Review of Defender Performance

I’ve now been back from my big trip for two months and one of the questions I am frequently asked is whether I experienced any mechanical issues. I’m pleased to say that my 21 year-old Land Rover Defender performed very well over the 23,000 miles that we covered in 5.5 months. There were no major mechanical issues, although there were a few minor issues that had to be dealt with.

The first issue arose on my first day on the European continent. As I was driving along a German autobahn at night, my headlights suddenly went off. Fortunately, I was able to make it to a nearby parking area where I slept for the night. The problem was a defective multi-switch on the high beam/indicator lever. I had a new one fitted in Berlin that solved the problem.

On the morning after the headlights went out, the low-coolant warning light began flashing. I’d had an after-market low-coolant warning system installed that activates a light on the dash. The coolant level was fine, but there was a short circuit that was causing the light to come on periodically. Trying to trace the short in the circuit would be a nuisance whilst on the road, so I ignored the warning light for the rest of the trip and checked coolant levels as part of my daily checks.

Two problems in the first two days was a bad start to the trip. The next problem arose in Lviv, Ukraine, two weeks into the trip. The primary battery was dead one morning, as I was about to drive to Kiev. The Defender had two Optima batteries installed – one as the primary battery and a second to operate the fridge. The primary battery would charge up whilst the vehicle was running and would show a good level of charge on the battery meter but, after being parked for more than eight hours, the battery would be dead. Fortunately, I could use jumper cables between the leisure battery and the primary battery to get the vehicle started in the morning. Five days later, in Saratov, Russia, I had the local ‘battery doctor’ test the battery. He told me that the battery was fine and suggested that the problem was the alternator (he was wrong). A couple of days later, I was in the larger city of Samara where I was able to buy a new battery. Once I installed the new battery, I didn’t have another problem with vehicle starting. It turns out that the Optima batteries are known to have an issue with ‘false memory’ where the battery thinks it is fully charged but isn’t, and then quickly discharges.

One month into the trip, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, I had the oil changed at a local ‘Auto Master’ service centre (I had driven 4,652 miles on the trip at that point). Immediately after that oil change, the after-market TIM oil pressure gauge became defective. The gauge worked whilst the oil was cold but as soon as it got hot, the gauge dropped off to a zero reading. The gauge remained that way for the rest of the trip and is now being repaired/replaced.

Six-weeks into the trip, I had the Defender serviced in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as it was the last large city I’d visit for a while. The engine oil wasn’t changed as they didn’t have oil of the correct viscosity (they didn’t have 15-40 or 10-40 available). However, fluids were changed in the gear box, transfer box and differentials. The rear wheel bearings were also adjusted.

The Defender on the lift at Wagner Asia Automotive as the diffs are drained of fluid
The Defender on the lift at Wagner Asia Automotive as the diffs are drained of fluid

Two-months into the trip, I lost the cap from the heavy-duty flange on one of the rear wheels. I assume that it wasn’t tightened properly during the service in Mongolia. I ordered one from the UK and had it shipped to a hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that we’d visit a week later. The part arrived on schedule and was fitted.

Whilst in Almaty (11,882 miles into the trip), I took the vehicle to a garage for an oil change. The mechanic found water in the transfer box and both differentials – obviously from the multiple water crossings that I had to drive in Mongolia – so I had those fluids changed using the 6 litres of EP90 fluid I had onboard. EP90 is hard to find in Central Asia, as is semi-synthetic oil with 15-40 viscosity, so it is worth carrying a supply of both on the vehicle. Fortunately, I also carried a supply of oil filters and fuel filters with me. Local garages will do the oil change if you have an oil filter, but they will refuse if you don’t have one.

By 15th June (2.5 months into the trip), the secondary (Optima) battery acquired the same problem that I’d experienced with the primary battery. The battery would be fine during the day but it would be dead by morning. The battery was only operating the fridge so I decided not to try to replace it and I managed with the defective battery for the rest of the trip. It has now been replaced with a new (non-Optima) battery.

