March 19, 2008 by Andrew St.Pierre White
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Where have the off-roaders gone? Gone to city streets, everywhere.
There are just two real, un-compromised, off-road four-wheel drive passenger wagons left and to us in South Africa this honour falls to two great icons of 4×4: The Land Rover Defender 110 SW and Toyota Land Cruiser 70-series wagon. These two vehicles share the following characteristics: Not just tough: really tough. Square-sided and old fashioned with bags of character, vague steering, no airbags and limited safety features, can be really loaded and rarely complain and lastly, owners either loath them or love them, and the love is often everlasting.
As for the Defender, not much new can be written about it because versions of it have been around for 60 years. With the Toyota it has been just 57 years. The story of the first Land Cruiser is a lesser known one: It was born soon after World War Two and was Toyota’s very first vehicle. From that model called the AK10 Toyota Jeep, Toyota would become the world’s largest motor manufacturer, while Land Rover must be one of the world’s most sold and resold car makers. But that doesn’t detract from these two last vehicles available to the hardened 4×4 user. A journalist during Toyota’s recent launch of the 70 put it perfectly when he concluded, “You’ve got to be serious to want one”. This statement can equally be directed at both of these vehicles, and versions of both were first launched in the mid eighties.
My attempt here is to compare these vehicles from a user’s point of view. I am not measuring acceleration but more the feel, power, response, road handling, load carrying and off-road ability in very rough conditions as well as practicalities of day to day use.
I owned a Defender between 1989 and 1997 and have now owned a Land Cruiser-70 for nine months. For this comparison I am comparing the newly released Toyota 70-series SW with its normally-aspirated six-cylinder, 4,2 diesel engine and the new Defender 110 SW with its four-cylinder, 2,4 turbo-diesel engine and six-speed gearbox. Three of us conducted this comparison: Myself, John Rich of Stoney Ridge 4×4 Academy and a friend and assistant on many of my shoots, Julian Snjman.
Driving position and seating
Have you ever wondered why so many Defender drivers drive with their elbows hanging over the door frame? It’s not because they want to look cool, (That’s a bonus side effect) it’s because they don’t fit inside the car with the window up. The Defender’s driver’s seat is located what seems unnecessarily close to the door, and so broad-chested individuals often find it extremely uncomfortable. Also, to look out of the side windows, drivers and passengers in the front must lean forward quite a bit to do so. The result is a driving position that is not suited, or must be tolerated, by large-built people.
The new front seats of the Defender look quite different to earlier models, and are now coated with a very plush dark fabric. Also, there are new, nicely contoured head-rests. The seats consist of an upright with some tilt control and a removable squab, that permits somewhat inconvenient access to the storage bins underneath, which are mostly full of electrics. Gone are the carpets, replaced by very practical molded rubber fittings.
The Toyota’s seats are more traditional in design, but with no storage under them. Seat location, relative to the doors and much larger windscreen provides a feel that is far lighter and more airy, but you will have to put up with the plaas-bakkie steering wheel and over-sensitive hooter button. This model’s eighties heritage is clear, the seats are clothed in a truly boring ‘80s fabric, but offer more lateral support and all three of us agreed were more comfortable and the seating position more agreeable in many ways than the Land Rover’s. The carpet on the floor is what must be the lowest grade automotive carpet available and the Rover’s solution is both more attractive and practical.
Back seat passenger comfort
This is where both vehicles fall down, for different reasons. The Defender’s seat itself is no longer a flat, featureless bench, but consists of contoured bucket seats with the same plush fabric as the front. Knee room is similar, if not a little less than the Toyota’s. But its biggest drawback is its height: The Defender’s back seat is so high that passengers have to stoop down to see out of the mechanical wind up windows. The windows wind only half way down and in the back it feels cramped and a little claustrophobic. Only the Defender has additional seats in the load bay, which are forward-facing seats with restraints and head rests, their folding mechanism being easy and effective.
While the Toyota’s back seat is better positioned it is not really any more comfortable especially for the unlucky person seated in the middle. The back seat is really only designed for two people: An adult seated in the middle, on what is no more than a hard lump, will likely require the services of a chiropractor within 100 kms.
