First Drive: Land Rover Defender 110 D240 S
Has Land Rover pulled off the seemingly impossible task of reinventing the Defender for the modern age? Jonathan Musk finds out.
SECTOR Large SUV PRICE £45,560 FUEL 29.6-31.7mpg CO2 234-251g/km
It’s no easy thing to reinvent an icon, and Land Rover’s bravery should be commended for doing just that with the new Defender. There’s a lot riding on this one, with a huge name to live up to and even higher expectations.
So, let’s set your mind right: If you bought a 1960’s house, you’d probably treat it to some insulation, a new flat screen TV, a dish washer and a new +90% efficient boiler too. You wouldn’t likely stick with the freezing single glazing, zero insulation or 60% efficient gas-fired furnace. And the Defender is the same – preconceptions from many said that Land Rover was wrong to update it, wrong to implement its decades-worth of off-road learnings. Wrong to change it. Which is just plain daft.
Unlike the above, the new Defender isn’t based on a 1960s platform but is instead a heightened much-modified 95% new version of the D7 platform that the current Range Rover Evoque rests on; dubbed D7x – ‘x’ for extreme. It’s said to be around three times stiffer than typical body-on-frame designs and is Land Rover’s most advanced platform yet.
Like the 1960s home analogy, Land Rover has taken the old formula, learnt from it, and applied the latest in technology and engineering. It would have been mad not to. And yet, looking at it, the new Defender is unmistakably a retro-modern take on the classic design, and with good reason.
That shape was dictated by necessity off-road, for instance tiny overhangs mean better approach and departure angles for climbing over obstacles. But, like anyone would do when put in the same shoes, Land Rover has installed the vehicle with the latest technology to make the new machine better in every regard than the old one. Yes, that means it is a much more complicated machine, which will likely lose Land Rover friends at the military. But for everyone else, it’s a win-win.
Stepping into the cabin for the first time, it’s clear that this is halfway between luxury and utility. Door panel bolts have been left nakedly exposed, while the seats are surprisingly cossetting. It’s utilitarian, but not at the expense of comfort. The dashboard is largely made up of various recognisable Jaguar Land Rover parts – no bad thing – such as I-Pace heating controls and indicator/wiper stalks.
There’s a solidity to the Defender in every detail, true to the original, but you won’t find a farm-washable interior this time around.
Not something to dwell on, but the new Defender captures the essence of the old vehicle, but more important than that is the re-thinking behind its construction, which ends up with a cleverly designed vehicle able to take scuffs, dents and knocks in all the usual places yet retain modern standards for crash safety. For example, the bonnet chequer plates are just for show, as otherwise they’d compromise pedestrian impact safety. In short, it is a successful modern interpretation of an old and trusted functional design.
In terms of fit and function, the Defender really nails it with clever consideration of materials. For example, the steering wheel’s outer is formed from comfortable leather, while the inner boss is made of a dense plastic that looks like it’s come from a Ural tank. There are plenty of hints to the old Defender’s practical-priority nature too, with an abundance of cubby holes, shelves and storage. The 110 version has space enough for seven seats and even the 90 can have up to six, with a fold-flat middle seat option for the front row. There’s a strong sense that the new Defender was more a labour of love and passion project, rather than a commercially-orientated decision.
The raison d’être of the Defender; its ability to traverse the planet with or without roads has been taken to the next level. Just reading some of the specs, it’s clear this thing means business. There’s 291mm of ground clearance to begin with, and by putting the wheels in each corner with abrupt overhangs makes approach angles extremely tight: 38º approach, 28º breakover and 40º departure – better than any other Land Rover. A wading depth of 900mm also means that unpredictable floods or rivers are no cause for concern. Lo-range is selectable at the touch of a button, which means the Defender can creep about terrain with huge torque and maximum grip.
As mentioned, Land Rover has put its decades of learnings into the Defender and that means it gets the full array of off-road-specific technologies. This includes ClearSight ground view that allows the driver to see ahead of the vehicle despite the bonnet using cameras and the centre-console display, plus all the usual hill descent controls. There’s also Land Rover’s hill ascent function, whereby all the driver need do is select a speed and point it in the right direction. The vehicle takes care of the rest.
The combination of engineering and technology makes the Defender an off-roading tour-de-force – even amongst other Land Rovers. The underside is reinforced and the air suspension can be raised 75mm to off-road position at the touch of a button. If that proves to be not enough, it can go up a further 70mm to 145mm. The suspension is also capable of articulating by up to 500mm, meaning the Defender can manage 45º angled slopes without so much as spilling the driver’s cup of tea.
