Here it is – 2020’s most talked-about new car is now on sale. For Land Rover at least, its most important new launch since it took a punt on the Evoque being the answer to upwardly-mobile car buyers wanting a restyled Freelander with a dash of Range Rover design flair. And so far, it looks so good for Land Rover – just as it was a decade ago, there are long queues forming to take delivery of its latest product and everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the new Land Rover Defender.
Let’s face it, though, the Defender has a massive job to do – one which is about so much more than providing the world with a new off-roader. After all, we’re already awash with SUVs of all shapes and sizes. No, the Defender is the long-awaited replacement for the original Defender, which was the ultimate development of the original 1948 Series Land Rover. More than that, like the Mini before it, the Land Rover Defender is part of the fabric of society, and helped motorise lots of people in the tough post-War years.
So, the all-new Defender’s task isn’t just to add to the already crowded SUV car parc. No, it needs to replace one of the industry’s most recognisable cars of the 20th century. Good luck, Land Rover!
What’s under the skin of the new Defender?
There’s a fuller technical breakdown of the new Defender elsewhere on the site – but it is useful to recap what makes it tick. Project L663 was based on JLR’s D7 Premium Lightweight Architecture (PLA) aluminium platform. But for the Defender, it’s been developed into the D7X (X for Extreme) monocoque, which is claimed to be three times stiffer in terms of structural rigidity than its rivals – that’s reflected in its off-road ability and on-road poise.
To be a Defender, it needs to be excellent – if not the best – off-road. Land Rover seems to have that covered: approach angles are 38 degrees front and 40 rear, and it can climb a 45-degree angle and descend a 47-degree one – better numbers than the original. Wading depth is up to 900mm deep, compared with 500mm for the old Defender, and the electrical system is tested to IP67 standards – they should be able to be submerged in water for up to an hour without damage.
Land Rover’s latest electronic architecture is significantly faster than before, and now features such delights as over-the-air software updates, and an infotainment system that’s swift and responsive to use. It has 85 ECUs, and they’re constantly talking to each other at up to 100Mb/s – a major step forward.
What’s it like to drive?
Our car is a D240 S stacked with around £10k of extras, which is expected to be the best-seller of the range. On paper, there’s little wrong with the way it goes – it develops 237bhp and 317lb ft – which goes a long way to overcoming its hefty 2248kg kerb weight. That translates to a 0-62mph time of 9.1 seconds and a maximum speed of 117mph – in short, performance is more than adequate.
Figures only tell part of this story because, on the road and considering what it is, the new Defender is great to drive. The first thing that surprises is the agility of the thing, with direct and well-weighted steering giving it a positive relationship with the road. The air suspension gives it a compliant ride and excellent body control. It corners with a surprising accuracy. It’s easy to place, corners well and it’s an enjoyable steer. Sadly, our first drive took place in the Cotswolds where the roads are cramped and packed, so we couldn’t really explore too much – but it did emphasise how confidently you can place the Defender when the going gets tight.
At speed it’s restful enough – there’s not too much wind noise to concern yourself with, it doesn’t seem to be affected by crosswinds and the Ingenium diesel is hushed and responsive. In all, a very impressive effort. Maybe none of this is a Defender priority, but we’re in a new world now, packed with car-based SUVs pretending to be off-roaders, and the Defender does all it needs to do to satisfy the people who buy those cars.
What’s it like off road?
Really, do you need to ask? We tested the Defender at Eastnor Castle, the home of Land Rover off-road development since the original Series model in the lead-up to its launch in 1948. The place is steeped in LR history and, as you’d expect, it was always going to perform strongly on its home turf. It was running on semi-off-road tyres and was being tested on a course purpose-built by LR engineers, which looked impressive, gave it a decent work-out and was comprised of rutted, muddy tracks, steep, slippery inclines and the stickiest of mud.
The toys are all there – height-adjustable air suspension, low-range transmission, locking centre and active rear locking diffs, all mated to the company’s well-proved Terrain Response and Hill Descent technology. What this means is that Land Rover says the new Defender is more effective than any other LR product, and should prove near unstoppable in the English countryside.
Toggle Terrain Response and Hill Descent and then just steer and go. The Defender’s electronics and hardware make expert off-road adventurers out of the most ham-fisted drivers. The steering, throttle and visibility leave you feeling confident that you can get from one end of the Darién Gap to the other without real hardship.
What’s it like inside?
Inside, the Defender mixes elements of the original’s functionality with the tech and equipment you expect of a modern. There are exposed screw heads and ruggedised surfaces on the one hand, and classy-looking aluminium panels on the other. There are some very un-Land Rover Defender-like touches now, such as padded armrests and some soft-feel surfaces, as well as the joy of that optional central front seat, which you can have in place of a very capacious central storage area and cupholders. There are storage areas everywhere inside, with deep door pockets and a dashboard shelf that’ll take most of your gear on the move.
The new Pivi Pro infotainment system is a cinch to use, being both quick and intuitive. It also syncs up and works with your smartphone seamlessly. No more wrestling with it to get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to work. Other nice touches are the ClearSight rear-view mirror for when your Defender is loaded to gunwales and the ClearSight camera set-up that allows you to see ‘through’ the bonnet via the infotainment screen for super-tough off-roading sessions.
It’ll be great for expeditions and is completely family-friendly. The interior should shrug off anything the kids throw at it and, while it’s short of being hose-clean inside (when was the last Land Rover that was?) it has a boot that’ll swallow a couple of sheep, should the mood take you. Boot space goes from 231 litres with all three rows in place to 2233 litres with all the seats folded.
So, there you have it – it’s a brilliant off-roader, that’s tough and ready for adventure. What this one does that no Defender before has managed to do is work so well on the road. It sits comfortably on the motorway, is playful on B-roads and is happy in town. Specify it on air suspension, and you’re invited to a world of comfort that’s alien to any other Defender, while choosing the 237bhp diesel makes it accelerate effortlessly.
We’ll not comment on the styling– that’s down to your preference – but, judging from the number of heads it turned on our first drive, it looks like the UK loves it and LR has nailed it. The only thing left to do is answer the question posed at the beginning: is this worthy of the Defender badge? Given how it handles everything life can throw at it, the answer is yes – as a tough off-roader that can turn itself to anything, it really is brimming with Land Rover DNA.
The new Defender is good, and it’s good to confirm that finally on UK roads. Its off-road ability is peerless, and Land Rover would never live it down if it were any other way. If you want a Defender, you’re looking at a three- to four-month wait right now, especially if you’ve been choosy with the configurator. And that’s good news, surely, as it points to Land Rover having a car in its portfolio that’s massively in demand – just as it did back in 2011 with the Range Rover Evoque.
But is it the vehicle that Land Rover Defender enthusiasts want? Possibly not, as it’s too expensive for that (although it should be noted that the old Defender was hardly cheap by the end). They seem to want something that looks like the old one and costs about the same as an L200 – but the affordable, rugged workhorse of old, so beloved of farmers everywhere is a rapidly-fading memory. Land Rover abandoned that market years ago, though. Instead, what Land Rover has done is built a brilliant replacement for the ungainly Discovery and, in doing so, this car should serve it very well indeed.
Let’s hope the early strong sales are an indicator of sustained future success. After all, a good news story for Jaguar Land Rover is what we could all do with right now…