Ventilation and cab comforts
Here is the good news: The Defender now has a working ventilation system that actually demists both sides of the windscreen! (Up until now, only the passenger side demisted) The centre console responsible for this comes from Discovery-3, and looks a little out of place in the no-frills interior. But here is the bad news: The Defender’s lever-operated front vents are a thing of the past. Nothing could compare with the over-the-bonnet fresh air that they once delivered. With the new dash, they had to be removed, but with their loss comes an otherwise needed improvement in ventilation. There are centre vents, but no adjustable side vents, which means that while a huge improvement, ventilation is not a good as the Toyota’s.
The Toyota’s old fashioned, utilitarian dash is direct from their pick-up. By ‘80s standards it is good, but today it can only be described as adequate. The windscreen demists evenly and the utilitarian vents and knobs are particularly solid. More good news it that the air conditioner is no longer the often troublesome after-market unit but a far superior factory-made system. As for the instrumentation, the Toyota is severely lacking: An odometer, fuel and water temp is all that is there. The Defender has modern gauges, a modern panel and yet feels every bit as solid as the Toyota’s.
Gear change and low range
Unfortunately this new Defender’s clutch is unchanged and requires the same unreasonably large thigh muscles to operate, as did my 1989 model. The Cruiser’s clutch is car-like and so is its main gear-change. The Defender’s gear change is an improvement on the old, but it is sometimes awkward to find the right gear without practice. But once mastered, while it has an unusual feel, it quickly becomes pleasant to use.
With the low-range gear change, the Defender is way ahead. With the part-time four-wheel drive of the Toyota, every time low range is to be engaged, it is a struggle. As my vehicle clocks up mileage, it’s getting easier to move the lever, but I still don’t like it. Disengaging low range or even four-wheel drive is sometimes even more difficult. To select four-wheel drive, if the auto front hubs are not manually locked, the Toyota must be brought to a standstill before it can be engaged, otherwise fearful grating sounds emanate from the gearbox.
The Defender’s system is full-time four-wheel drive with lockable centre differential, (which can be locked at any speed) which is by far the preferred system. It is this that in my view is the single, most significant advantage the Rover has over its competitor. The centre diff-lock is engaged by moving the transfer gearbox lever sideways, but the action is way too vague for my liking.
Riding the open road
Pulling power up the hills is no great shakes with either of these two, and if a one-on-one drag race was to be contested, I reckon the Defender would win the half-mile by a nose. Both are very content at a 115 kph cruise, but for comfort and seating, interior noise and driver relaxation, the Toyota is the clear winner: No contest. It is a far nicer drive on the open road, has a far better turning circle and has more steering feel (which isn’t very much). Even if you are like me, not a particularly large person, the Defender is a bit of a test of endurance on the open road, rolling in corners like a boat in a gale and when the road gets even a little bit twisty, feels decidedly unsure-footed. While no limousine, the Cruiser is far more palatable on the tarmac. As a towing vehicle, neither will be particularly good at it as the Cruiser is under-powered and few small-capacity turbo-diesels are well suited to towing.
The Defender has six forward gears. While nice to have, it should not be regarded as a big advantage over the Toyota’s five. Six gears seems a little pointless in a vehicle like this: The reduction in noise levels is welcome, but if the terrain is even remotely hilly, it rarely gets a chance to drive in sixth anyway.
Comfort and ride on rough bush tracks
The ride on rough bush tracks made for an interesting comparison and neither of these two vehicles is particularly comfortable on the terrain on which they will, or should, spend a great deal of their lives. Both rides are sure and both vehicles feel almost indestructible when it gets really rough. The Defender’s ride is characterized by very ample cushioning over ruts, paid for by a tendency to roll about a great deal. On the other hand, the Cruiser’s springs transmit every bump and lump through into the cab, but with comparatively little sideways motion. Which one do I prefer? Seated, leaning back in the seat, the Cruiser is my preference, but lean forward with elbow on the door rail, I will take the Defender any day. We all agreed that both can equally do with a decent set of firm gas shock absorbers, particularly the Defender, as its much looser, longer-travel springing needs more vigorous damping than does the Cruiser. With them, I believe the Defender will be a clear winner in this department.