The culmination of engineering is bewildering. However, the lasting impression is the opposite, with the Defender able to shrug off anything you care to throw at it. It’s so accomplished that you can forget about it. That said, the complexity is also one of the areas for minor concern. Old and basic off-roaders were kept that way so that they were easy to maintain with nothing more than a hammer, should the worst happen a million miles from nowhere up a mountain side. But it makes sense for Land Rover to employ all the technology they have in the new Defender and clinging onto the old mountain goat philosophy is, frankly, not where its customer base lies any longer. Will the army still want it? Probably not, but that misses the bigger picture.
Despite the Defender’s obvious off-road prowess, it needed to be good on-road too. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of driving an old Defender on the road, you’ll appreciate there was a lot of room for improvement.
Happily, Land Rover has decades of know-how in making its vehicles work well both on- and off-tarmac, with Range Rover establishing a new kind of SUV luxury in its own right. The new Defender doesn’t offer quite the same level of comfort as a twice-the-price Range Rover, but it does go a long way towards delivering considerable refinement despite its armoured nature.
Motorway speeds are easily achieved and when at them it’s stable too – important for towing, as it can pull 3,500kg. It’s also surprisingly quiet despite the blockwork aerodynamics, with only the steep windscreen and large wing mirrors offering anything more than a background hum. The gearbox is reasonably smooth although a little slow to react at times.
Cornering is predictably the Defender’s Achilles heel, as it is unable to override the laws of physics, its do-it-all suspension and tall ride height. But it isn’t a tragedy; far from it, it just means progress cannot be accomplished at race-car pace and is instead a more sedate affair – befitting of the vehicle.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the D240 Ingenium diesel engine, which offers 240hp and 430Nm of torque. From launch, there’s also a D200 available, which slightly lowers the power output.
In practice, fuel economy fluctuated between +40mpg on motorway jaunts (note: with no load) and +30mpg around town or off-road, with the day’s driving average ending with 38mpg overall – far better than the official stats indicate and after a varied drive including an hour’s off-roading.
Performance is perfectly adequate for the type of vehicle too, with 0-62mph taking 9.1 seconds for the D240 onto a top speed of ‘it really doesn’t matter’.
Other engines are soon to be added to the Defender’s list, including a plug-in hybrid and an intriguing straight-six petrol mild hybrid option, while the Defender will also be available in a shorter 90 variant, like the old model was, which alters performance outputs and off-road ability to only a small degree.
Perhaps the elephant in the room for the new Defender is its pricing. There’s two ways to look at it. If you want a no-compromise off-road ability, then it’s cheap at half the price of the range-topping Range Rover, with Defender 110 starting from £45,560; Defender 90 from £40,290; and the Commercial Hard Top £35,500 (plus VAT), all on-the-road (OTR). On the other hand, it’s expensive compared to some of the likely competition, including Land Rover’s own Range Rover Velar and Evoque and the Land Rover Discovery Sport. Admittedly, none are quite like the Defender, but if you want more opulence the Range Rovers are better choices and in the case of the Evoque, a full £10k less at starting price which isn’t to be ignored.
Land Rover also has a variety of trims and accessory options to suit your perceived requirements, whether that’s adding a winch to the front or side paniers for storing camping gear. There’s an astonishing 170 different things to choose from. Keeping things more simple are option packs that add popular items in one tick box. Land Rover will help you choose these based on a pictorial selection; for example select diving, cycling and dog walking plus a few Cotswoldian homes and a family photo, and Land Rover will suggest choosing the circa £1,500 Country Pack.
In terms of trim, there are the Defender, S, SE, HSE and top-of-the-range Defender X to choose from, in addition to a First Edition. S and SE are the likely best-sellers, offering the typical happy medium between cost and equipment.
Land Rover has pulled off the unthinkable and dragged the Defender badge kicking and screaming into the modern world, while retaining its charm and function. It’s a five-star vehicle in almost every way, and a huge achievement for Land Rover. It is only hindered by four-star pricing and its relatively small appeal due to its highly specific skillset.
Key Fleet Model: Land Rover Defender S D240
Strengths: Exceptional off-road and acceptable on-road performance, attention to detail
Weaknesses: Questionable value, handling trade-off for that off-road prowess
Fleet World Star Rating