Learning to Off-Road in a $150K+ Land Rover Defender

I had the privilege of driving some of Arkonik’s best Defenders.

U.K.-based company Arkonik has set out to craft the best classic Land Rover Defenders money can buy. Arkonik founder and CEO Andy Hayes first had the idea for the company when his wife bought him a 1983 Defender 110 as a project to work on while recovering from a motorcycle accident in 2006. The following year, Andy founded Landrovers UK Ltd. before eventually changing the name to Arkonik in 2016—the same year production of the famous Defender model ceased after 67 years.

I covered Arkonik's rad D110 Forager, and I couldn't stop thinking about how cool it would be to take it on an off-road adventure. My chance came when I was invited to an Arkonik off-roading event at Lake Tahoe with an opportunity to drive three of its vehicles. Despite the fact that the firm has a dedicated team of experts scouring Europe looking for these classic Defenders, and another team assembling them in its home country, the United States continues to be its biggest market, with the U.K. and Canada not far behind. So it makes sense to hold this event over here in the States.

On the way to the Long Canyon off-road trail located in the Eldorado National Forest, I rode shotgun in the 1992 D110 Wessex, a Keswick green Defender powered by a 200 Tdi diesel engine. When I first climbed in, I was expecting a Spartan, less-than-comfortable off-road vehicle, but that wasn't the case. I felt very comfortable in the Burnt Plum leather seats, and the experience was like riding in a modern lifted truck, but way cooler. The inside was quiet thanks to a copious application of Dynamat sound deadening during its build.

When it was my turn to drive, my biggest fear was stalling because of the sledgehammer of a clutch, but once underway, it wasn't an issue. The suspension on the Wessex was stock but refurbished with new parts including cellular dynamic dampers, a standard upgrade for Arkonik. Eric Yohe, who's leads Arkonik's U.S. client services, explained that if someone wants to be able to daily drive their Defender on the weekdays and take it off-roading on the weekends, a refurbished stock suspension is the way to go. It showed because it handled well both on the highway and off-road. On the trail, I had to get used to driving over obstacles rather than avoiding them, including on an incline strewn with all manner of natural ruts and obstacles. I had very little prior experience off-roading, this so this was something that took some getting used to. Thanks to the well-thought-out engineering behind the vehicle and the direction of the Arkonik team on hand, the climb went smoothly and I felt a sense of accomplishment when we reached the top of the summit and got a chance to breathe.

On the way down I switched to the "Yeti," a Frozen White 1989 D110 that was converted into a double cab with a bed and which is powered by a fully rebuilt 3.5-liter V-8. The Yeti is one of Arkonik's earlier builds, with the conversion costing around $25,000. When riding down the trail what Yohe said earlier about sometimes refurbished stock suspension being best started to make sense. In fact, Arkonik discourages some customers from going with a beefier setup due to the fact that it hinders the drivability in some situations. The suspension was stiffer than the Wessex's, which led to an uncomfortable ride because it was designed to carry a much heavier load. So unless you're carrying a few hundred pounds of gear, that kind of heavy-duty suspension is unnecessary—the ride was rough enough that I felt a couple inches shorter by the end of the drive. The Yeti also had some interior differences that affected its drivability—the smaller MOMO steering wheel, for example, made for more inputs to get the same steering response in a vehicle with a larger wheel, but most of all it's more nervous feeling on the road. Given that the Defender 110 is a large vehicle, a bigger stock steering wheel like the one in the Wessex makes a world of difference. The Yeti also has an earlier, less robust cooling system with smaller radiators with mechanical clutch fans, leading to the engine running a bit hot at times; this was revised for later builds.

When we reached the bottom of the trail, there was one more Defender we had to check out. The 430-hp 6.2-liter LS3 powered 1989 D90 "Zenith." Tim Scully of Scully Offroad took us on a very fast ride, and we definitely understood the wisdom of the ever-popular LS swap. If a customer wants an LS-powered Arkonik Defender, the vehicle has to be imported to the United States with the rebuilt stock drivetrain before it can receive the engine swap at Scully. The import process for all Arkonik Defenders was described as not being terribly difficult—and the company has things down to a science—but nevertheless involves checking a large number of boxes.

Seeing Arkonik's fleet of Defenders, which cost as much as $200,000 all-in, made me realize how much the company improves on its processes from build to build. I asked Hayes why the firm only builds Land Rover Defenders to the exclusion of other Landies, or even other popular off-roaders, and he explained his philosophy of sticking to one thing and perfecting it. After driving two of its products, it's clear Arkonik lives that mantra.