Copyright 2001

[ December 19th 2001 ]

I tried sleeping with Lara Croft...Hang on a minute, there's someone at the door.......OK, back again. Where was I? Oh yes. I tried sleeping with Lara Croft blasting out of next door's new, let-the-neighbours-know-we've-got-one DVD player.

I gave up in the end. I gather she was raiding somebody's tomb, but having woken up the dead on the way there, I suspect there was no one in. She should have tried creeping up at 6 o'clock in the morning, without the music. Mind you, her Land Rover would have attracted plenty of attention on its own. It's arguably the most aggressive-looking vehicle to have a drive-on part in a movie since Ian McKellern's tank crashed through the wall in his modern version of Richard lll.

And I should know, I had a chance to drive it. The Land Rover, that is, not the tank. Quick to capitalise on the film's box-office success, Ford-owned Land Rover launched a limited-edition range of Defender 90 Station Wagons and 110 Double Cabs, complete with most of the tough-girl make-up that was applied to the big-screen version.

Like Lara Croft, a couple of things stand out about the Tomb Raider Landie. Firstly, its overtly muscular appearance is not a sham - underneath all the cosmetics it remains the stout workhorse it ever was - and secondly, it is destined to be the most collectable vehicle to roll off the Solihull production line in the history of the company. Only 250 have been built and there are not many left, and all of those are 90s.

You can have any colour you like as long as it's Bonatti grey - a deep anthracite shade that looks stunning and sexy even without the bolt-on hardware. Add the chequer-plate cladding, a full-length roof rack, a rear step, side rails, a robust exterior roll cage, special pewter-grey Boost alloys and an array of roof-mounted spots and it becomes a unique, stand-alone vehicle in a crowded market of me-too 4x4 clones.

The chequer-plate theme continues inside, where the rear floor and front foot wells are covered with the stuff. And the gear lever sports a huge, engraved aluminium knob, exclusive to the Tomb Raider version. Other designer touches include specially commissioned fabric covers and a leather-covered steering wheel.

Just in case your neighbours are still not certain of its origins, there is a special plaque attached to either side of the body, which declares its role as the most expensive bit of merchandising ever to have spun off from a movie. Although, with a storm-away price of 22,995, it's a scant 1,645 more than the standard Defender County. That seems to be a reasonable premium for so much pzazz.

Yet its appeal was not universal. I stopped off in a small town in Surrey, which I shall call Blu-Tac in view of the number of stuck-up people who live there, and as I was locking the doors a retired military type tapped me on the shoulder. " That's a damn awful thing to do to a Land Rover, what! ", her clipped vowels making it sound like Lend Rovah. " What's the good of sticking that rubbish all over it, eh? Answer me that, if you will."

More than you might imagine, Major. For a start, the roof rack is sturdy enough to carry a couple of mountain bikes, which I did, and the four roof-mounted spotlights guided me easily through several of Surrey's many BOATs in the dead of night. (BOATs are Byways Open to All Traffic. A number of them criss-cross the North Downs and I use them to put off-roaders through their paces). Why in the dead of night? Because I could. When God said 'Let there be light' I think he had in mind something less searing than Lara Croft's big beauties.

Even the chequer-plate cladding serves a purpose as I found out when I had to clamber onto the wing to release an owl...sorry, that's a typo...a low branch tangled in the roof rack.

Aside from the metal-clad floor, the foot-well bit of which is only pretend, the interior layout is pretty much standard Defender. Which means there isn't much room. Thankfully they have dropped the socially embarrassing middle seat and replaced it wit a large lidded box, padded to stop things rattling. But as ever, the door is only a couple of microns from the driver's right arm and the wheel can only successfully be swung around above the equator.

Despite having to contend with a platform that leaves rear-seat occupants with no choice but to face each other across the car, vis--vis, the general ambience has been raised a notch or two and its possible to drive the Tomb raider without having first to don a potato sack to feel the part.

Although it has a rudimentary air-con system, the choices are limited to Iceland, Greenland and Aberdeen. Frost-bite is held at bay by using the conventional, lever-operated Land Rover system, which is coupled to an industrial strength fan, of which the main attribute appears to be noise. An Aga, it's not.

Those of you accustomed to padded-cell 4x4s would undoubtedly find the Landie somewhat crude. The ride quality would be familiar to a JCB driver and the words handling, roadholding and Defender are, in my opinion, mutually exclusive. You need a Discovery for those things.

Of course, Land Rover's strength lies elsewhere. In their own words, the Tomb Raider will '...appeal to active drivers looking for a vehicle that delivers serious fun as well as off-road performance.' If I were to paraphrase that to draw out what I think they meant to say, it would read '...appeal to drivers looking for a vehicle that delivers fun both on and off-road.' Hitherto, Defenders were about as much fun on-road as spending your holiday in a steelworks. Or to most of you, anyway.

As it happens, I am one of those perverse people who has owned a Land Rover for the fun of it. Despite its agrarian credentials, a Defender is a great hoot to drive in London. The high driving position is a distinct advantage and other drivers tend not to argue with two tonnes of sharp-cornered workhorse. The deep-grey Tomb Raider, with its array of macho utensils looks even more menacing, which adds to the fun. And there is the big rack and row of spotlights that allows you to demolish overhead trunking in multi-stories.

Power is derived from Land Rover's 2.5-litre Td5 turbo-diesel unit. Developing 120 bhp and 220 lbs/ft of torque at 1950 rpm, it's not the most powerful oil-burner on the market, but coupled with the standard, low-ratio transfer case it will haul the Tomb Raider through many a scrape, as I believe Ms Croft discovered.

Apart from its contribution to tractive effort, the Td5 engine has a very satisfactory sound signature that's always present except at idle speed - the right place to be when traversing difficult terrain. In low range on tickover, it will 'walk' over obstacles without missing a beat. Unfortunately, on those occasions when I needed to power out of a situation (which is sometimes the case when driving off-road), the throttle was infuriatingly slow to respond, and once or twice almost left me stranded.

I could go on at length about Land Rover's off-road credentials but they are so well documented I shall leave you to believe in the legend and ask you to take my word for it that most of it's true.

But for those not familiar with off-road driving, the Defender series can be ordered with optional traction control linked to ABS (which is also optional). In most off-road conditions it works very well, but there are just a few circumstances when it becomes a liability, so experienced drivers might prefer to save their money and stick with the regular model.

Needless to say, the present Defender is the latest in a long line of 4x4s that can trace their history back to Maurice Wilk's original, cobbled together in the first few months of peacetime following the end of the second world war. Evolution normally breeds stronger offspring successively better adapted to the world around them. Certainly Defenders have got stronger and more capable but the adaptation to the modern world has been more painful, thanks to the influx of lifestyle off-roaders into a market that once was their own. The Range Rover, Discovery and Freelander have, between them, held much of the opposition at bay but the Defender has to live with being what it is and all the embellishments in the world will not change its basic structure or behaviour.

Even so, the Tomb raider is about as funky as a 4x4 can get and the harsh ride and limited performance are easy to rationalise when you own such a rare and striking beast.

I gather that Lara Croft was played by someone called Angelina Jolie. She sounds a game sort of girl and one that might suit me. I have only a vague idea what she looks like although she evidently has a decent set of lungs, judging by her ability to penetrate several courses of brickwork. But I wish she had cleaned out the Land Rover before I got it. The lipstick and curlers I could understand but what would she want with a bicycle pump? Answers on two postcards please.

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