While the timeline of American-importable Defenders has marched forward into vehicles from the late 1990s, the end-of-run “Puma” trucks will remain forbidden fruit here for a long time. Because of that, few Americans know what they’re like to drive unless they’ve had a chance to pilot one overseas. In a quest to get a sense of the final iteration of the Defender, I rented a 2013 Defender 110 for three days in the Falkland Islands to give it a test drive.
The first Puma Defenders hit the market in 2007, and the Ford-derived Duratorq diesel motor ran out the original Defender’s model run in 2016. The Puma facelift was the biggest change to the Defender in its 33-year lifespan, bringing the last possible safety and comfort changes to the decades-old design. Gone were the scuttle vent air flaps, present under the windscreen since the beginning – replaced with an updated HVAC system. The dash brought in design cues from the LR3, using the same cluster and design forms. The inward-facing rear seats in the cargo area were replaced by two forward-facing jump seats for safety, Discovery Series II style, reducing the third-row capacity from four to two. The bonnet’s dished center was replaced by a bulge to accommodate the taller motor. Other changes throughout made the Puma a more livable vehicle, though at its core this was still a Defender with all the perks and drawbacks of the breed.
The Puma motor, a 2.4-liter diesel mill from the Ford van line, was the biggest change – alongside a six-speed Ford transmission, still tied to the venerable LT230 transfer case and the same suspension and axles as the later Td5 Defenders. A few years into the run, it was replaced by a 2.2-liter version, able to pass more stringent European diesel motor regulations. The powertrain was similar to that in Ford Transit vans of the era, as well as other Ford and Ford-adjacent utility-type vehicles. The 2007-2011 Defender used the 2.4-liter motor, while 2012-2016 vehicles used a 2.2-liter version that complied with later European emissions guidelines.
It was the first time that the Defender's flagship powerplant wasn't a Land Rover-designed or built motor -- the engines were supplied by Ford from their Dagenham plant in East London, even after they sold the company to Tata Motors in 2008. The Td5 motor that it replaced was the last diesel engine Land Rover wholly designed. There was little option, though -- new regulations meant that something had to get shoved under the bonnet to keep the Defender going.
The result of all these changes is that the Puma Defender, while still feeling Land Rover-y, feels a bit less Land Rover-y than a 2006 Td5 would have. The engine doesn't have that same eager rumbly deep grunt that its predecessors in the Td5 and 200/300tdi did. The changes that were made to the dashboard to integrate more modern HVAC (the benefits of which are somewhat negligible) mean that the tray dashboard structure and scuttle vents that dated back to the Series I were gone. (The New Defender's dashboard is arguably more "traditionally Land Rover" than the last decade of classical Defenders.)
In spite of all this, walking with the agent from Falklands 4x4 in Stanley to the dark blue 2013 Defender 110 that would be mine for three days still gave me that flutter that I get any time I'm about to get behind the wheel of a Series or Defender Land Rover. While a decade of use on a salty archipelago had taken its toll on the truck, it still had an air of adventurous magic around it. Sure, per the rental terms, I could only take it on a few hundred miles of gravel road on the island of East Falkland, and it would take weeks of planning and sailing to get it in a container to Montevideo to even think of going any further, but still -- it's a Defender...it COULD go anywhere.
Sitting in the Puma is a mix of familiar Defender parts and Puma specials. The seats are new, one-piece units that offer more back and shoulder support for tall people than the traditional Defender seats. (Six-foot-four over here appreciated this.) The steering wheel and steering column are familiar, as is the reverse-turn ignition key, and your right elbow hits the door card the same way as any other Defender. But for the sake of modernity and corporate harmonization, the dashboard cluster is the exact same part as I have in my LR3, with the central digital information display area blanked out -- the Puma isn't that modern.
Heading down Stanley's main drag, the waterfront Ross Road, it was quickly apparent how different this was to drive from the Td5 which I'm most familiar with. First off, it was quieter; not whisper-quiet, but certainly toned down a decibel or two. The power band of the motor hit differently, perhaps a bit happier in city traffic than the older motors were. The six-speed gearbox meant shifts hit slightly differently, which was usually good, though a few times it was hard to determine the best place to be.
