercial, which gives a massive loadspace (and keeps the side-opening doors) and either two or three seats up front.

 

L663 130

Biggest of the range, 130 ensures you’ll never be short of interior space

The biggest current Defender keeps the same wheelbase as the 110, but adds a heap more useable space at the back end, along with three more seats in a third row as a no-cost option. The extra length is surprisingly easy to deal with and the wheelbase doesn’t make it daunting to drive, and the extra boot space is a real boon. Got a big family? The 130 is the one you want.

 

Coming next, in part two, we look at what you can get for your budget and the vast array of engine types available...

 

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