Wheel travel is undoubtedly better with the Defender, and overall, discounting the Defender’s traction-control and the Cruiser’s diff-locks, the Defender is superior in arduous off-road conditions. It has slightly better approach and break-over angles and a similar departure angle. In some terrains like thick, deep, gooey mud the Cruiser’s downfall is its rear axle under-pinnings, that attach the axle to the springs. These can act as a bit of a handbrake in mud and even severe rocky conditions. The Defender has a much ‘cleaner’ underside, with fewer chassis parts to get in the way.
That said, in most conditions the large, normally aspirated Cruiser engine is easier to use, more pliable as the revs pick up from under 1000rpm, unlike the Rover’s turbo’s need for higher revs to produce its torque. In addition, one of the Defender’s most frustrating traits is the new engine’s anti-stall device: Low range, first gear, down a really steep hill and stand on the brakes all you want, the Defender charges down the hill it its own speed, not the driver’s. I did not like its behaviour down steep slopes one bit.
But considering all this, add the traction aids spoken of, and the picture changes:
The Defender’s traction control is not nearly as good as it is in the Disco-3. (I can’t imagine why! If anything, it should be better given the kind of vehicle the Defender is?) If it was as good, it will surely out-perform the Cruiser with its front and rear manually-operated diff locks, but it does not. Here, the Cruiser is a winner in all off-road obstacles I drove for this article. At the extreme end of the lumpy hill climbs, when the Defender began the struggle, the Cruiser locked up its front axle as well and kept on cruising. I reckon in all but the thickest of mud, the Cruiser will match, and in many cases out-perform the Defender is arduous off-road conditions. But both of these are awesome off-road performers and nobody can possibly be disappointed with either vehicle in this regard. I summarise it like this:
Both vehicles turned out very similar consumption figures both off and on road. Unfortunately, the Defender has a puny 75-litre fuel tank. I have to ask why such a small tank for a vehicle destined for overland travel? Even the Cruiser’s 95-litre tank could be bigger, after all, there is plenty of space down there. After-market over-sized fuel tanks are easier fitted to the Toyota than Rover. My own is a 180-litre Baillies Offroad tank.
Over the past 10 years, few vehicles have enjoyed the almost seraphic-like reputation for reliability as has the Toyota Land Cruiser. Historically, as for the Defender, this is mixed.
By and large, Land Rover products have average to poor resale values, other than the Defender, which is almost as good as the Toyota’s, and that is quite something, because most 70-series Cruisers hold their value better than most.
When it comes to this debate, the word reliability is a swear word and tends to have both sides of the argument at each others’ throats. Despite what the Rover enthusiasts say, with very few exceptions, Land Rover parts are not nearly as easy to find in the Third World. Build quality of the Land Rover has gone from good, to bad to absolutely shameful, back to good and now much better. Whereas Toyota has gone from average, to good, to very good all the way to being the benchmark of world car production. What about the recent recalls?, you may ask. That’s another debate, but even with that, this Land Cruiser must be one of the most reliable vehicles produced in the world today. Land Rover hasn’t just got to compete with another vehicle in this regard but compete with the very best, and even if Land Rover should excel itself, it will always be a runner-up, no matter what.
No matter how hard Land Rover has tried to modernize the Defender, it still reeks of its 1940’s vintage. Its single-layered, riveted body panels now mixed with its modern interior styling still produces an unmatched feeling of going on a rough and ready safari even when popping down to the café for a coke. On road it is as unrewarding a ride as one can get, and its performance in city streets is every bit as challenging. In the rough though, it is a different story: I can safely say that with the exception of the rare Mercedes G-Wagen, the Land Rover Defender in its standard, unmodified form, is the best off-road performer available today.
The Toyota is a new but old fashioned development of a Cruiser launched in Asia in the mid ‘80s, but with a new nose and wider track developed to fit the V8 diesel engine, which we won’t be getting here in SA (I say with tears in my eyes). While the Toyota is a fair bit better on-road than the Defender, it is important to realize that it is still not particularly comfortable, and does not eat up the kilometers as do many other four-wheel drive wagons like the Prado and Discovery-3. It is the rough that it has been built for, and as a little-compromised, true overland wagon, the Cruiser is a worthy contender for the crown of best true off-roader. That is why, between these two, putting reliability aside, there is really little in it one way or the other.