Before Christmas, I spent an entertaining 10 minutes watching a learner driver try to parallel-park a Ford Fiesta in rush-hour traffic. You couldn't put the holder of a provisional licence through a tougher challenge, I thought. But now I realise there is one: ask them do the same thing in a Land Rover Defender.
For that, in addition to the difficulty of reversing into speeding London traffic and the risk of scraping the bumper of a BMW belonging to a violent resident, they'd face the challenge of a ride springier than Russell Brand's mattress, handling as approximate as Axel Rose's timekeeping, controls heavier than Tony Blair's fee, wipers as effective as Alistair Darling's VAT reduction, a climate-control system as efficient as Birmingham City Council, a diesel engine as unintrusive as Brian Blessed and, if you stall it, the agony of trying to find the ignition (it's on the opposite side to normal cars).
Not that any of this stops the Defender being a brilliant car. With antecedents going back to 1948, it's a classic, as iconic as St Paul's, the baked bean and a Matthew Gwyther shirt. To measure it according to normal standards would be to assess a Freud portrait by its weight.
The fact that it doesn't operate by conventional rules is confirmed by the absence of figures for top speed or acceleration in the manual, which is instead packed with data about wading depth (max 500mm), obstacle clearance (up to 323mm) and maximum gradient (45 degrees).
All that matters about the Defender is how it performs off-road; and around rutted tracks on the estate of Eastnor Castle it was superheroic. Occasionally, my instructor would mutter a disconcerting remark such as 'we are at an angle of 40 degrees' or 'one of the wheels is in the air' and I'd see we were hanging off a precipice or sitting in a river and gulp. But it was unstoppable. A new anti-stall device makes it incredibly easy to drive: it more or less pulls itself along.
There have been four different generations of this car, and because of changes in crash-test regulations, there probably won't be another. But, since the current model's introduction in 2002, the Defender has sold an average 25,000 units a year worldwide to people not bothered by concerns such as warmth, speed and comfort. Hopefully, the economic downturn is an obstacle it will clear with the same ease with which it would dimiss the Pennines.
I'll take one...
It will never die: 75% of the 1.8 million Defenders built are still going
Thanks but no thanks...
Uncomfortable on normal roads.
Land Rover Defender: 90 £26,000
Engine: 2.4 litre diesel
Combined power: No idea
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Fuel: 28.3 mpg (combined cycle)
CO2: 266 g/km
0-62 mph: Maximum gradient, 45 degrees
Top speed: Lovely weather today!