The King is Dead.
A review of the all-new Land Rover Defender 110, printed in the Summer 2020 edition of Gallery magazine (www.gallery.je)
All words, photographs, editing and editorial design by Russ Atkinson.
The King is Dead.
I plead guilty, your honour. Guilty as charged, for crimes against progress. For letting my heart rule my mind and making judgements without merit, and for spreading propaganda. Because I, like many others, believed that a replacement to the Land Rover Defender was completely unjustified and that nothing could possibly succeed such a motoring icon, an unmistakable and undeniable stalwart, and – dare I say – the archetypal off-road vehicle? The best 4x4 by far?
It sounds paradoxical, but the recent launch of the new Land Rover Defender might possibly have been both the most highly anticipated and yet the least hotly anticipated new vehicle launch in the history of new vehicle launches. In the rust-coloured corner; weighing in at less than the original sales brochure says, are the traditionalists. The old guard. They've been faithful to the Land Rover brand since they bought their first Series Landie for a few hundred quid and regard the 300Tdi Defender as the pinnacle of utilitarianism. Most of them deny the existence of the Td5 engine, and the only Pumas they know of are covered in fur and live far, far away in the Americas. The new Defender doesn't deserve to bear the Defender mantle in their eyes, it couldn't hold a candle to the 'real thing' – which is apt, because as far as I know the technology for the headlights on all models from between 1983 and 2016 was derived from candles. And in the Pangea Green corner; a colour unique to the latest model, are those who've actually driven the latest incarnation of the Defender 110 since it landed on our shores. Allow me to tell you more...
I'll admit, I probably sat in the former category having owned a couple of Land Rover's finest relics and driven more than my fair share of Landies over time, but driving the new Defender made me question exactly what it is that we actually love about Land Rover's iconic off-roader - and I'm about to coin a phrase here in the hope that nobody else has beaten me to it – the Defender Classic. Is it the complete lack of aerodynamics that makes driving in high winds feel like a game of Russian roulette? Is the the sloppy steering box with hilariously little lock that makes you swing the wheel wildly to take up the slack as the camber of the road changes? Is it the panel gaps that allow the outdoors to become indoors at even the slightest hint of inclement weather? I don't think it's any of these things, so it must be something else. Something emotional; the way it makes you feel. Nostalgia. Things were just better in the good old days, right?
In short, the new Defender is everything that the previous versions never wanted to be, and almost everything that a modern version of this motoring icon probably should be. I didn’t want to like it, but in all honesty it’s difficult not to. It felt huge at first, but soon shrunk around me as I drove further, and whether peering over the bonnet, with its inset chequerplate details as a nod to that obligatory owner modification on the Classic (to hide the wobbly wing tops more than anything else), or glancing around the cabin at the recessed dashboard that’s reminiscent of Land Rover dashes of old – where you had to lean forward and operate a handle to open the bulkhead vents if the panel gaps weren’t providing enough cooling – there are subtle design cues everywhere giving it a nostalgic air. Even the sound of raindrops falling onto the roof takes you back in time as you trundle along, elbow rested atop the central cubby box – the only noticeable difference is that driving with your other elbow half way out of the window isn’t necessary in order to sit comfortably anymore, thankfully. Still, it’s all very, well... Defender.
Trundling along is also merely an option these days, incidentally, because the P300 model tested has more than enough punch to propel you forward at a distinctly un-Defender pace despite the vehicle weighing in at approximately 2.2 moons, making imagining how spritely the P400 is mind-boggling. Allow me to decode the engine options; P is for petrol, D is for diesel, and the number that follows denotes the horsepower figure. Yes, a 400bhp Defender is available straight off the production line. Possibly even harder to comprehend is that the P300 is powered by a four cylinder engine with a mere two-litre capacity. Plus a turbocharger, of course. It delivers power like a six-cylinder, with just the lag from the eight-speed automatic gearbox from a standstill and during kickdown letting the overall experience down slightly – gear changes up and down the ‘box are otherwise smooth though. You could charge this thing up and down motorways all day long with ease and without fear of death by crosswind, which is something that couldn’t be said for its predecessor – it’s actually fun to drive, with inspiring handling thanks to the adaptive air-suspension (although lower-spec models come with coils) and a nice bit of punch torque-wise. Dare I say even a B-road blast would probably be good fun? Although that’s mainly because the brakes actually work... If I was driving a car all day, every day, I’d buy one over a Classic. Let’s be realistic; with secondhand Pumas and Td5 Defender 90s being listed for nearly £40k locally and the new Defender 90 starting at around £37k when they’re released later this year, why lavish the extra cash on a design that’s nigh on forty years out of date and distinctly un-lavish? Naysayers will note that the amount of technological wizardry crammed inside the new one could make it prone to unreliability, but if I’m brutally honest the old ones were devoid of anything more technologically advanced than a CD player yet managed to be notoriously unreliable anyway so the bar has been set low. Oil leaks? That’s the anti-rust automatic lubrication system, sir. Td5 ECU failures? Never heard of them...
