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I Went Off-Roading in My New $70,000 Land Rover Defender

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author photo by Doug DeMuro April 2017

The next DougCar is here: It's a 1997 Land Rover Defender 90, and it's in pristine condition. I bought it from my friend David, who specializes in restoring and selling 1997 Defender 90s. He certainly restored mine with fresh paint, numerous new parts, a gorgeous new top, a mechanical overhaul, new lights, and a series of new interior pieces. It looks, feels, and drives just like it did when it left the showroom with its first owner on August 5, 1997. Really, it's a thing of beauty.

So I decided to mess it up by taking it off-roading.

Before I get into the details of my off-roading adventure, here are a few details of my Defender. Land Rover only offered the Defender 90 in the United States for three model years (1994, 1995 and 1997), and the 1997 models like mine are the most desirable, largely because it was the only year the Defender came with an automatic transmission.

While an imported Defender can sell for $20,000 or less, the U.S.-spec models have some major advantages -- like an external roll cage, an available soft top, a V8 engine, left-hand drive, the aforementioned automatic transmission, and air conditioning. U.S.-spec Defender models were also generally treated nicer than their overseas counterparts, simply due to their values: They sold new for around $40,000, and they stayed in that range for a long time without ever really getting "cheap." Today, an excellent one can sell for $70,000 or more, and mine is definitely an excellent one, in great condition, with just under 63,000 miles.

Which is how I found myself waking up this Sunday morning, rather nervous at the prospect of off-roading a 20-year-old vehicle -- worth more than a brand-new BMW M3 -- which I had purchased just last week.

At the same time, I couldn't help but think that the Defender is built for this stuff. It has a tremendously short wheelbase, which is great for off-roading, and it offers excellent approach and departure angles. In part due to its large tires, the transfer case and axles are pretty high off the ground, which means you don't have to worry about too many obstacles in the middle of a trail. And it's always in four-wheel drive, with a low range and a differential lock for really rough stuff.

But, at the same time, it's a 20-year-old Land Rover. A 20-year-old Land Rover that was driven just 15,000 total miles by its previous owner over the course of a decade. Could it really handle an off-road adventure less than a week after I took delivery? My mind was filled with the anxiety between "Oh, it'll be fine!" and "I'm not so sure about this..."

Before I could test it out, I had to simply get it to the off-roading area. My friend and off-road guru, Phil, joined me for the ride to Rausch Creek Off-Road Park, which is approximately two hours from my house -- all on the highway. This is when I discovered the Defender's first flaw: It's not really a highway cruiser. I say this because it doesn't really go above 80, it's slow to accelerate, it's REALLY slow to pass, it has trouble climbing steep hills, the engine is loud, the interior is even louder and mostly without insulation, there's no cruise control, the driving position is harsh and the fuel economy is absolutely laughable. Other than that, though, it's a wonderful highway cruiser.

So I arrived at Rausch Creek, and I met up with my friends and their vehicles: A new Ford Raptor (which I reviewed a few weeks ago), a Jeep Wrangler, and a new Range Rover Sport with 21-in wheels and summer performance tires, courtesy of my friends from my local Land Rover dealership. We all laughed at this particular off-roading choice. More on that in a moment.

So then we got out on the trails. I took a deep breath, I tried to calm my nerves, but I couldn't stop thinking about it: 70,000 dollars. Got it last week. Old Land Rover. Was I going to make it? Was I going to break something? As a side note, it's worth mentioning that a strange set of circumstances aligned so that I had to drive the Defender last weekend to the New York City area, then Washington, D.C., then back to Philadelphia, immediately after picking it up, and it was so irritating on the highway that I started to wonder if I had made the right DougCar choice.

But then, out on the trails, something happened: The Defender came into its element.

I quickly forgot about the whole "expensive" thing with the first group of rocks and mud, as the Defender started to climb obstacles like a mountain goat. We immediately decided it was the most capable of the bunch, given the tire limitations of the Wrangler and Range Rover Sport, and the wheelbase of the Raptor, and it took the lead in our convoy. The Defender -- by far the oldest car present -- handled everything with ease, and it had no problem in even the roughest areas, which some of the other vehicles bypassed.

Of course, this wasn't without a little concern on my end. I'm constantly convinced that my off-roader friend Phil is trying to kill me, so I fear death every time he sends me into a rather deep puddle or down an especially rocky, rutted trail. And there were some rather difficult parts of this adventure where the Defender was wheezing, and its tires were spinning and it was precariously balancing at an angle normally reserved for geometry textbooks. But with a little guidance and a little extra momentum, it got through everything.

In the end, I suppose that wasn't a surprise: My Defender is in great shape, and they were built to do this stuff. More surprising to me was the Raptor and the Range Rover Sport.

The Raptor was totally the star of the day. Although we all felt it would have some limitations due to its long wheelbase, it did better than any vehicle in our convoy -- scrambling up, over, and through difficult areas where we figured it would have problems. Over the course of the day, it went from the last vehicle in our convoy to the first, leading the way through the roughest stuff for everyone to follow. Likewise, the Range Rover Sport also handled everything without any serious issues. Although it had to go very slowly over rocky areas to avoid damaging its thin tires, its off-road systems were amazing: The electronics could seemingly sense virtually every position it was in, and they were constantly adjusting things accordingly to make sure it kept moving.

In the end, we finished the day without breaking anything, and our convoy of expensive off-roaders was undamaged, thoroughly exercised and covered in mud. Overall, I learned two things. First: That electronic driving aids, like the ones in the Raptor and the Range Rover Sport, do an amazing job off the pavement, despite the opinion of "off-roader purist" people who have old Cherokees with tires the size of a ceiling fan. I also learned that the Defender doesn't need to be babied or coddled, like so many of its owners do with it. It may be 20 years old, but it can be worked hard, it can be put through its four-wheeling paces, and it can do the job without complaining, without failing, and -- yes -- without leaking oil all over everything.

Meanwhile, you've learned of the new DougCar. It's going to be a fun year behind the wheel.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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I Went Off-Roading in My New $70,000 Land Rover Defender - Autotrader