FIRST DRIVE | A turn in the reinvented 2020 Land Rover Defender

09 September 2020 - 09:56
The author puts the new Land Rover Defender through its paces at the Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre in Johannesburg.
The author puts the new Land Rover Defender through its paces at the Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre in Johannesburg.
Image: Supplied

“The old one was better.”

These five words are often used as a cruel riposte to new iterations of long-standing nameplates. Think Toyota Supra, BMW M3, Porsche 911, or just about any motoring nameplate that took the trouble to evolve with the times.

Fair enough, there are some cases where predecessors in certain lineages were superior. But this is not one of those occasions.

You can guarantee a fringe of commentators will speak out with disdain for the reborn Land Rover Defender. They have already. Those ardent fans of the original warhorse are unlikely to ditch their battle-hardened old steeds for the latest specimen.

But then, this new Defender aims to attract a demographic above and beyond the traditional profile, with oil-stained fingernails, Camel-hued teeth and windscreen stickers that read: “One life, live it.”

Last week we had a stint in the saddle. This is easily one of the most anticipated automotive releases of 2020. We recall how the Land Rover stand seemed to be the most crowded at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year, when the wraps were taken off.  It has already secured a spot on the preliminary list of eligible metal in the Luxury Car category of the 2021 World Car Awards.

A luxurious Defender? Never before has such an adjective applied. Thinking back to the last time a Defender passed through my hands, in 2016, the experience was anything but cosseting. Remember, for example, the not-so-ergonomic handbrake placement? Or the natural resting point for your right arm, jutting awkwardly out of the driver side window? In the new car, the handbrake is electronic, as you would expect. And no longer does your elbow have to ride extraneously.

The new Defender remains an incredibly capable off-roader.
The new Defender remains an incredibly capable off-roader.
Image: Supplied

Luckily, the more endearing hallmarks were kept in this modernised-retro execution. The door panel rivets are exposed. The rear section retains those windows on either side of the ceiling, known as “Alpine lights” in Defender speak.

Like the classic, the fascia is minimalistic: just a screen, a few buttons and the gear stick dominates the central layout. But the breadth of technology at your fingertips – especially when it comes to off-roading aids – is outright astonishing.

The Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre in Johannesburg is home to a trail named in honour of Kingsley Holgate. Who else?

Over this series of obstacles, we had tested the axle-twisting, slope-climbing, hill-descending and swimming capabilities of the model. To be curt, the outing erred on the boring side, because the sheer ease with which this new Defender sauntered over each hurdle required little effort from the organic blob at the wheel.

Of course, it has the right hardware for the pursuit of daunting terrains. Under the skin is the same aluminium-intensive D7 architecture that serves in the Discovery, albeit significantly reworked for heavier-duty usage. Independent suspension, plus the benefit of pneumatics, promises a far more enjoyable on-road character too.

But my first exposure to the vehicle was exclusively on the rough stuff, so no comment can be made on its tarmac behaviour for now. How about some numbers? Ground clearance? That goes up to about 291mm, depending on setting. Maximum axle articulation? 500mm. Wading depth? 900mm. Approach, break-over and departure angles? 38, 28 and 40 degrees respectively. Drive is to all four wheels, obviously, while the essential low-range engagement is performed electronically, at the push of a button.

The cabin of the new Defender offers more comfort and luxury than its predecessor could ever dream of.
The cabin of the new Defender offers more comfort and luxury than its predecessor could ever dream of.
Image: Supplied

The only gripe that emerged was a symphony of notable creaks from the interior panels over trickier sections of the trail. Those with a sense of humour may assert that these are built-in acoustics nodding to the original.

For outdoor novices, the Terrain Response 2 system is virtually foolproof, with its pictograms that correspond with the surfaces underfoot. All you have to do, really, is bring your own beard. The Defender has everything else. Elements such as the ClearSight Ground View system, display sections of earth via camera that would usually be concealed by the bonnet of the vehicle.

My demonstrator was of the P400 variety, which is the flagship derivative in the range. The turbocharged-petrol, in-line, six-cylinder unit serves up 294kW and 550Nm and incorporates electric assistance thanks to a 48-volt hybrid setup. Supplementing this choice is a pair of four-cylinder units, one diesel, one petrol, both with two-litre displacements.

Rest assured, the Defender safeguards a legacy of impeachable ability over treacherous terrain. Now it brings a level of refinement that Land Rover fathers Maurice and Spencer Wilks could have never dreamed of.

But this introduction was from the relative safety of a simulated environment in the suburbs. The real test for the Defender will be the African continent.

Pricing for the 2020 Land Rover Defender is upward of R1,050,100.