October 8, 2021

Land Rover: Defender of the faith

The Land Rover Defender has a long-held cult-level following among the off-road brigade, but the latest iteration is almost too stylish and comfortable to get all messed up with mud.

If ever you needed proof that the world’s gone soft, just step aboard the new Land Rover Defender. Not that the Defender itself is soft. Far from it.

But the traditional carved-from-a-piece-of-granite Defender was a long way removed from luxurious Range Rovers, or even the Land Rover Discovery.

Built for a purpose and remarkably good at it, the Land Rover Defender was the kind of old-school four-wheel drive vehicle that required you to book a chiropractor after even a moderate amount of time spent behind the wheel. People were willing to forgive its many shortcomings because few vehicles came close to its off-road ability.

The new Defender is tough and capable enough to satisfy the faithful.

Steel ladder chassis, wavy aluminium bodywork and a suspension that felt like it had been taken from an army scout car, the Defender eschewed compromise.

The new Defender will still take you almost anywhere but with a degree of luxury and comfort that would have been anathema to the green Wellington boot-wearing Defender drivers of the past.

It even looks as if someone with a modicum of design ability has been involved in its development. And the separate chassis has been replaced with a monocoque construction.

Inside the Defender, there’s a degree of luxury, but with a nod to the vehicle’s tougher side.

There’s another issue that would have had traditional Defender owners up in arms (and still does), and that’s the price. The least expensive Defender is the 90 (three-door) P300 starting at $74,840 (plus on-road costs). Price of entry for the 110 P400 S variant starts at a hefty $92,360 (plus on-road costs). Throw in a few essential options and you’ll soon find yourself writing a cheque for close to $130,000, which is roughly the price of the example we’re driving.

For that substantial outlay, you get a vehicle that has plenty of on-road presence and more than enough ability to head off-road with absolute confidence. The engine is a 3-litre turbocharged six-cylinder mild-hybrid petrol engine with more than enough power (294kW) and torque (550Nm) to climb any mountain, tow any trailer and generally scoff at hard work. The gearbox is an 8-speed automatic taking power to a full-time four-wheel-drive system. Naturally, the front and rear differentials can be locked and there’s low range for even more extreme work.

The general consensus is that this is the most capable Defender ever. But as with luxury and premium SUVs, once the price escalates to this level, are you still willing to abuse it off-road?

We certainly didn’t, confining our time in the Defender to suburban roads and highways. Oddly enough, that’s where a lot of Defenders will spend their lives. On or off road, the adjustable air suspension is one of the best around. It finds a perfect balance between comfort and response, absorbing holes in bitumen with the same aplomb as it rides over rocks on a dirt track.

As you’d expect, a vehicle weighing more than 2300kg is never going to return hatchback levels of fuel consumption, but it’s not as bad as you might expect. The official fuel consumption figure is 9.9L/100km. We bettered that to the tune of 7.8L/100km in mixed driving (but as previously mentioned, no off-roading).

Another surprise is the Defender’s ability to look huge as you approach, and then feel manoeuvrable and manageable from the driver’s seat. It’s a trick that not all large SUVs can pull off.

The 3-litre turbocharged six-cylinder mild-hybrid petrol engine has more than enough power and torque.

Inside the Defender, there’s a degree of luxury, although it retains (deliberately, we suspect) a number of industrial-feeling elements. The steering wheel spokes are plain; the floor mats heavy duty; and the large debossed Defender graphic in the dull beige plastic above the glove box leaves you in no doubt what you’re driving. Some other “I’m so tough” touches aren’t as convincing: the liberal use of retaining screws with exposed heads is a little obvious, and the plastic checker plate on either side of the bonnet is purely decorative. Storage spaces abound, including some so large and deep you expect them to return an echo, and you won’t have to update your USBs because Land Rover has considerately supplied both USB-A and USB-C ports.

The new Defender is light years away from the previous Defender on the open road. It’s comfortable, quiet and eminently practical. Inside, as you’d expect, there’s plenty of head and legroom. The styling is dramatic, distinctive and purposeful. The driving position is high and vision all round (other than when vehicles disappear from view behind the tailgate-mounted spare) is panoramic.

And the best news of all is that the new Defender is tough and capable enough to satisfy the faithful. But with a new, softer side more in keeping with the modern world.

This story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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