The world of new cars, in general, isn’t actually as exciting as you may think. New models get released, then go through a mid-cycle facelift and eventually a new version is introduced. New engines and trim options appear every now and then, but all in all, it’s a very repetitive cycle. However, once in a while something generally exciting happens. Something like the launch of a car that fundamentally hasn’t changed in over 3 decades.
The world mourned when the final Land Rover Defender rolled off the Solihull production line on January 29th, 2016. A car that has created so many memories for so many people had come to an end. Few cars have received such adoration from the public as the trusty Defender. Whether you were brought up on a farm and sat in the cab as you drove feed to the sheep, or you used one for work or you just loved using one for off-roading, people from all walks of life all over the globe loved the Defender.
Now you wouldn’t think this kind of love and respect from a global audience would be a bad thing, right? Well, in reality, what Land Rover had unknowingly done is create one almighty rod for their own back with regards to a new Defender. Whatever followed had to be special, it had to be as iconic and recognisable as the original but also modern, futureproof and useable in today’s climate. Needless to say, I don’t envy the team that had the task of coming up with the replacement.
Fast forward 3 and a half years and the time had come for one of the most anticipated car launches ever. The automotive world held its breathe as Land Rover unveiled the new Defender.
Like all things new and different, the new Defender was met with some cynicism, but it was safe to say that the overall consensus was that the new car was a wonderful representation of Land Rover’s past, present and future. With styling cues from the original Defender like the rear-mounted spare wheel, the alpine windows and most importantly, it’s unparalleled off-road ability. The real reason the original Defender was so loved around the world.
After some patience and a lot of built-up excitement, I finally had my hands on the car to see if the new Defender is still worthy of its name. The model I was using was the 110 D240 First Edition with added “Urban Pack” which was powered by a 2.0-litre diesel engine that produced 240HP and 430NM with the standard automatic gearbox. I knew from launch that I was going to like the Defender. I loved the way it looked in all the press packs and Land Rover did a great job of making it look good in every environment they shot it in and I’m pleased to say that its tough and rugged looks are only more handsome in the metal.
The first thing you appreciate when you get close to one is just how big it is. It’s bigger than the old Discovery 3/4 and it made my P38 Range Rover feel like a Fiat 500. It has so much presence. The flat, slab-sided design with lots of Indus Silver metal and darkened glass give you this huge greenhouse of a car that feels imposing, but it’s actually soft on the eye and the front end is possibly the best looking front end on offer from Land Rover right now, with the exception of the Range Rover maybe. Inside, the car is a brilliant blend of hard-wearing materials with tough-looking fittings and comfort and light – something the previous Defender always struggled with. The door cards have an industrial style with exposed fixings, hard plastics and big chunky handles that even the clumsiest of people could manage. Even the seats feel comfortable but durable. The material is a mix of khaki leather and Robust Woven Fabric. Gone are the days of backache and no place to put your elbow!
The layout of the dash is a welcome change to most modern trends with a lack of clutter and snug-fitting panels. Instead, you have this fantastic structural beam across the centre wrapped in hard-wearing material that doubles up as a shelf and grab handle. It even has a power outlet so the passenger can charge a variety of electrical items. It’s also relieving to see that the “traditional” screen that manages the seats, climate control and many other features that is in the rest of the Land Rover range has been replaced by good old fashioned buttons. Big, easy to use buttons too! You have one simple touchscreen in the centre of the beam for the car’s infotainment that looks a bit like one of those digital photo frames your aunty has, but the simplicity of the dash and centre console works really well. Fewer distractions, more space.
The only remotely inconvenient part of this minimalist approach to the interior design came when we ventured off the beaten track – in previous generation cars like the Discovery 3/4 and L322 Range Rover, you had a simple selector wheel for using the terrain response systems and it worked brilliantly. In the Defender, to keep everything in that one cluster on the dash, and to presumably save space and “keep it simple”, the terrain response selection is done by pressing the driver’s side cabin temperature knob and then twisting to your required off-road mode. It works, and in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather it was there than hidden in a labyrinth of options in the infotainment system, but it’s not necessarily the obvious place you look when you’re about to hit the mud.
Other than that minor gripe, I love the interior. The combination of a clutter-free dash and lots of glass means you have a lovely airy cabin that feels as spacious as it is. The seats are all very comfortable with plenty of cushioning and the big chunky steering wheel feels like it should be on a JCB. Big chunky buttons have replaced the touch-style buttons in other Land Rover’s too. Another clear indicator that this was designed with the great outdoors in mind over the inner-city car streets and school pick-up zones.
