When a family has four or more children and those children seem to be growing larger every day, the standard family car quickly becomes uncomfortably cramped, if not illegal. It is time to consider a larger vehicle.
The People Carrier
Such families may be tempted to purchase a people carrier, perhaps with a DVD player, tinted windows, air conditioning, a built-in picnic table and Space Shuttle-like dashboard. These vehicles are very popular and quite rightly so, but they do have a number of drawbacks.
The seating arrangement in a people carrier is usually configured as:
- One driver and one front passenger seat
- Three middle-row passenger seats.
- Two rear passenger seats.
That's seven seats in total.
The rear passenger seats begin life as a novelty for small children. They like the feeling of sitting in a cosy spot, remote from the grown ups, bouncing along over the rear axle. It quickly becomes clear, however, that these seats really are very small, there is little leg room, it's a pain to get in and out of the car and bouncing along over the rear axle for more than three or four miles at a time does not sit well with a child's stomach.
People carriers, although appearing to be gigantic, are also surprisingly short on luggage/shopping space. That space is taken by the extra seats. The seats can, of course, be neatly folded away or taken out to provide excellent luggage space - but then they cease to be available as seats any more.
Some people opt for a large roof storage box and these are fine for long drives to holiday destinations, but they are not in the least bit convenient for the week's shopping or a trip to the local refuse tip and they are an expensive aerodynamic drag, especially as they will usually be empty for long periods. They can be removed, but that's unlikely to be convenient unless you have a large garage or shed to store them in. A small trailer is another option, but with similar drawbacks to the roof box.
At this point, a minibus might spring to mind as a suitable option. Not an awful lot bigger than a people carrier, but with a far more comfortable seating arrangement at least. Unfortunately, smaller, eight-seater type minibuses still have exactly the same luggage space issues as people carriers. The interior space is almost completely taken up with seats, leaving a token boot/trunk area at the back, no bigger than the original family car and unlikely to be suitable for six people's holiday bags. Minibuses are also hopelessly uncool, and if there's one thing one should really expect at that price it's that one's car should be cool.
So, two adults, four children, a couple of friends and luggage - what to do with them all?
Thankfully, there remains another option - and by happy coincidence it is one of the coolest vehicles ever built1...
The Land Rover Defender 110 Station Wagon
The first Land Rover was produced in 1948 in a post-war Britain which was massively short of the materials needed to develop and build new cars. Using available materials and a cheap, but robust design, loosely based on the American Willy's Jeep, the utility vehicle produced by Rover of Solihull quickly became popular, and over the years has become nothing short of a legend.
Buying a brand new Land Rover Defender now, with its undeniable family resemblance to the very first Land Rovers of more than 50 years ago, is akin to taking delivery of a brand new Lancaster bomber. This is a solid vehicle, with no frills; every nut and bolt is accessable and obvious, the trademark flip-up air vents below the windscreen still reassuringly in place, the body panel rivets on show and the sliding rear windows brilliantly practical.
The Land Rover Defender comes in three standard sizes, but with an endless variety of configurations2. There is the short wheelbase Defender 90 and the longer Defender 110 and 130 models. This article concentrates on the 110 Station Wagon as a family car because of its unique seating configuration:
Four, sideways-facing, folding passenger seats in the back.
Three front-facing passenger seats in the middle row.
The driver's seat and one or two passenger seats in the front row3.
That's a total of ten seats.
The Defender 110 does at first appear to be a huge vehicle, towering over standard 4x4 SUVs4 in a car park, but the ground footprint is really no larger than a saloon car and the height is no more than a small van - it's just a very dominating vehicle.
It is only really possible to make an approximate price comparison with other vehicles due to the huge variety of options on most makes and models these days. A brand new Land Rover Defender 110, however, costs around £20-25,000 which is similar to:
Many of the well known MPVs5 eg Ford Galaxy, Toyota Previa, VW Sharan etc.
Popular 4x4s eg Mitsubishi Shogun, Toyota Land Cruiser, Jeep Cherokee etc.
