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BEHIND THE WHEEL / PAUL DEAN

A Fast Action Hero

September 17, 1993|PAUL DEAN

There is a British firm that builds military and agricultural vehicles and keeps a weather eye open for trends and pretenders.

That's why Land Rover demobilized its weapons carriers and peat busters in 1970, lined them with leather and walnut, and sold them as urban ground pounders to royals and the nouveau riche --real and aspiring.

Hence their landed names: Range Rover, Hunter and County. Also prices more like a down payment on Aspen.

Now Land Rover is stalking a new generation of echoists who wear Vietnam boots to brunch at Patrick's, carry Zippos in case anyone still smokes and ride Mulholland on $20,000 Harley-Davidsons in turquoise and cream.

And for these Walter Mittys and Heidi Mimics, there's Land Rover's 1994 Defender 90, an apt title for a personal tow truck that bristles, swaggers and looks like its factory options should include olive drab paint and .50-caliber machine guns.

With its roll cage and fold-flat windshield, a driver feels underdressed without dog tags. If lost, an untended Defender always points toward Somalia.

Viewed another way, Defender could stomp anything in Jurassic Park and keep you safe in MacArthur Park. Required dress is anything from Banana Republic. Driver's tattoos should read Defendo Fidelis . The console bin--called a cubby, a term found only in your fat Webster's--is deep enough to hold a half-dozen hand grenades.

And at $27,900, see Defender 90 as affordable fawning to Hell's yuppies once they have outgrown Jeep Wranglers and Dennis Miller.

When jesting is done, however, when its "Daktari" styling has been acknowledged, the Defender 90 stands as a serious, talented vehicle for anyone with work or play on the heavier side.

The black steel roll cage is no decorator touch. It is heavily welded and held with button-head bolts because this vehicle climbs 45-degree grades. Brush guards do not pander to poseurs. They really will scatter medium debris and keep stumps and rocks from punching out lights and grilles.

Defender has a nine-inch clearance between ground and differential because it's built more for Northwest Territories than Nordstrom.

It will wade through 20 inches of running water or muck; can pull itself out of most situations with a 8,000-pound Warn winch; and carries 1 1/2 tons of cargo, enough to splay the wheels of lesser off-pavement vehicles.

A Defender mind-set should be fully engaged before traveling anywhere in this aluminum-bodied, alfresco assault vehicle used by the Special Air Service, Royal Air Force Regiment, several British constabularies and other pursuers of threats to the realm.

If one is offended by naked bolts and rivets, best buy a Lexus. If a requirement is to arrive unrumpled in San Francisco, Amtrak would be a softer bet. Defender will skin knuckles and slap you around.

And a radio mounted in a console beneath the driver's right elbow is of little concern when you can't hear KTWV over 40 m.p.h. Major sounds of Defender, in fact, are the roar of its 182-horsepower V-8, the alto thrumming of Goodrich Mud Terrain tires and the slapping of hair on your forehead.

Yet through it all, this rural truck remains a throne for anyone who ever wore a check shirt and can see through bugs on their contact lenses. It delivers an enormous sense of adventuring and freedom from a mechanical surplus that's more than enough to tame off-road situations where one simply grits teeth and hangs on.

Practical? There are no cup holders in Defender because you don't need them. Slop sarsaparilla--or enemy blood--on its rubber-covered floor and just hose the puppy out.

Tough? It can tow a pair of itself.

*

A direct descendant of traditional Land Rovers that first saw farm and military service in 1948, Defender 90 is a short-wheelbase version of a batch of Defender 110s test marketed in the U.S. early last year. They sold out before summer, so the littlest Defender will be in showrooms early next month.

The engine is 3.9 liters, same as the Range Rover County. The spare Defender, however, weighs a half-ton less than its Savoy-suited sibling. So initial acceleration is quicker--by a full second (10.4) from rest to 60 m.p.h--and it is nimbler, with the turning circle of a London taxi, which can spin on a sixpence.

It comes with a full tonneau cover and a Bimini top held by straps and snaps that are a breeze to unhook, a bear to refasten. A full convertible top is also available.

As all things internal will spend much of their time outdoors, seats are upholstered in weather-resistant twill. Plastics and rubbers are heavy duty, selected for skills in beating back heat, cold, heavy sunshine and much moisture.

Defender seats two up front. Some versions will have a forward-facing, two-person rear seat. Others will arrive with facing shelves/benches in the back. But it's risky seating, owing to low backs and no seat belts.

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