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Making Tracks: A Land Rover Defender That Glides Over Snow-Covered Backroads

Posted in Features on May 22, 2017
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Deep snow slows down most 4x4s, even when tire pressures are dropped into single-digits and lockers are engaged. It’s just tough to get traction and make headway when Old Man Winter comes knocking. But hip-deep snow, whether it’s the fluffy powder of mid-winter or the icy layered remnants of early spring, don’t put much of a crimp on Paul Champagne’s winter wheelin’.

Most of the year Paul’s ’02 Land Rover Defender 110 Station Wagon Country runs on 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2s. But when the heavy snows start piling up in the Cascades near his home in Central Oregon, the all-terrains can be replaced with the vehicle equivalent of snowshoes: a set of 16-inch-wide Mattracks 105M1-A2 tracks, providing more than 3,000 square inches of surface contact area and reducing ground pressure to as little as 1.4 psi.

Mattracks can be run on pavement, but on our outing the tracks, which weighed about 400 pounds each, were brought to the staging area on a trailer where the techs from Suspension Specialties quickly swapped them in place of the BFG tires.

Paul, and his wife Lacey, are the consummate outdoor-types. Each owns a successful business in Bend, and when the weekends come around, mountain biking, hiking, overlanding, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and outdoor photography are their emotional battery chargers—and the Defender 110 is their primary means to reaching those ends.

A Terrafirma 2-inch lift kit, along with the addition of a matching body lift, is designed specifically for Land Rovers. The combo significantly improves ride and handling, and the added clearance allows plenty of room to run either 33s or the Mattracks.

The Land Rover is also nicely equipped to handle the pursuit of all their outdoor passions. The techs at Suspension Specialties in Bend, Oregon, upgraded the Rover’s 2.5L Td5 turbodiesel with an Alive Tuning’s Stage 5 billet turbo, headers, exhaust and programmer to bump the I-5’s power from 122 hp to 200 hp. The company also upgraded the intercooler. Then Suspension Specialties went to work replacing the stock coils and shocks with a 2-inch Terrafirma Suspension lift kit along with a matching 2-inch body lift. The combination provides both a pliant ride and plenty of clearance to handle tracks or tires, whichever they may choose for traversing the backroads year-round.

Suspension Specialties warmed up the stock 2.5L turbodiesel with a fatter billet Alive Tuning turbo, tune and exhaust to give it a healthy 200-plus ponies. The extra horsepower, coupled with the stock Land Rover five-speed drivetrain, make this a nice year-round overlanding rig.

Paul also had Suspension Specialties set up his Oxford Blue Defender with a Warn Zeon 12-S Platinum winch in a James Bond–style Spectre bumper, install the Front Runner Outfitter’s roof rack, and set on the Puma GRP hood. They also wired in a dozen seven-inch Auxbeam LED driving lights and swapped out the stock headlights for a set of CREE high-low beam LEDs to bring daylight to the darkest nights.

A Land Rover snorkel provides cool air to the intercooler while the raft of 7-inch LEDs on the full-length Front Runner roof rack can light up distant ridges.
Each of the 7-inch Auxbeam LEDs produces close to 9,000 lumens. Paul has a dozen on his Defender, including eight on the Front Runner roof rack. Those on the side aid in setting up camp. There’s also an 8-inch LED lightbar in back that serves as the backup light.

Defenders usually aren’t known for their plush interiors, but Paul’s is different. He drove across town to Audiowerks to have power windows and locks installed, cover the Defender’s bare sheetmetal with Dynamat while the panels were off, and put in a ’05 Land Rover dash. Audiowerks also yanked the stock radio and gave the sound system a massive boost with a Pioneer head unit/navigation system driven by a 1,000-watt Kicker amp to a combo of Focal and Kicker speakers.

Land Rover aficionados may notice the ’02’s dash is from a later model, which gave Paul more storage space, and room to have the 1,000-watt Pioneer/Kicker sound system/navigation unit (and all the auxiliary switches) installed.

It’s easy to spot the Champagne’s Land Rover in the drier seasons just because of the way it’s outfitted. It’s also easy to spot when the snow is deep: Look for track tread patterns on top of the snow leading up the snow-covered road instead of deep tire ruts—then look high on the ridgeline, a long way from where most 4x4s are stopped, for a bright-blue Defender on tracks.

At A Glance

General
Vehicle: ’02 Land Rover Defender 110 Station Wagon
Owner: Paul Champagne
Stomping grounds: Central Oregon
Build time: Six months

Drivetrain
Engine: 2.5L Td5 I-5 turbodiesel
Transmission: R380 5-spd manual
Transfer case(s): LT230T two-spd
Low range ratio(s): 3.32:1
Crawl ratio(s): 39.8:1
Front axle/differential: Stock, 3.54:1/open
Rear axle/differential: Stock, 3.54:1/open

Suspension
Front: Terrafirma 2-in-lift coil springs, Terrafirma gas shocks
Rear: Terrafirma 2-in-lift coil springs, Terrafirma gas shocks
Steering: Stock

Tires/Wheels
Tires: LT305/55R20 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2
Wheels: 20x9 Stormer

Miscellaneous
Lighting: Auxbeam 7-in LED fogs/floods (12 total), CREE LED headlights
Armor: Front skidplate, Spectre winch bumper
Cool stuff: Mattracks 105M1-A2 tracks, Puma GRP hood, Warn Zeon 12-S winch, 1,000-watt sound system, Alcantera headliner, leather interior, Alive Tuning billet turbo, custom exhaust, Front Runner roof rack, 2-in Terrafirma body lift

Paul made a radical change to his 110’s look and off-road functionality with the addition of a Spectre winch bumper, Auxbeam LEDs, Warn winch, and a different grille. His options stemmed from seeing the Defender in the James Bond “Spectre” movie.
Paul had the rather spartan Defender interior redone with leather on the seats, an alcantera headliner, and Dynamat sound-deadening material laid over all the underlying sheetmetal.

Driving Impressions

What’s it like to drive a tracked vehicle? Paul tossed us the keys to his 110 Defender during our jaunt up the snow-covered mountains for the photoshoot. It was a unique driving experience.

Driving the tracked Defender 110 in the Cascade Mountains near Bend, Oregon. New-found freedom in deep snow when you drive on top of—not through—feet of icy white.

First, driving a tracked 4x4 like this quickly made us an expert at 20-point turns and avoiding sidehills—a tractor-trailer rig has a smaller turning radius, and dozer-style ribs on the tracks don’t provide much, if any, lateral traction. The tracks also turn light steering into heavy steering.

Those factors aside, the improvement in flotation and traction provided by tracks compared to aired-down tires is incredible. We quickly tossed away any fear of sinking in deep snow and we drove with more of the mentality of a snowmobiler than a four-wheeler.

These Mattracks tracks added about 1,600 pounds to the Land Rover’s overall weight, placing a premium for staying in the heart of the engine’s torque curve. We ran the Defender in low-range with the manual five-speed transmission usually in Third or Fourth gear depending on the grade of the road were traveling. Momentum is your friend, much like driving in sand.

The tracks did a good job of absorbing impacts from hidden obstacles such as holes, rocks and logs hidden beneath the snow. They also did quite well rolling up and over cross-ruts and berms. Although they won’t turn your 4x4 into a Snowcat, it was easy to see that tracks dramatically increase a vehicle’s ability to traverse super-soft terrain without the added drama one gets running conventional traction tires.

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