Steeped in history with a cult following that spans the world over, the Land Rover Defender is to Landy what the Golf is to VW, the 3 Series to BMW and the 911 to Porsche – all at the core of each respective marque’s DNA. Following a 67-year production history, the Defender’s off-road prowess and versatility was a thing of legendary status, revered around the world and put through its paces in the most treacherous conditions and coming out on the other end without as much as batting an eye lid or breaking a sweat – simply shrugging off its shoulders as though taunting you as to whether “is that all you’ve got?”
Tough as nails for most part – that vehicle, I must admit,was anything but pleasurable to drive on-road. And before you hail me with insults,let me explain the method to the madness. Exactly a decade ago, I drove for the first time a 110 derivative of the Landy Defender – and it was a bucket list moment in my career.
However, just 5 minutes into my drive, I quickly realised a few things. For starters – the driving position was the oddest I had experienced at the time, as it had an off-set setup with the pedals located a few degrees to the left relative to the steering wheel. Then, there was the laborious drive on the road, where getting the vehicle up to 90 - let alone 120 km/h - was a comical mission. But it was the slab like rear windows that created a mirror like reflection that at least on more than three occasions, I got a fright while changing lanes as the said window reflection lead me to think there was a vehicle in my blindspot when there was obviously not. The ensuing panic nearly had me side swipe vehicles in the neighbouring lane. Suffice to say, the Defender was horrendous to drive on the open road, period!
Then, of course, I took it off the beaten-track and its prowess was unquestionable as I finally had my eureka moment! It was peerless off-road. I began to understand the camaraderie that is entrenched among fellow Defender drivers who would either pass a friendly wave or flash their headlights while out on the road – much like a salutation or acknowledgement of a Defender fellowship of sorts.
So, when it was announced that a new Defender was standing in the wings following the end of production of the previous model in 2016, many enthusiasts and the general public alike received the news with much trepidation. Will the new model live up to expectations and will it retain the ethos that made the original such an icon? These were some of the questions being bandied about.
Having recently got our hands on the new model, it seems all our concerns were unfounded. The new Defender is brilliant. The styling, for instance, cracked a positive nod with everyone we encountered during our travels – it has universal appeal in spades. The images you see here do not do justice of the Defender’s presence and off-road repertoire. Our test car is the P400 S dolled up with the optional Explorer Pack that brings to the cocktail mix, a kaleidoscope of off-road, outdoorsy paraphernalia. It is also physically quite sizeable with an overall length, including the rear mounted spare wheel, of 5 018 mm and a width of 2 088 mm.
Unlike its predecessor, the latest Defender boasts a vast and extensive use of composite plastic materials, the purpose of which is two-fold. The first is to reduce overall unsprung weight of the vehicle, the second would be for more cost-effective repair costs in the event of panel damage.
Paying notable homage to its predecessor, the new Defender’s cabin is as simplistic as they come with an extensive use of plastic materials that are anything but low rent or nasty. It is a digital cabin architecture with an analogue disposition that sticks to the previous model’s brief of a sparse interior – you also get skylight windows that hark back to the original. There is the 10-inch infotainment touchscreen with one of the most vivid, crystal clear display technology I have yet to experience in a modern vehicle. Meanwhile,the cloth bound, three rows of seats with the rear most folding flat to the floor are both comfortable and should prove more durable than leather bound chairs. Boot space is decent, measuring 743-litres with the third row of seats folded and an even more commodious 1 826-litres with the second row tucked away.
Where there is the greatest departure from the original, is in the chassis department. Gone is the ladder-frame chassis and solid axles and,in its place, is a modern monocoque chassis with independent suspension. Shock horror! You need not be perturbed, however, as I found out during the test tenure. What the latest underpinnings bring to the fore is a smooth, even sophisticated ride quality that could easily rival the Discovery and Range Rover Sport. Gone is the harsh on-road ride quality of the original, making the new Defender an absolute boon to drive on tarmac daily.
Our test unit also boasted the latest engine to come from the company’s family of Ingenium powerplants. The 3-litre turbocharged, inline six-cylinder engine with MHEV (Mild Hybrid with an electronic boost for short bursts). It delivers 294 kW and 550 Nm and is paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission and has a wide breadth of talents. A smooth operator with oodles of shove from low down – thanks in part to the electric starter generator giving additional initial shove – and revs cleanly to its 6 000 rpm red line. It really is a remarkable engine and would be great to see it doing duty in other Jaguar Land Rover products in the future.
We averaged around 14l/100 km during our test tenure, which is more than acceptable for a vehicle of this size and the performance the new engine delivers. Off the beaten track, the Defender continues to impress, thanks to its 218 mm ground clearance with Approach; Departure; and Ramp Angles of 30.1; 37.7; and 22 degrees, respectively. It dispenses with any rock, steep inclines and descents with the greatest aplomb. Should the mood take you, you can also put the model’s 900 mm water wading depth to the test, while a maximum 3 500 kg towing capacity is another noteworthy aspect of the new Defender.
At a base price of R1 224 200 in the instance of our P400 S variant, the new Defender is a modern interpretation of an icon but shares little with the original when it comes componentry. While its price tag might seem plenty, its breadth of talents and dual purpose makes it one of the most accomplished SUVs launched this year with a cool factor to boot. The Explorer Pack at R55 820 comes highly recommended, but be mindful of the optional accessories, which can easily push the price further northwards if ticked liberally.
Much like many motoring scribes around the world, I too had reservations on the new Defender and whether it had the clout reverence that the original commanded. Having finally driven the new model, I can safely vouch that it is an astonishing product, a worthy proponent to the Defender nameplate and a strong contender in the 2021 World Car Awards.