I took the truck on a two-day road trip, about 200 miles, to visit Land Rover friends who live on a farm in "Camp," the name for the rural land that comprises most of the Falklands. The road between Stanley and the Royal Air Force base that provides an airport and defense to the islands is paved, but everything else is gravel. After a few miles of asphalt, I hooked a right and headed onto the gravel. With stones pelting the floorboards, it became particularly clear that no amount of poshing up the Defender was going to ever hide its agrarian nature -- there wasn't much between the floorboards and the ground and certainly wasn't much in the way of soundproofing. The pelting quickly became a comforting racket, and I cranked up the British Forces radio station a bit more, jamming out to a mix of 1980s hits over the primitive stereo -- Harman Kardon and Meridian never got to tune the Defender like they did the Range Rover. The rumble of the Puma wasn't the torquey whistle of a Td5 or the grumble of a Tdi, but instead a higher-pitched clatter with a particularly whistley turbo.
The gearstick hit the hand differently -- relocated from the dogleg stick of an R380, the two shifters take up a compact footprint in the center console. Gears are closer together than the traditional R380, and getting used to the box I did miss a few shifts, though eventually, I adjusted. An anti-stall feature off-road is supposed to work wonders on hill climbs, but unable to take the truck fully off-road, I didn't get a chance to test it out.
Other than the powertrain and the interior changes, the Puma does feel more or less like any Defender -- the view out the windscreen is more or less the same minus the bump, the body dynamics and geometry are the same, and the feeling of joy driving it is still there, especially for an American who doesn't get much exposure to them. Maybe it doesn't quite grunt like its predecessors, and maybe you lose the joy of fresh air through the scuttle vents, but it is a very livable daily driver, perhaps more than any other Defender.
There are some who consider that the Defender died in 2006, when the last Td5 rolled off the line, and not in 2016, when the final example rolled off the line. (Seven years ago this weekend, to be exact.) There's validity to that point -- the changes to the Puma model have an air of "death by a thousand cuts," and some call it a "Defender-shaped Ford Transit." I've never had the experience of driving a Transit of the era -- I'm not going that deep down the Ford Europe rabbit hole to answer this question any time soon -- but when you separate the smooth and modern driving experience from the aesthetic joys of driving a Defender, you can see that view. I have found Td5s and Tdis more fun and engaging to actually drive at the end of the day, while the Puma is just fun because it's a Defender, a vehicle it's hard to have a bad time in.
However, these changes gave us an extra decade of Defender, a vehicle that was already hanging onto the 21st century by a thread. While it might not have had a grumbly Land Rover-designed motor, scuttle vents, or inward-facing rear seats, the Puma was still an absolute anachronism that was sold in dealerships alongside quarter-million-dollar supercharged fourth-generation Range Rovers in the year 2016. It's a testament to Land Rover's dedication to keeping the spiritual core model going until the very last possible moment, knowing that there was always going to be a hard limit to updating the old Defender for a modern age. The changes were a legal and market-driven necessity to keep alive a car whose basic geometry dated from the 1940s alive for sixty-eight years.
We are still almost a decade from bringing in the first Puma Defenders, with the 2007 models available for import in 2032. The 2.2-liter final versions, like the one I drove, aren't American-legal until 2037, a time so far off that the legality of importing a diesel vehicle may even be in question by then. For a long time, they'll be the forbidden fruit of Defenders here, and the only legal way to drive one will be to go abroad and rent one of the diminishing numbers of rental vehicles around the world or have a Canadian friend bring one in. (The Puma is now legal in Canada, though not many have made their way over.)
If you want to rent a Puma, the Falklands are certainly a good bet, though you need to request this vehicle specifically. Iceland is still full of them, including many in "Super Defender" guise on giant tires. There are still a limited number of firms in Africa offering them, though there weren't many to begin with. There are also firms in the United Kingdom offering camper-style rentals. Seven years on from the last old Defender, the supply of opportunities to try them will keep drying up, though. With that in mind, I looked at three days on the gravel roads of the Falklands as a special opportunity, a snapshot in history of the last of an icon in a place where it's intrinsically woven into the landscape.