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I Rank the Land Rover Defender 90 Among the Best Off-Road 4x4s!

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While many see modern Land Rovers as eccentric tractability for the world's gentry, one model is a clear exception: the Defender 90.  Land Rover's legacy of rugged, military grade 4x4s comes together in this iconic and sought after model.


Bill Burke of 4-Wheeling America has been a personal friend for many years now.  We co-instructed 'Tread Lightly' 4WD Clinics across the U.S. years ago, and Bill is a Camel Trophy veteran...I competed in the CliffsNotes version, the Land Rover Trek competition, which did a much abbreviated (all in one long day) facsimile, using Land Rover Discovery models.


Bill has been a Defender 90 aficionado ever since his Camel Trophy experience.  A closer look at this model reveals why.  When he purchased his Land Rover Defender 90, Bill was in his element!  He has carefully maintained and upgraded this 4x4 to meet every need in his four-wheeling instructional and guiding service. 


I've driven the popular, shorter wheelbase off road 4x4s built since 1941 and have owned or officially tested more than my share.  The short list for optimal 'wheeling would be Jeep CJs, Wranglers, the Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrol, Ford Bronco, I-H Scout and Scout II and the Defender 90.  I single out these vehicles because benchmark, tight access routes like the Rubicon Trail have very specific requirements. 


I have a quick formula for vehicles well suited for tight, twisting 4x4 trails.  Since most popular 4x4s can now be chassis "lifted" and equipped with oversized tires, it comes down to useful wheelbase lengths. 


In my view, the best 4x4s for Rubicon Trail travel have a wheelbase no longer than 104".  I use this arbitrary length to include the vintage Jeep CJ-6, CJ-8 Scrambler or an XJ Cherokee in modified form.  A short wheelbase improves break-over angle.  Good approach and departure angles make the best trail runners... 


Note: Some might ask why I don't stretch that figure to the 116" JK Wrangler Unlimited's wheelbase length.  That Jeep needs 37" diameter (significantly oversized!) tires to successfully negotiate the rougher sections of the Rubicon Trail without damage.


The Land Rover Defender 90 has a 92.9" wheelbase, Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser has a 90" wheelbase, and the original Ford Bronco is a 92" wheelbase.  Track widths are similar, and all three of these vehicles have excellent approach and departure angles—as do Jeep CJs and Wranglers.


Narrower dimensions of traditional, short wheelbase Jeep utility 4x4s excel on ultra-tight access trails.  The JK Wrangler is the wider, longer exception, these features intended for better vehicle control on-highway and, overall, a lower center of gravity to reduce rollover risk.


I have owned two FJ40s and would characterize them as among the very best off-pavement 4x4s ever.  The wider track width lends center-of-gravity stability, the shorter wheelbase provides tight back country access—yet still offers reasonable on-highway handling for a 4x4 designed for primitive country.


To prove this point, I once towed a 21-foot travel trailer across the Mojave Desert in a wind storm.  That FJ40 OFF-ROAD Magazine project had a 383 Chevy V-8 stroker motor conversion, and I used a load distribution/equalizer hitch with a sway control brake (neither item out of the ordinary for safe towing).  The vehicle was rock steady.  A Defender 90 or early (1966-77) Ford Bronco can be set up to accomplish the same. 


More details about the Defender 90 and its predecessors: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Rover_Defender_90#Land_Rover_Ninety_.26_One_Ten


Simply on dimensions alone, the Defender 90 scores well.  Add to that a separate ladder frame with beam front and rear axles, refined and tuned suspension, and the Defender 90 ranks up there.  Overseas, the turbo-diesel powered Defender was hugely successful.  In the U.S. market, which only lasted from 1993-97, the proven aluminum 3.9L and 4.0L V-8 worked well.  I know this engine from its roots, the 'sixties Buick/Olds 215 aluminum V-8.  We can discuss that history if you'd like! 


I'd value opinions from Defender 90 owners and seekers.  Join this forum and let the discussion begin!



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