BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
Does the new Defender have the off-road prowess to justify its name? You bet
Land Rover’s new Defender could be the most difficult
ve hi c le to rep l ace since Volkswagen tried to reinvent the Beetle.
The old car had a separate chassis because that’s how you did things in 1948 and, although updated during its life, true modernisation had probably faltered by the 1980s and the Land Rover hasn’t been a ubiquitous, everyman’s vehicle for most of this century.
“The 60-second elevator pitch for the Defender is ‘capability,’” says Felix Bräutigam, Jaguar Land Rover’s chief commercial officer. Land Rover would like you to think this is the real deal, a Land Rover like no other. “Land Rover is a three-legged stool again,” he adds.
Is it like the old one? If you imagine Land Rover development had continued in, say, Porsche 911 or Honda Civic style, with regular updates and model cycles and some technology step during each one, is this where you’d end up?
I don’t think so: the new Defender, one of the most capable vehicles though it may be, is pitched where the previous Defender left off, as a premium wantvehicle, not as the need-vehicle that is how the original series Land Rover began its life.
The hardware is where objectivity lies. Underneath the body, with its reassuringly familiar side-opening tailgate and three- and five-door variants badged 90 and 110, sits a derivative of Jaguar Land Rover’s big aluminium D7 architecture.
Attached to the bonded and riveted shell are steel subframes front and rear, with independent suspension all round — wishbones at the front, integral link at the back. No, it doesn’t have a separate steel chassis anymore and nor is there a solid axle to be seen, as you’ll still find front and rear on a Jeep Wrangler and beneath the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, Mercedes G-Class and every pickup.
Engine options are 200hp/240hp 2.0litre diesel, 300hp 2.0 petrol and 400hp 3.0-litre V6. A plug-in hybrid is coming soon. For now, though, we’re driving the most powerful diesel. All engines drive exclusively through a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox.
There’s an electronically controlled centre and rear differential and the Defender gets Land Rover’s Terrain Response system, so it is not a car with which you can choose to lock the differentials as you can in a Wrangler or G-Glass. But it does have a low-ratio transfer case. Later, base models will have coil springs as standard, but early cars will run on air springs, one of a raft of technologies that serves to improve the Defender’s offroad capability.
To start off, the Defender sets a good first impression. There are traditional Defender cues — a big slab of dashboard with a grab handle at either end, with the instruments in their own little binnacle. The steering wheel is huge, driving position high, seats large and visibility good. You can see where the car ends, where its sides are, and the door mirrors are big, too.
Interior materials feel good, albeit this is a higher-spec car. There are some exposed structural elements and Torx-head bolts to enhance the adventurous feel; and there’s a new infotainment system.
You can have two or two-and-a-bit seats in the front, with a middle jump seat you’d use to get a lift home from the pub but for no longer than that. There are three seats in the rear with massive head and leg room. The boot is cavernous.
The control weights are not traditional Defender. They’re light, positive, progressive and it feels easy and laid back. I think that’s important in a car that claims to be so capable. If you’re going to spend a long time in one of these, in abnormal road conditions, you’ll want a car that’s ergonomically easy to rub along with.
We’re largely on rough roads — a brief stretch on asphalt suggests the Defender is an engaging road drive too.
The steering gains weight and response as forces build, the ride’s composed, pliant, but with tight body control and well-contained roll. And we’re on knobbly tyres rather than more road-biased ones. Also, there’s a roof rack and ladder and a bunch of kit on top of the car, which probably doesn’t help dynamics, so I’m impressed that the Defender feels so sure-footed.
It’s hard to say how much better or worse than the key rivals it is, but the raw numbers are strong, particularly with the suspension on its highest setting. And with the gearbox in low ratio, the diesel has decent urge.
What’s striking, though, and unusual, is how easy the Defender tries to make all of this crawling and wading. In a Wrangler, it feels like off-roading is how you challenge yourself, as you choose to lock the differentials and disconnect the anti-roll bars via cabin switches. The Defender tries not to make it a chore. As standard on the models you can spec at the moment is the Terrain Response system that manipulates suspension, differentials, brakes, traction control and more on the go. It also has 360degree cameras, including a throughbonnet one showing the front wheels, and even a wade sensor that tells you when you’re approaching its 900mm depth limit — in case water approaching the windows doesn’t let you know.
Which leaves the car where, exactly? Doing some things and costing similar to other Land Rovers, perhaps? I never quite square myself with the price, once optioned, but the car’s certainly no less impressive — and no more fatiguing — even after driving it a lot. Admittedly, there’s a price, but be in no doubt: this is one of the most capable vehicles in the world.