Motoring Review

The new Land Rover Defender proves a worthy successor to the old model

Landy's new kid on the block is pretty darn accomplished

03 January 2021 - 00:00
The new Land Rover Defender.
The new Land Rover Defender.
Image: Tim Hulme

It was a Saturday afternoon and I'd arrived at a friend's home for an afternoon braai (post hard lockdown, of course). I was driving a new Land Rover Defender and the sight of it squeezing in between all the other cars parked out in the garden sent the menfolk into a frenzy of excitement. Similar to the flies that had just caught scent of their bar snacks, they left the fire to do its thing and started swarming around the heavy-set sides of the vehicle in question.

Hands were run over the metalwork, heads were poked inside the cabin and numerous sets of eyes scanned the contents of the engine bay. And like some poor freak paraded in front of a group of Victorian-era doctors, the Defender found itself the victim of a rather humiliating dressing down.

The men, fired up on beer after months of forced prohibition, were largely unimpressed and all too quick to voice their collective disdain about the model's evolution. "The old one you could fix with a brick and a piece of string," one proclaimed loudly. "Look at all the electronics in here," said another. "In my 2005 model all I needed were some spanners and a couple of socket wrenches - this thing needs a laptop." Laughter ensued and the pack trickled back to the coals.

I'm telling you this story because it seems to mirror the general sentiment shared among so-called car people when it comes to broaching the subject of the new Defender. To them this Land Rover is a sellout: a modern-day masquerade so far removed from its "spiritual" predecessor that it shouldn't even share the same name. And, I guess, in certain respects they might be right.

However, it is interesting to note that these acid-tongued critiques are often fired from the very same people who attacked the old model's cramped ergonomics, exhausting lack of refinement on longer treks and antiquated interior amenities. Take them to task over this blatant hypocrisy and they'll justify it with some kind of throw-away comment like, "Ja, bro, but at least you could actually take the old one off-road."

Okay, I'm no expert when it comes to venturing off the beaten path. I've been up and down a few Namibian sand dunes, but that's about it. Generally I try not to traverse anything gnarlier than a badly corrugated dirt road because a) I'm not very skilled in this department and b) I have a healthy respect for the path unbeaten. As such I'm not really able to regale you with a Camel Man-esque assessment of how the new Defender performs when you drive it deep into the baddest of bundus.

But from what I've heard, watched and read from people more schooled than me in this area of expertise, Land Rover's new kid on the block is pretty darn accomplished. Good enough to follow in the tyre treads of its forebear? Absolutely - and, in some cases, even leave it trailing behind. Simple reason being that the new Defender comes with a cache of electronic driver aids that make off-roading a more straightforward affair.

In the old model you really had to ponder what you were doing and apply your experience and learnings to successfully traverse different terrains. Here you just dial in the appropriate program on the Terrain Response system (there are no less than six to choose from) and let the car do all the thinking for you. And as the transmission is now fully automatic, all you really need to do is steer. Brilliant.

You also get adaptive air suspension, hill descent control, a low-range transfer box and the fiendishly clever Ground View camera system that lets you see - in real time - the terrain beneath your front wheels. This helps you better position the vehicle and avoid obstacles without having to leave the cabin. So to underestimate the new Defender's mud-slinging capabilities is a grave and foolish mistake: of all the mainstream 4x4s on the market today, this Landy certainly ranks as one of the most talented.

The spacious and elegant interior.
The spacious and elegant interior.
Image: Tim Hulme

The thing is, it melds together this go-anywhere swagger with a level of on-asphalt polish that makes it a delight to thread through the confines of the concrete jungle. Seriously, in terms of ride quality and road manners, the new Defender feels as unfussed as its Discovery sibling in dealing with day-to-day suburban drudgery. It also displays none of the vague or imprecise handling characteristics you'd expect to encounter behind the wheel of more agricultural rivals such as the Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Land Cruiser.

Axles don't shudder and the drivetrain doesn't clunk; everything feels well pieced together. It's also excellent out on the open road. While its predecessor struggled to cruise at 130km/h without feeling like it was about to implode, this new model can blast along national highways all day at speeds well above the legal limit (I still have the unpaid fine to prove it) without breaking the slightest sweat.

Cabin refinement is commendable, the seats are comfortable, and there's finally a place to rest your right elbow. You also get an excellent infotainment system compatible with Apple CarPlay and linked to a plethora of USB ports depending on your final cabin configuration. Ten years ago, driving a Defender long distance was a form of automotive masochism; now it's something you actually look forward to.

Fast facts on the Land Rover Defender

• ENGINE: 1,998cc four-cylinder turbodiesel

• POWER: 177kW at 4,000rpm

• TORQUE: 430Nm at 1,400rpm; 0-100km/h:9.1 seconds (claimed)

• TRANSMISSION: Eight-speed Quickshift 

• TOP SPEED: 188km/h (claimed)

• FUEL:14.3l/100km (achieved)

• PRICE: From R1,143,900

I do have some gripes though. The four-cylinder turbodiesel engine in my test unit seemed unreasonably thirsty, while the eight-speed gearbox never seemed entirely sure of what cog it should be in, particularly when navigating the indecisive soup of urban driving. It also felt loathe to kick-down at times: something that can frustrate during cut-and-thrust overtaking maneuvers.

Lastly, and this is just a dig at the greater Defender range in general, I question Land Rover's wisdom to not offer a more basic and utilitarian model with steel-sprung suspension, less luxury and fewer electronics. If they did, maybe all those loud-mouth deriders would quieten down a wee bit?

Still, there's no reason why you should listen to them and their ridiculous Boys' Own fantasies about fixing a Series II en route to the Congo using nothing but a piece of chewing gum and an old shoelace. Sure, the evolutionary jump has been a shock to the system, but once you get used to it you will find that the new Defender is one of the most convincing do-it-all off-roaders you can throw your money at: one that should indeed make its long-served namesake proud.


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