During my time with the Defender I had to do a fair bit of “daily driving”, and by that, I mean driving to and from my place of work, which is roughly an hour each way on a mixture of dual carriageway and bump, poorly maintained country roads and at no point did the Defender feel uncomfortable, slow or “too big”. To be honest, with the combination of the air suspension and sound deadening along with the comfortable and spacious interior, it felt very similar to drive to my old Discovery 3 which is in no way a bad thing. I loved that car and covered tens of thousands of miles in it and it was always a joy to be in. The old Defender was slow, wallowy, loud and if you drove more than a handful of miles in it, it gave you chronic backache (not to mention hyperthermia in winter) but the new car couldn’t be further from this if it tried. The 240hp 2.0-litre diesel engine was also surprisingly swift – something I thought would be an issue given the sheer bulk of the new car. But it never felt like it was trying to pull a 747 up a hill and it even returned a generous 30mpg average over the week.
However, the real test for the new Defender isn’t in the quality of its interior, or the suppleness of its ride on the motorway as, quite frankly, it wouldn’t take much to win the comparison against the old model. The only feature that die-hard Defender lovers and enthusiasts will pay any attention to is how well it performs off-road. The old Defender was world-famous for its ability to quite literally go anywhere. From rural farmland in Australia to the Amazon rainforest, from North African sand dunes to the Arctic Circle, the Defender had conquered them all. Can the newby hold a candle to the old-timer?
Well, to put it simply, yes. Yes, it can. As we all know from the last few generations of Discovery and Range Rover, Land Rover have only improved on what was already their market-leading ability to go further than other cars. Every time a new Land Rover comes along with an upgraded Terrain Response system we are yet again blown away by how good it is and the Terrain Response 2 system in the New Defender is no different. With the simple press of a few buttons, you’re in lo-range and the suspension is raised and then you’re pretty much ready to go anywhere…
Now obviously I wasn’t able to venture too far with the Defender, so the above locations were off the cards, however, the uneven, slippery and often wet byways of Bedfordshire offered up enough of a mixture in terrain to at least test out the overall capability of the car. The transition from asphalt to sand and mud was seamless, with the Defender showing no signs of stopping as we slowly and carefully worked our way up the byway. From crashing through water to 19-degree side slopes and plenty of loose sand, there was no point in the day where I felt the car was nothing but 100% in control. I must admit that in previous reviews of cars like the new Discovery, I had mentioned that as clever as these cars are, the plethora of off-road modes and digital aids can numb the senses a bit to the whole experience, I actually take that back now.
The Defender may have all these features and with a turn of the knob, you can go from snow to sand, to rock crawling and so on, you still have the option to just whack it into lo-range and do the best you can yourself. It’s a bit like my camera – it has a load of special pre-set modes that can make even the most amateur photographer take a decent snap (like me) but there is still also the option to switch it all off and get it set up the way you want it not the way it thinks you want it. The Defender still lets you do that – and that was something I was worried that might have been lost between the old and new versions. There is absolutely no denying the new Defender is VERY different from the old one, but it also manages to hold on to the spirit. In the same way that a new 992 Porsche 911 is a million miles away from the original 911, the characteristics, the personality and the overall sense of joy it brings are still there. With the new Defender, I now know that it puts the same kind of smile on my face as the old one did. Yes, it’s more comfortable and therefore may be considered “softer”, but trust me, this car is far from another school-run supermarket trolley with a. few fancy gadgets.
Obviously, many new models will never see “real” mud, and they will probably never have half of the off-road features used, but all that says to me is that Land Rover have yet again produced a great car that can exceed the expectations of the owner, no matter what environment it is in. The new Defender is the first car I’ve driven in probably the last 2 years that I genuinely want to own for myself and I’ve probably spent far too many hours since the car went back doing some serious “man-maths” trying to work out just what I need to sell/stop eating/stop drinking to be able to make it a possibility soon.
There’s a very good reason why the new Defender has received such high praise by motoring authorities all around the globe in the last 12 months. To put it simply, it is brilliant.
As always, a huge thank you to Land Rover UK PR for the loan of the new Defender and for their continuing support of Well Driven – you can configure your own Defender on the Land Rover website now. Another big thank you goes to Rick at Sprite Photography for yet another incredible set of photographs.