Whilst in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan (on 20th June), I had a young local mechanic check the vehicle to find the source of an annoying ‘ringing’ noise that had been evident for a few weeks. After driving down the road with him ‘under the bonnet’ listening to the engine, and then driving back and forth over him whilst he lay on the ground, the noise was traced to the disc hand-brake. Once the handbrake was adjusted (tightened) the noise vanished. The noise returned later in the trip and a quick adjustment of the handbrake resolved it again.

Mechanic stands with the Defender after solving the mystery
Mechanic stands with the Defender after solving the mystery

Whilst I was in Kyrgyzstan, the fuse for the electrical circuit for the horn and dashboard clock kept blowing. After replacing the fuse a couple of times, I realised that there must be a short circuit on the circuit. I took a look at the wiring inside the dash and also had it checked at a garage but couldn’t find the fault. As the clock and horn were not critical, I completed the rest of the trip without them and scheduled it for repair once the vehicle was back in England.

I also caused some minor damage to the rear offside panel whilst in Jalal-Abad, whilst reversing out of a hotel parking area. As I was reversing, I was negotiating past a light pole but I didn’t see a long bolt that was attached to the pole. The bolt caused a long crease down the body panel. The panel is being repaired and repainted in England.

On 8th July, the Defender got its last service of the trip in Kiev after driving 15,579 miles on the trip. The service included new oil, oil filter, fuel filter and air filter. Two linkages were also replaced on the rear swing-arm as they showed excessive movement. From this point onwards, almost all of the driving would be on paved roads.

Defender on the lift at British Motors Ukraine
Defender on the lift at British Motors Ukraine

A week later I had to replace a blown headlight bulb and later in the trip I had to wire-in a new connector in the same headlight but the last two-months of the trip were incident free with respect to the vehicle.

Throughout the trip, I followed a daily check-list keeping an eye on things like fluid levels, fan belt, tyres, lights, etc. I re-greased the prop shafts every week and adjusted the fan belt a few times during the trip.

Whilst there were several minor issues to deal with on the trip, there were no major issues. There were no breakdowns and I didn’t even get a punctured tyre during the entire trip. I had the spare wheel on the back and also had an air-compressor on board as well as a ‘tyre-plugga’ kit. I only used the air-compressor a couple of times – to top up the tyre pressures. Prior to the trip, people asked me if I was going to take two spare wheels with me. That would have been such a waste of space and an unnecessary addition of weight.

I was very happy with the set-up of the Defender. She performed beautifully when driving off-road and her sure-footedness instilled me with confidence. I think part of that was down to a good suspension set-up using LR springs and Bilstein shocks.

I was particularly glad that I’d had the interior changed to include a sleeping platform with mattresses, as there were a number of occasions when they came in handy. I slept in the back of the vehicle several times when the terrain was unsuitable for camping, or when the weather was bad and it was just easier to stay dry inside the vehicle. One day I was driving and started to feel quite sleepy. I found a shaded lay-by on the side of the road, parked and just climbed into the back where I slept for an hour in comfort. Once refreshed, I continued driving. It was also nice to be able to pull out the six-inch memory foam mattress for use inside the tent. Who said sleeping inside a tent has to be uncomfortable?

I had considered fitting a winch to the front bumper before the trip and decided against it. I’m happy with that decision. There was perhaps only one occasion when a winch might have been helpful – when I got bogged down in mud in Russia – but there were only thin beech trees in the vicinity to use as anchor points, so I’m not sure the winch would have helped. Not having a winch saved on weight and expense. I took a hand-winch with me but I didn’t really need that either.

If I were to take the Defender on another overland trip, there isn’t much that I would change. I probably wouldn’t take the hand-winch. I wouldn’t carry as much water on board. I’d consider taking some decent waffle boards or track mats for muddy conditions. However, there are no immediate plans for another overland trip.

I’m now unable to get UK vehicle insurance as a non-resident. I have considered the option of moving the Defender to France and registering/insuring it there but, with no overland trips on the horizon I’ve decided to sell the vehicle. It has been serviced and all of the above problems are being taken care of. I hope that she’s going to provide someone with as many great memories as she’s given me. A wonderful vehicle indeed!

Almost at the top - Kaldama Pass
Almost at the top – Kaldama Pass

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