The Land Rover Defender is Dead.
Well, it has been since 1997 in America– and due to strict EU vehicle regulations, it's beginning to die elsewhere. The concept for it's replacement, the DC100, very well may be a fantastic vehicle when it finally reaches production, arguably a better vehicle in many ways than it's predecessor; but there's no chance it will be the same vehicle. From what I've seen, there's only one other vehicle that remotely comes close to the versatility and capability that we've come to expect from Land Rover's utility model– The Jeep Wrangler, specifically, The Unlimited.
"Americans don't want a utility off-road vehicle, they want luxury." I hear this in nearly every conversation that starts talking about why the Defender isn't in the United States. Emissions and safety regulations aside, I don't believe it– the 122,460 people that purchased a Wrangler in 2011 are proof that Americans will actually buy a 'spartan' utility vehicle like the Defender. So will the rest of the world. In 2011 alone, Jeep sales skyrocketed by 62% in Europe. A quick look at Land Rover's 'brand-heritage' will tell you that there's a reason they need to look to the past for epic stories about their vehicles' exploratory conquests and off-highway prowess. Granted, they still make some of the most capable vehicles on the planet (and a brand that I'm personally vested in) but they're not the only kid on the block anymore.
Until recently, the Wrangler had always been limited by it's relatively small interior size. It wasn't exactly practical for more than two people, and the addition of the usual overland kit, such as a fridge and some storage, resulted in next-to-no interior room. It's small size made it more suitable for incredibly technical trails rather than long-haul off highway jaunts lasting several days. With the introduction of the 4-door Unlimited model, Jeep gave birth to what may be the best American overlanding vehicle– ever.
Jeep has a commitment to it's enthusiast base with the JK model and, just like Land Rover once offered dealer installed accessories from Mantec and Safety Devices, Jeep is following suit with companies such as AEV and their in-house Mopar accessories. Do you want an expedition-prepared Jeep? Just visit an AEV Certified Vehicle Dealership and choose a package to be installed onto your vehicle. You'll be walking out with a vehicle that far surpasses the level of capability that was ever offered from Land Rover direct from the showroom.
If walking in and purchasing a prepared vehicle isn't quite your thing, you'll be happy to know that the Wrangler Unlimited is now likely one of the most popular vehicles in the (US) overland aftermarket. Nearly every day there are new companies popping up to provide accessories that weren't available for the model before. No longer does modifying your Jeep require you to make it look like it's competing at the King of Hammers. There are dedicated roof rack systems, auxiliary fuel tanks, internal storage and security, not to mention the plethora of protection accessories you'd expect. Companies like Ursa Minor even make a drop-in 'Habitat' replacement top (distributed by Adventure Trailers), allowing you to sleep four adults, and if you desire, cook, shower, and enjoy an ice-cold beverage all from inside your Wrangler Unlimited.
For those taking things to the next level Phoenix Campers and Thaler Design offer drop in campers for the Unlimited– just like the units commonly offered overseas for the Defender. They allow you to spend some serious time off the highway while being incredibly comfortable and capable. Thaler Design's Action Camper (distributed by Adventure Trailers in the United States) is an impressive all composite shell that houses a memory foam mattress, a full kitchen, and living area while only adding 440lbs to the entire vehicle weight. This creates a viable long-term round-the-world capable solution for living in your Jeep.
The best thing about a Wrangler is your ability to have access to an endless number of accessories that allow you to do anything you could dream of to your vehicle. I've never before seen a platform with such versatility - within a few hours your vehicle can go from stock to sitting on 40-inch tires, or in our case, capable of long distance overland travel.
I spent last weekend exploring the Arizona high desert in the closest thing Jeep has ever made to a ROTW (Rest of the World) specification Land Rover Defender– The J8. I even felt as if I was driving one of Solihull's finest with that familiar boxy shape, right hand drive, and diesel engine. Even though this vehicle isn't something you can purchase off the showroom floor, it's based off a standard Wrangler Unlimited, and it goes to show the extreme versatility of this platform - just like the Defender.
I'll always have a soft spot for the Defender, I drive the predecessor to it nearly every day. I'll admit there's something special to the green oval - a feeling and connection you just don't get with other vehicles. The Wrangler offers a different connection, for lack of a better word, it's just plain fun; take the doors off, the roof off, even the windshield folds down if you so desire. I'm not so sure Land Rover has similar ideas for the next Defender. The Wrangler is a fantastic compromise between modern technology, safety, performance, and versatility. With Land Rover there's always complaints about how the brand is moving away from it's roots; Jeep never really forgot them.