The absolute antiquity of the old Defender, one of the big reasons it was so unique, was also the main thing holding back any large-scale success. While many love the old Defender, it’s often done from a distance. Drive one, and you are transported back to a time when comfort, ergonomics, safety and refinement played 2nd fiddle to utility and rugged simplicity. While a small handful love it, the vast majority of car buyers expect a little more.
The new Defender needs to appeal to a wider audience beyond the faithful, and toe the modern line of crash safety, refinement and efficiency. But at the same time, it must maintain and grow the legacy of the Defender, which was hard-earned over sixty eight years.
To do this, Land Rover has realistically only retained the name and spirit of the old Defender, carrying over nothing from the old recipe of chassis and machinations.
There’s no more old-school steel ladder chassis, which served as the bedrock since inception in 1948. Instead, there’s a modern aluminium monocoque chassis called ‘D7x’. It’s related to the underpinnings of Range Rover and Discovery (D7u), but the ‘x’ stands for extreme. It’s a heavy-duty version in other words; steel subframes are made stronger, along with beefier ball joints and axles.
While sporting similar all-round independent geometry, the Defender’s suspension is much stronger than other other models in the range. The Defender is able to withstand a 7-tonne vertical load through the wheels, and has 6.5-tonne recovery points at the front and rear of the vehicle.
When it’s all said and done, Land Rover says this is the most capable and durable vehicle it has ever made. And it needs that, to ever be considered a true heir to the heritage of exploration, utility, capability and adventure that the old Defender embodied so authentically.
We’re behind the wheel of two new Land Rover Defenders on an early-access drive in the wild north-western Kunene region of Namibia.
There’s a Pangea Green Defender D240, which is powered by a 177kW/430Nm 2.0 litre twin-turbo diesel engine and rolling on 18” steel wheels. It’s a base specification with a more powerful engine option, with a starting price of $75,900. The Indus Silver Defender is a P400 S specification, with more interior appointments and 19” alloy wheels. It’s petrol-powered, three litres worth of turbocharged inline six delivering 294kW and 550Nm. It’s more expensive as well, starting at $95,700 before options.
The interior of the new Defender is an interesting experience, especially if you have history with the Defenders (and Series Land Rovers) of old. It’s an intoxicating mix of old and new; modern technology presented in a simple, pared back way. The structural magnesium backplate, emblazoned with ‘DEFENDER’ and terminating in grab handles, is a wonderfully executed throwback, which also doubled as handy storage space.
There’s plenty of tech and gear the old Defender never dreamed of having: dual-zone climate control, ten-inch infotainment display (with Apple Carplay and Android Auto), electronic shifter for the 8-speed automatic gearbox, push-button start, steering-wheel mounted buttons and a digital instrument display (in some models).
The longer (3022mm) wheelbase of the new Defender imbues extra space, as well. It can be had as a five-seater as standard, but you can opt for a third row as a seven seater or front jump-seat as a six-seater. We didn’t test a third row, but the second row was plenty spacious and comfortable, and even the middle jump seat was comfortable enough aside from the unique appeal.
Boot space is commendably large as well, with 1075 litres on offer.
Rubber floor mats point towards usability, and the optional jump-seat in the front row adds another edge to the sense of adventure this new Defender has. While the clamshell bonnet has a different look and the windscreen isn’t a flat pane of glass anymore, sitting in the driver’s seat and looking outward still reminds you of an old Defender a little bit.
New, modern powertrains, effective sound deadening and active engine mounts keeps both petrol and diesel powered Defenders impressively refined. Compared to the old Defender, it’s in another universe. Even compared to Land Rover’s other luxury-oriented products, it’s bloody quiet and refined.
That experience continues when you start moving, as well. The suspension is impressively smooth, especially on the rough unsealed roads where we spent 99 per cent of our time. Independent suspension offers markedly better refinement over the old live-axle setup, but big adaptive damping gives the Defender superb control, even through the loose and rough surfaces we were barreling through.
Steering is also well dialled in: playfully responsive from off-centre movements, and giving a well-connected feeling through cornering. It’s a much faster steering feeling to the old Defender, but the long-travel throttle pedal is typical of the marque. While it can feel a little doughy on-road until you get used to it, you reap big benefits off-road.
And that’s a big part of the equation for the new Defender, and a tough part of the boots to fill. The old Defender built a legendary reputation for off-road. A mystique even, through its countless exploits.
While this new Defender goes about it in a completely different way, it’s undoubtedly capable, and more so than the old one. The selectable driving modes through Terrain Response 2 (which includes an auto mode) optimise the locking rear and centre differentials to suit the terrain, along with tailoring traction control, throttle response, gear selection, steering and suspension.
There’s some pioneering off-road tech, as well: wade sensing will measure water depth as you drive through, configurable terrain response lets you set up your own driving profiles, and the 360-degree camera system can be used to visualise your vehicle’s track placement from all kinds of augmented angles.
The new Defender does score well in terms of more traditional off-road yardsticks, as well. There’s up to 290mm of ground clearance thanks to the raised air suspension, good reduction gearing through the transfer case and a class-leading 900mm of wading depth. Cross-linked air suspension allows for up to 500mm of articulation, and lends to the planted feeling through cross-axles and side angles.
Along with being more inherently capable than the old Defender, the new Defender is also much easier to wrangle off-road, thanks to the air suspension and off-road gizmos. The fly in the ointment for many is the simple fact that the Defender has evolved so radically, and isn’t the same simple vehicle that it once was.
True durability will only be proved in the passing of time, although our experience of hard driving across a few days in tough conditions didn’t see any mechanical issues.
Yes, it’s no longer the live-axled,ladder-chassis, old-school 4WD that it once was. Unlike Wrangler, Jimny and 70 Series LandCruiser, the Defender has truly evolved into something modern.
Many are angry, and have written off the new Defender as some kind of pretender because it’s now a more modern and complex proposition. But you need to remember that this has been part of Land Rover’s game for some time now: pioneering new stuff. They did it with coil-sprung 4WDs, selectable off-road traction control, height-adjustable air suspension and many other things. This new Defender continues that tradition of moving the game forward.
True enthusiasts of the brand will be a tough mob to win over, regardless of how good this new Defender might be. And on our first impressions, it is impressively good. There’s still a special feel to this new Defender, and a sense of adventure that’s in keeping with history. And along with being still a great off-roader, it’s seriously good at higher-speed exploits and promises to be a durable companion on adventures.