Thursday, 5 December 2013

The worst new car I've ever bought, and why I love it

One way to make a brand new Landy look good is to photograph it on a dark, misty night so the wavy panels are not so obvious :-)

I am over 50 years old. Why this is significant in a car review will become clearer as the story unfolds.
As my 50th birthday loomed just over a year ago, I faced a dilemma. While not quite a mid-life crisis, it was still a tough decision. Should I, or should I not, buy a new Land Rover?
I already had two older ones in the garage at the time, a 1994 Discovery and a 1986-vintage 110, so it's clear I like the brand and was already comfortable with the idiosyncrasies associated with these Made-in-England icons.
Then, early last year, Land Rover Malaysia came up with an irresistible offer of RM88,000 or thereabouts for a new Defender 110 HCPU (high capacity pick-up).

Coming down from the Bario highlands.
While I did not really need a new car, there was the issue of constant repairs needed for the old cars. And the offer, even with the condition that the "new" Defender had to be pre-registered, was certainly tempting.
So, I placed a booking, with the stipulation that the car should be delivered in time to be a 50th birthday present to myself. It was not to be, because there were apparently fewer than 200 units offered in the promotion and Sabah alone had over 200 bookings.
After that, the price went back up to usual levels above RM100,000, and I decided to call off the deal.
The itch didn't go away, though. It just became a fiercer battle between heart and head. The former said, "go for it", the latter said "don't be silly, there are better cars offered at better prices".
The head was right, of course, with the then newly launched Ford Ranger T6 looking like a winner in every way.
I had tested the Defender with the Ford-derived 2.4l TDCI engine (better known as the Puma) about five years earlier, and had not been impressed. The build quality was atrocious, the glass rattled, and the 6-speed gearbox was stiff and difficult to shift, and it was as noisy as a cheap pub during Friday happy hours.
But I had also driven various models of the Defender as well as my own Discovery off the highways, and knew that they all excelled when driven on the rough stuff.
So, a decision had to be made. Should I choose a nice, modern, comfortable and leak-proof 4X4 that had some off-road capabilities, or an off-road legend that was mediocre in creature comforts even by the standards of 30 years ago?

Andy 'One Ten' Wong
Then, just like that, the decision was clear. With shocking suddenness, a dear friend with whom I had spent much enjoyable time on the muddier side of Borneo, passed away. Andy Wong, call sign "One Ten", was posting on Facebook pictures of himself enjoying breakfast with 4X4 friends in Limbang on a Saturday, then others posted updates of him falling ill and being admitted to hospital in Kota Kinabalu on Sunday, and by Monday (1/10, 2012), he was gone.
Life is short. Life is full of surprises. Seize the day. Carpe diem. All these cliches came to mind, and they all struck a chord with me. If not now, when?
Even the head chimed in. There IS a practical and logical reason for choosing the Landy. With the modern cars, you just know there will be a newer, better version down the road. New models come out every eight to ten years, by which time your once-new pride and joy will be just another old car that needs to be replaced.
And this is where my age is significant. I no longer look forward to the endless cycle of debt associated with trading in an old car for a new one, and a new loan.
With a Defender, which has remained basically unchanged for over three decades, and can still share some parts with its older siblings from the 1960s, I am getting a car that is ageless insofar as style and fashion is concerned.
Sure, it will need parts replaced and more repairs as it gets older, but without the temptation to pawn my soul to buy the latest and bestest.
In short, I was preparing to buy my last new car. I named it Andy the Landy, in honour of Andy Wong, who helped me make the decision, and I dedicate this article to his memory.

The youngest takes centre stage between the oldest and older.
By the standards of modern automobiles, the latest Defender is a terrible car, by all the yardsticks against which cars are usually measured.
For a start, the legendary leaks. The old joke used to be that when a Land Rover leaks oil, that's normal. The worrying starts when it stops leaking, because that means it's dry. The good news is, the Ford-sourced engine and gearbox no longer leak oil. At least, the ones on mine do not leak after 14 months, and the transfer case and steering components are all still clean and dry, so it is no longer true that all Land Rovers leak oil and other fluids.
But there's another not-so-funny joke about "what's inside leaks out, what's outside leaks in", and the second part is still true, unfortunately. When it rains heavily, my right foot gets wet. Just like what Land Rover owners and drivers have been enduring for 60 years. At least, I know I got a genuine Land Rover, always a concern in this age of counterfeits and imitation (that's another example of Landy humour).
Fit and finish of the aluminium panels would have been deemed poor back in the 1960s, and are appalling by 21st century standards. But that's the hallmark of a Defender. If you want a car that looks perfectly made, sorry, look elsewhere.