Smaller minibuses eg VW Caravelle, Mercedes-Benz Vito, Ford Transit etc6.
Second-hand prices are also fairly similar, although Defenders tend to be in high demand and do not depreciate as quickly as many of their contemporaries.
The Driving Experience
The Defender has such high ground clearance that you have to clamber up into it, perhaps using the flip-down side steps or a sill protecting bar if you have one fitted. There is also a step to get into the back door.
As you climb into the driving seat you may, at first, feel slightly cramped. It is a common sight to see Defender drivers with the window down and an elbow sticking out. This is not necessarily because they are incredibly hardy folk, impervious to the cold and trying to look really cool; it's more likely because they're trying to make some elbow room. But it doesn't take long to become accustomed to the different driving position or, indeed, to the enormous, golf club-sized gear stick and, once you've got moving, there is nothing so pleasurable to drive as a Land Rover. And it does take some driving.
This vehicle does not simply roll along the road, gliding round corners of its own accord while you change radio stations and look for your sunglasses in the glove box7 but, rather, must be wrestled under control at all times. The Defender bounces over potholes and bumps in the road, wobbles like mad if you swerve around an obstacle and has a turning circle only slightly smaller than the Ark Royal. It is the most exciting vehicle to drive while still carrying passengers and we haven't even mentioned driving off-road yet.
Off-Road Driving and The Low Gear Box
As part of the package when buying a new Defender, Land Rover provide a voucher entitling the purchaser to a half day introduction to off-road driving at one of their Land Rover Experience centres in the UK8. Whether you ever have any intention of driving off-road or not9, it is well worth taking the opportunity to find out exactly what this vehicle will do, and what the extra little lever next to the gear stick is for.
The Land Rover Defender is fitted with a dual range transfer gear box: a high box for normal road driving, and a low box for driving up and down the sides of mountains. Once the low gear box is selected, the gear stick is used as normal to change gear but the ratio is so low that the vehicle will 'walk' down a hill at a 45° angle without the need for brakes (which might cause the vehicle to skid out of control) and it will climb up a hill at a 45° angle with a little touch on the gas from time to time. If you stall the engine half way up the hill, hold the vehicle on the footbrake, engage reverse gear and let the clutch and brake out together. The vehicle will be held stationary by the gears, at which point you can start the engine, in gear, and reverse back down the hill under control.
A Defender will also wade through water 500mm (20 inches) deep, or more if you fit a raised air intake. But this entry is supposed to be about the Defender as a family car...
The Family Car
It may be that Land Rover chose the name for this car because, frankly, you will be def by the ender your journey. It is certainly a noisy vehicle, it doesn't realistically go above the national speed limit on motorways10 and takes at least 16 seconds to get from 0-60mph. It also manages no more than 30 miles per gallon of diesel which may raise some environmental questions but, on balance, it must be remembered that it does carry a lot of people at one time - is six people at 30mpg less environmentally friendly than three people at 50mpg?11 The TD5 electronically controlled engine has an excellent emissions performance, too.
But why would anyone want to get one as a family car?
The fact is that this is the most spacious, fun, boy's own adventure, solid, easy to clean (looks best dirty anyway) and frankly classic vehicle on the road. It's possible to get air conditioning, electric windows, heated front and rear windscreens, heated seats, leather trim and upholstery, CD player and alloy wheels - and it's still a battered old Land Rover from the day you take delivery.
You'll see people peering into it in car parks, fathers telling their sons about them, other Defender drivers give a little raised hand wave as you pass, your kids' mates want to ride in it and you've got room for all of them - and their luggage. You'll see your family car on the telly, being used to bash down giant palace doors in Iraq, ferry David Attenborough across the Ngorongoro Crater, rescue stranded climbers in the Brecon Beacons or carry the Pope safely through thronging crowds. They're even exempt from the London congestion charge because they've got so many seats.
And then, one day, all the children will finally grow up and leave home, the Land Rover will be scratched and dented and there's really no need to keep it polished any more. Might as well drive it to Cape Town then...
For more information, including technical details not covered by this article, you may wish to visit Land Rover UK.