Few vehicles summon up the sort of romance and nostalgia of the classic Land Rover Defender. The boxy, burly off-roader has stood for freedom and independence for decades, epitomizing the appeal of the outdoors even when trapped in the densest urban confines. Its rarity in the United States has pushed it even further into the realm of exclusivity; while most countries see them as farmland workhorses and stripped-down safari trucks, here in America, even high-mileage ones in mediocre condition often command pricetags that could buy far newer, better-driving and more reliable vehicles.
Here’s the thing, though: The old Land Rover Defender sucks.
Subjectively, sure, it’s super-cool. Objectively? It stinks. By the standards of modern vehicles, it’s crude, slow and unsafe. Hell, even by the standards of the 1990s, it was mediocre. Those final years of Defenders available in America were on sale alongside the storied likes of the third-gen Toyota 4Runner and 80-Series Land Cruiser, the XJ-gen Jeep Cherokee and the Mitsubishi Montero — all of which delivered more refinement and power than the Defender. Stacked against modern Land Rovers, Toyotas, Jeeps or other off-roaders, it’s even worse.
For the record, I’m not speaking out of a certain orifice like Ace Ventura here. Back in 2019, I was lucky enough to drive one of South Carolina-based Himalaya’s Defender by Himalaya models, which represents perhaps the best possible version of an original Defender. Off-road, traversing the deep wood trails of upstate New York at low speeds, it was delightful. But once back into the real world of, y’know, roads — paved and dirt alike — it rapidly proved irritating.
The seating position, close enough to the controls , made every shift a long, deliberate process. The open flanks that seemed so inviting in the quiet woods stirred up the air to tinnitus-inducing levels. The slow steering that helped place the front end so carefully at 10 miles per hour felt painfully, almost unsafely cumbersome at the speed limit. Which, for the record, is about as fast as you’ll go on a highway, considering the brick-like aerodynamics and lack of power.
The all-new Defender has taken its fair share of heat for being, in effect, “too civilized.” But you who likes civilization? Humans. Go ask the 2.5 billion people on Earth who lack modern sanitation what they’d think of a little more civilization. Or the 790 million without clean water at all. Civilization isn’t a bad word; it’s the reason for and the goal of mankind’s existence on the planet. Let’s not be so quick to pooh-pooh it.
Indeed, for the vast majority of people — in particular, those who actually buy new SUVs with $50,000-plus price tags — the new Defender is a far better fit, as we discovered during our first test. It's still super-capable off-road, as always, but the latest version combines that with heretofor-unknown-for-a-Defender levels of on-road handling and performance.
Also, speaking of that new version: while U.S. crash test results for the new Land Rover Defender haven’t been announced yet, it turned in excellent results in European crash testing. Still, it’d be literally impossible for it to be less safe than the old model, because that car was pulled from the U.S. marketplace in 1997 because it no longer met safety regulations.
Admittedly, that’s a compromise made with many old cars, but it’s still worth repeating, as is the following: in 1997, there were 268 million people in America and 42,013 auto-related deaths; 20 years later, there were 58 million more Americans, yet nearly 5,000 fewer people died on the road. It ain’t because we drove less, and it sure as hell ain’t because we turned into better drivers; it’s because the cars became safer.
The chief substantive draws of the old Defender, of course, are its incredible off-road capability, compact proportions and open-air flexibility. All of which are indeed appealing, and seem like fine reasons to snap up a second vehicle. Or at least they would be, were it not for a little vehicle called…the Jeep Wrangler.
America’s homegrown off-road icon does just about everything the Defender does, and it does it on the cheap. The least-expensive Defender of yore you can find on Cars.com right now, for example, still costs nearly $30,000. Wranglers from the same era, in contrast, run as cheap as $2,000. You can snag a very nice late-model Wrangler that still has fewer miles than that $30K Landie for far less. And fixing up those Jeeps is all but guaranteed to be cheaper and easier alike than trying to wrangle parts for a three-decade-old British ride.
So, no: you shouldn’t buy a classic Land Rover Defender. If you want a boxy, open-top off-roader from decades past, go pick up a Wrangler. Or, if you want a compact Land Rover for city driving and off-roading alike, you can snag a lease on a Discovery Sport for $329 a month right now with $3,495 down. Neither may pack quite as much curb appeal as a Defender, but you won’t care; you’ll be sitting inside, driving the damn thing. Which is what you should be doing with it.
(That said…I mean, I still want one.)