Land Rover could so easily have messed it up. How do you infuse an all-new, high-tech off-roader with the character of the original and not just rely on an iconic nameplate?
The most eagerly awaited car of the decade does pay homage to the model at the heart of Land Rover for over 70 years, but it’s much, much more than that. After a three-year hiatus, the Defender is back and better than ever.
Land Rover Defender 110 P400 MHEV
ENGINE: 3.0-litre, 6-cylinder petrol mild hybrid
POWER: 400 PS
MAX TORQUE: 550 Nm @ 2000 rpm 0-60
MPH: 5.8 seconds
MAX SPEED: 119 mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 29.4 mpg
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Gaydon’s design team, led by the indomitable Gerry McGovern, was under immense pressure to create a 4x4 that would better the original, with proper off-road ability and the very latest technology onboard.
But die-hard Land Rover fans who cursed the day production of the old model ceased in 2016, take note – this 2020 version really is better off-road, more comfortable on-road, and manages to look unmistakably Defender, too.
I joined a small group of journalists from around the world in Namibia to drive the all-new Defender for the very first time. Kaokoland is known as the place God made in anger, perhaps no better location for an epic adventure in a vehicle made famous for its go-anywhere ability.
The 430-mile, three-day trek across north-west Namibia’s own Outback will include towering sand dunes, parched river beds and almost a complete lack of Tarmac. It’s home to the Himba people, dressed in goatskins, horn necklaces, and mesmerised by our presence.
It’s taken three flights to reach this spot, landing on a dirt airstrip at Opuwa, 500 miles north of the Namibian capital Windhoek.
This is one of the most extreme places on the planet and I’m hunkered down in a remote camp site on Van Zyl’s Pass. Notoriously dangerous for any form of traffic, the car wrecks down the ravine hint at the dangers ahead.
Not even a mountain goat with crampons would want to scrabble over the landscape here. The downhill slopes are terrifying, tyres are ripped to shreds, and paintwork is stripped by the razor-sharp bushes.
The ‘roads’ on the map are mostly rocky tracks, originally cleared for moving livestock centuries ago. Thankfully, the new Defender is armed with Land Rover’s latest Terrain Response 2 system, with configurable settings to overcome whatever Namibia throws at it.
Terrain Response is available in other Land Rovers of course, but this version has a Wade programme for splashing across rivers, with a 900mm safety depth when a snorkel air intake is fitted. Sand, Rock Crawl, and Mud and Ruts modes take the strain out of anything that gets in the way. The system is operated via an all-new infotainment system that will eventually roll-out across the entire Land Rover range.
Purists will say it takes the skill out of serious off-road work, but combined with air suspension and 291mm of ground clearance, this Defender is proving unstoppable.
It’s light years ahead of the original 1948 Land Rover. That was a classic design which launched a thousand expeditions and served both the military and farmers well. I’ve owned three and while enjoying all the associated idiosyncrasies, comfort was never top of the agenda.
However, the latest version is a thoroughly modern sport utility vehicle – although, Land Rover is at pains to insist the new Defender isn’t technically an SUV but an off-roader. The technology is mind-boggling and puts dirt-busting rivals like the Toyota Land Cruiser and Jeep Wrangler to shame.
Take Clearsight, as an example. This is part of a three-dimensional camera system that not only allows you to see ‘through’ the bonnet to the terrain below but also focusses lenses on the side of the front wheels where sharp rocks are lying in wait. Such technology ensures exploring this remote corner of Namibia is almost effortless.
Inside, the 110 can be configured for five, six or eight people – the famous jump seat between the front seats making a welcome return, except this one folds forward when not in use to offer twin cupholders and a cubbybox.
While leather is a pricey option, I’d opt for the new Resolve textile, which is much more relevant to a vehicle like Defender. There are five USB points, a roomy dashboard shelf like the old Land Rover Series 3 model, exposed metal screws and circular dials for ventilation control.
Our expedition kit is piled high in the boot, which usually makes a rear-view mirror redundant. But Defender has the answer: an optional, rear-facing camera on the roof that projects a live image through the mirror.
And whether your home is in Chelsea or the Cotswolds, Land Rover believes there’s a Defender to suit. Explorer, Adventure, Country or Urban Pack, the mind-boggling array of 170 lifestyle options will add thousands of pounds to the bill.
I’d opt for the side-mounted gear carriers; the portable rinse system for washing a muddy dog; the expedition roof rack; and the side ladder – to help pitch a family tent on the South Downs.
The engine line-up comprises of a pair of petrols – the P400 I’m driving has mild hybrid technology – plus a couple of diesels. No doubt a plug-in hybrid and full-electric version will be crashing onto the forecourt in due course.
All are driven by an eight-speed auto gearbox, which is slick and seamless both on and off-road. The gear shifter falls nicely to hand on the dashboard and there’s the option of paddle shift, too. The top-of-the-range 400 model is also rapid, with a zero-60mph time under six seconds.
Just the 110 five-door model is available at launch before an even more desirable 90 three-door is launched later this year. Oddly, the coolest versions aren’t sat on shiny alloys – try a set of white, steel wheels for that authentic look.
Loaded with modern technology, the all-new Defender is light years ahead of the original. That means comfortable, quiet and extremely well-made – not in the UK, but at a factory in Slovakia.
Like the Range Rover Evoque or Land Rover Discovery Sport, the Defender has morphed into a luxurious and practical vehicle. Land Rover wants you to fall in love, but I believe this new model lacks some of the genuine character of the original – a very tough act to follow.
And although my Namibia trip proved that the Defender will go anywhere, holding true to Land Rover’s core values, it’s not cheap. Prices start at £45,240 for the diesel D200, and rise to an eye-watering £78,800 for the model I drove, not to mention the £6,000 of extras.
That’s as much as a full-size, luxury Range Rover, so I doubt anybody will be plonking a sheep in the back, or even a muddy dog.
But this a vehicle that genuinely gets under your skin and I can’t help feeling I was at the birth of another Land Rover legend.
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For more information, see landrover.co.uk