I do have to admit that working out how to get moving again took a while, no matter how much I thought I was holding down the trigger on the gear shifter with my foot on the brake pedal for good measure, but if that’s about as stuck as you’re likely to find yourself in the new Defender I can live with that. Switching between the driving modes and using the transfer box at the press of a button and turn of a knob is a comparative breeze and eons away from wrestling the seldom-used tiny additional gearstick, driving forward a bit, contending with the tiny gearstick a bit more, then repeating the charade in reverse to a choir of clunks and bangs to get back into high-range. I’ve always found you tend not to believe what a Defender can do right until you give it a try and it absolutely breezes it, and with the very limited driving through Granite Products’ quarry I got to experience, I felt confident that it’s going to lap it all up just like a Classic would. This confidence is probably also inspired by having seen the extensive testing in Kazhakstan - amongst other far-flung places – where Land Rover developed this new, replacement model. I can’t help but think that the greatest challenge for Land Rover has been ensuring that Defender delivers on all levels to silence the critics, and I’m confident that they’ll have delivered on all counts.
On the subject of technology, what you’re getting for your money mostly falls into the category of ‘things you never thought you might need’ if you’re already a time-served Defender owner. Now that your passengers are no longer thrust from side-to-side in the rear with a clear path to the back window - especially with the addition of the natty additional two seats available in the boot of the new 110 model - there’s an optional ‘ClearSight’ rear-view mirror that uses a camera feed to provide an unhindered view of what’s behind you. At first glance, it’s a bit like trying to see a Magic Eye image, but you soon get used to it. If that sounds a little ‘out there’, then prepare for the sublime; it’s called ‘ClearSight Ground View’ and it paints a 3D picture of your actual surroundings and places a rendering of your Defender inside it on that slick-looking screen in the centre of the dash. This allows you to see obstacles in the real world that would otherwise be invisible from inside the vehicle at the touch of the screen, which rotates the picture of your surroundings around the rendering of the vehicle you’re gazing at in amazement, and I can’t even begin to comprehend how it works. Hardcore off-roading and dodging errant trolleys in supermarket car parks aside, another practical application of this kind of technology comes into its own when towing – not only does it make life easier when it comes to positioning for hitch-up, it also gives you a better idea of where the trailer is at all times. Does this mean the steady erosion of driving skills in the future? Probably, but that doesn’t make the ability to see the otherwise invisible any less useful to have.
Whereas you used to hear nothing but the wind whistling in your right ear and a feint hint of music in your left ear while driving a Defender Classic, you can now add a high-end sound system courtesy of British manufacturer Meridien, and you won’t need to become entangled in a 12v cigar lighter to USB adapter any longer because not only are there an abundance of USB outlets from the dash to the centre console to the seat backs – including USB-C, hurrah – but also a conductive charging pad beneath the central arm rest for topping up your phone. The rear bench seats slide back and forth with a 60/40 split to juggle the legroom when the rearmost seats are in use and the middle row is ISOFIX ready. Up front, you can enjoy heated seats and even a heated steering wheel, and in both the rear cabin and the boot there are separate dials for adjusting the climate control. Not that the cubby boxes ever used to get particularly hot, but they’re now also chilled. Remember when people used to build 100” wheelbase Defenders on Range Rover chassis? Well now it’s as if they’ve put the entire Range Rover inside the Defender, rather than just the runing-gear. There’s one thing that’s been turned on its head though – the floor coverings. Now, instead of putting a boot liner on the carpet, the boot and floors are lined with rugged, chequerplate-pattered rubber and you can add the carpet on top, should you wish.
The exterior will likely polarise opinion, but personally it’s grown on me hugely. Just look at it! The only thing that can equal its toy-like aesthetic is the latest Suzuki Jimny, both of which look as if they’ve been plucked straight from a child’s hand and plonked into the real world in life-sized form. The blended wheelarches in place of the plastic ones that were bonded on quickly when the track was widened from that of the Series 3 in the eighties, the way the body line curves between the staggered-width flat surfaces mid-way, the alpine roof-lights that are almost invisible on the outside yet instantly remind you of the Classic on the inside – there are so many subtle design cues that justify the new Defender as both an evolution and an homage to its predecessor. Add in the debossed ‘DEFENDER’ lettering in the recessed dash, those absolutely stunning rear lights that sit flush with the bodywork and the chunky torx bolts holding the door panels on and there’s no denying that the vehicle is a real statement piece.
So, all of this leads me to ask again why exactly is it that the Defender Classic holds a special place in our hearts? There’s no doubt that it’s an icon, the pace of it’s evolution belying its longevity, its go-anywhere spirit only thwarted by a lack of ingenuity in fixing its almost rudimentary component parts, and I’ve no doubt it’ll continue to live on for decades to come - but for the needs of the many the time has come to move on. The king is dead; long live the king.