Near Kota Marudu, with Mt Kinabalu as backdrop.
But while we're on the subject of looks, the Defender certainly looks like it could drive straight off the showroom floor into the timber trails and across the many streams of Sabah and Sarawak. It looks tough and it looks mean, like back when tough and mean were epitomised by Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin (yes, another sign of age!) instead of the pretty boys like the Cruises and Pitts of today.
There are creaks and rattles that can be tracked down, sort of, but cannot cured (even to this day, despite numerous complaints to the service centre) but these are not noticeable in the Defender's natural habitat, which is bouncing over ruts and jungle trails.
The clutch is heavy, and first-timers will be rewarded with an alarming clunk when releasing the pedal after changing gears. It must be a Land Rover thing because the same Ford-derived 6-speed gearbox is smooth, slick and refined in the T6 Ranger 3.2l that I drove to the Borneo Safari recently.

Like duck to water ...
When I get together with a good friend who bought a double cabin version of the Puma Defender about the same time, the conversation inevitably turns to problems we had encountered. His power steering pump packed up suddenly, mine did not, my air-con packed up, his A/C just wasn't cold enough when driving fast, my feet gets wet, so does his passenger's, and we have similar rattles that originate in different places.
As title of this blog post says, it's the worst new car I've ever bought. I don't know how many new cars or what types you've had, but I had, over the decades, a Perodua Kembara, a Ford Ranger Splash and several other newish cars (less than a year old when purchased) like the Ford Escape, Ranger Auto and Everest.
I think you get the idea by now. Land Rover Defenders are imperfect cars. When regarded as cars. You want a luxurious or comfortable ride and still insist on the Green Oval badge? Get a Range Rover or the new Discovery 4, they are modern cars.
Aside from the iconic image and rugged looks, what the Defender is really all about is when the tar road ends.

In a forest near Kota Belud, Sabah.
And no, this is not some myth or marketing hype. Aside from being proven for six decades by farmers and soldiers all over the world, I decided to take mine, at age two weeks, into the Borneo Safari 2012, just to give it a workout.
The Safari organisers said a vehicle must (in addition to being mechanically sound and a fully functioning four-wheel-drive) have a winch, snorkel and extreme tyres.
So, after some hasty fabrication to build a winch bracket and installing a cheap no-name China-made winch and a snorkel bought off, mudah.my, I set off from Kuching to Brunei, where I picked up a set of Silverstone 33-inch MT-117 Extremes along the way. Then, on to Kota Kinabalu to find a set of steel wheels to fit them.
In KK, a custom-made set of 2" nylon spacers gave it a bit of altitude and attitude, and it was ready to go play with the Big Boys.
On the tough trail of the Borneo Safari was where the Defender came into its own, and all the on-the-road idiosyncracies and irritating quirks just vanished into irrelevance. This was what the Landy was engineered for, and it delivered on all expectations.
You've heard that Land Rovers are unreliable? Maybe true, because most Defenders running around out there are cars rescued from the scrap heap after even the Government with bottomless pocket finds them no longer viable to operate.Did you really think a new paint job and a few new bushes and screws would make an abused junk like new again?
My Landy did not skip a beat, and took on all obstacles with style and grace. Where others huffed and puffed huge clouds of black smoke, the Land Rover just chugged up quietly as if it were a Sunday drive.
Up in the disused copper mine at Mamut, near Ranau.
When almost every other vehicle was wearing 35" or 36" extreme tyres, the Defender just cruised along on the relative tiny 33's. Sure, there were portions where it require winching to get through, but so did every other car. Besides, A Borneo Safari just wouldn't be legit without deploying the winches.
What was interesting was that in a couple of tough stretches where many cars had to be pulled through, I was able to drive through without the tachometer going above 2,000rpm.
So, while comparing notes around a campfire and I extolled the Landy's virtues, some sceptics who had actually witnessed these actions said: "It's the driver that made the difference lah".
Blush, blush and thank you for the compliment, you guys. But would a superior driver be driving an inferior car, hmmmm?
With the Safari done, there was still a 1,200km drive through Brunei and down the length of Sarawak to get home, a good wash and rest, then off to Pontianak, Kalimantan, during the Chinese New Year 2013 holidays.
The longhouse folk needed a ride to
town to get identity papers done.
Because of concerns over the effect of the poor quality diesel in Indonesia on the common rail TDCI engine, I carried two jerry cans (totalling 40 litres) of Malaysian diesel, used up one in Singkawang and reached home (by way of Sambas and Biawak, near Lundu) with an ample amount in the tank and the other jerry can still full and unused. So, fuel economy is also pretty good, with less than 90 litres consumed over a round trip of some 800 kilometres on marginal to bad roads.
Since then, the HCPU's oversized tub has served well in hauling cement and other heavy loads to a remote longhouse some 300km from Kuching, accompanied a bunch of amateur radio (HAM) enthusiasts into the jungle to test out high frequency radio transmissions, and a long, long drive to the Bario highlands. The accompanying photos tell the story of adventure far better than words can.
It also serves as my daily driver, during which the irritating creaks and other noises continue to annoy me but I am consoled by the thoughts of the next off-road trip coming up, and the pleasure I will derive from owning and driving my Defender.
Any regrets over choosing this new instant classic over a comfortable modern 4X4? Not really, although I do enjoy the quietness when I get to try something like the Ford Ranger 3.2l.
It's all about knowing what you want, and I know I want a superb off-road vehicle that is tolerable on the road, not a great road car that can do a bit of off-roading.
Mechanically, my Landy has been absolutely reliable, without breakdowns whatsover.
The air-con has gone on the blink once, repaired under warranty, and on another occasion, the lever to switch between fresh and recirculated air was jammed while I was in the Bario highlands but seemed to fix it self by the time I got back. Still, the service centre opened it up, found nothing wrong, and tightened and adjusted everything, and it has been fine since.
(Update: I have since learned it was dirt that clogged up the fresh air/recirculate opening and closing mechanism, which is in the engine bay. Yes, it does quite dirty, so a clean up and a bit of WD-40 sorts it out.)
I will not delve into the technical aspects of the Defender versus other cars since there is plenty of information on the web. Suffice to say, there are very few vehicles you can buy new today that are designed from the get go to be an off-roader. The Defender is one. Many others are descended from models that were once its peers and competitors but today's incarnations are not really the same thing. More on this another time.
A parting word of advice to those enamoured with the idea of owning a Land Rover Defender because of its cult status, but have never actually driven one before. Be prepared for a shock. It is an anachronism, a throwback to another time, another era. It is crude, and it is rough and tough. Are you?

