Land Rover Defender Works V8 Forbidden Fruit Review


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The Land Rover Defender Works V8 has a 400-hp V-8 stuffed under the hood, an interior wrapped in expensive leather, and spangly alloy wheels shod with clod-crusher tires. It’s hella loud and sorta quick. The short-wheelbase version corners like a fat lady covered in fire ants, ponderously twitching and squirming, never quite sure where it’s headed next. Built to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Britain’s iconic off-roader, the Works V8 is everything a Land Rover Defender shouldn’t be. Only 150 are being made, and they’re all sold, despite a $200,000-plus price tag. P.T. Barnum would have approved.

Wait up … Jaguar Land Rover stopped production of the Defender in 2016. So where has the Works V8 come from?

It’s a factory car, sold through Land Rover dealers in the U.K., with a full factory warranty. But it’s a reborn Defender, not a newly made one, created at the new Jaguar Land Rover Classic Works facility near Coventry, England. Its starting point is a 2012 or later Defender 90 or 110 with fewer than 20,000 miles on the clock.

The 400-hp engine under the hood is JLR’s trusty 5.0-liter V-8, minus the supercharger. Peak power arrives at 6,000 rpm, and all 380 lb-ft of torque are on parade from 5,000 rpm. The engine’s bolted to a version of ZF’s ubiquitous eight-speed automatic, this one, says JLR, with Sport mode and quick shift response. This enables shifts to be completed in just 200 milliseconds, a unit of time almost certainly never previously used to describe the operational efficiency of a Defender’s driveline. The Works V8 still has a low-range transfer case, however. Thankfully, some things remain sacrosanct.

Despite having the aerodynamics of a brick outhouse, JLR says the Defender Works V8 will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds and will reach 106 mph. Eventually. It feels faster, like a harum-scarum funfair ride. Although the all-wheel-drive system can shuttle up to 90 percent of the torque to the front or rear axle on demand, the Works V8 scrambles for traction on greasy tarmac before lunging down the road. Upgraded springs, shocks, and stabilizer bars add a layer of urgency to the Defender 90’s trademark pitch and bounce. The recirculating ball steering, tuned to deliver more on-center feel, does its best to help you keep it all on your side of the road.

Then you arrive at a corner.

Works V8 Defenders are equipped with the brake setup used for the armored Land Rovers built in JLR’s Special Vehicle Operations shop just around the corner from the Classic Works facility. They use 13.2-inch rotors up front and 13.0-inch items at the rear, each clamped by four-piston calipers. There’s no issue with the actual stopping, but in the short-wheelbase model, you’re acutely aware of the weight transfer that occurs as you attempt to get about 4,000 pounds of fast-moving, high-riding, live-axle SUV ready to change direction. And although the steering no longer has the broad on-center dead spot typical of vehicles designed to crawl rocks without tearing the wheel from your hands, it’s still slower than a wet weekend in Cleveland.

Hurrying the Defender Works V8 along a winding two-lane makes you feel like you’re commanding an Army Corps: All that shock and awe only happens after a lot of forward planning.

But why would anyone want to drive a Land Rover Defender that way? It’s mildly amusing for the first couple of miles, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. After that, it’s just hard work and you’re left wondering, why the 400-hp V-8 and the sport transmission and the big wheels? Not to mention the racy leather-trimmed sport seats, a surround-sound audio system, and the other bright, shiny trinkets lifted from the insta-performance car catalog. It’s punk attitude glommed on to an icon, Winston Churchill with tattoos and a mohawk.

For decades, one word summed up Land Rover’s tough, capable, and gloriously charismatic off-roader: authentic. The Defender Works V8 isn’t.