Updated in response to queries from friends.

Okay, so you still want a Defender but are not willing to splurge on a new car. How about buying a used one and fixing it as you go along?
I had thought of that. In fact, that was my first thought, an idea shared with many other Defender fans, I'm sure.
It certainly looks like a cheaper way to get into a Landy but looks can be misleading. Bear in mind that in the three decades or so that the Land Rover with coil springs (initially called just the 90 for the cool short-wheel-base version and 110 for the long version, until the Defender nameplate was introduced in 1991) have been on the market, the vast majority were sold to the government, for use by the military and other agencies, as well as corporations that needed go-anywhere ability. Most were used hard, maybe even abused, until they were deemed no longer economical to operate, then sold off as scrap. Very few were sold as new cars to private motorists.
It is to the Land Rover's credit that, even when condemned to the scrap heap, they can still be revived with enough tender loving care. And money, of course.
Most parts are still available because, one, the Defender is still a current model, and two, because many parts are common among all models from 1983 till today, and three, because so many are still running around all over the world.
But building a car from new spare parts can be an expensive affair. There are over 30,000 components that go into making an average car, and the retail price of each part will be many times higher than what the car manufacturer pays for the same item because they commit to buying in large quantities.
A quick check of online marketplaces like www.mudah.my will quickly show that Defenders have now attained cult status and some sellers are asking for silly money. To be fair, RM75,000 may sound like a lot of money for a 20-year-old off-roader that has had a hard life but doing up an old junk bought for RM15,000 to tip-top condition can easily cost you even more than 80K.
There are several anecdotal accounts of fans who bought a salvaged and rebuilt Defender for about 50K, have spent another 40K or 50K to upgrade it, and are still about 30-50K away from the desired result.
Bear in mind that even when that objective is reached, it WILL still be a 25-year-old car on the registration card! And you know how our government is full of clever people who will occasionally come out with ideas like scrapping cars over 12 years old?
After considering all of the above, I decided it simply made better sense to buy a new car. Unlike with many classic cars that, if you really really must have one, you have to restore, you can actually just go over to Land Rover Malaysia and buy a brand new Defender.

With another aluminium classic that last saw action in 1964 in Bario.
At the Equator, near Pontianak, Kalimantan Barat.
Andy the Landy looks good in the mist ... blemishes can't be seen :-)