In an age when driving an Sports Utility Vehicle is the norm and being used as a fashion accessory or a high-tech inclusive all-in-one gadget laden with tech, we forget the roots of how the SUV was born, its lineage, and its real, intended use.
Japan has the Toyota Land Cruiser, the United States has the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler (which traces its roots to the World War 2 era Willy’s Jeep), Germany has the Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen (G-Wagen in short). But the longest living and iconic, and some say the best 4×4 by far is the UK’s Land Rover Defender.
The Defender has seen all sorts of use: military, civilian, humanitarian and emergency response / medical use. It is a design icon, right there with say, the Porsche 911, the Ford Mustang, the Jaguar E-Type and the boxy but sexy Volvos of yore.
It’s also a favorite of high-society and royalty: the Queen of England has an impressive collection of Defenders, having been an army mechanic during WW2 herself, as does the rest of the Royal Family. Of course, former British PM Sir Winston Churchill also owned one, and BBC’s Jeremy Clarkson’s household (particularly his wife) were also fans of the Defender. It has also featured prominently in many movies such as Tomb Raider, Hellboy (the remake), various James Bond movies from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, The Expendables 2 & 3, The Da Vinci Code, Red 2, The Fate of the Furious and so many more. The lightweight, despite its modest power makes it very capable off-road, and the simplicity of its design and construction means on-site repairs are a breeze, making it popular. Getting water inside while crossing a river? No worries, that’s part of its appeal!
Fans and owners of the Defender call themselves ‘Rovernuts’ and with good reason: you have to be nuts to drive one, especially as a daily driver.
Counting all of my test drives, the old Land Rover Defender is the single most difficult car I have ever driven. The stiffest clutch known to man, a steering wheel that requires Herculean effort to turn, a ride that rivals the jeepney for bumpiness, and a recalcitrant manual gearshift that requires more of a kick than a hard shove to slot into gear. It requires you to prove yourself to be a real man, worthy of driving a real living legend. Sounds cool, but not when you’re dead-tired, with a long drive home, bumper-to-bumper traffic lying in wait ahead.
With the all-new Defender unveiled, Land Rover took a massive quantum leap. Let me tell you why.
First is its construction: utilizing the D7x PLA (premium lightweight architecture) platform, it was developed specifically for the Defender using a uni-body construction, whereas older models relied on an archaic body-on-frame design. Improvements to NVH and refinement, space and comfort, on-road performance manners and to comply with the latest safety regulations worldwide dictated the switch. Secondly, the Defender is built at the JLR Group’s Nitra factory in Slovakia, so it’s not truly 100% British, a move seen to help lower production costs for the beleaguered brand. Thirdly is the use of technology to improve the Defender’s performance, a complete 180-degree about-face from the original Defender’s ‘keep it simple, stupid’ ethos.
Giving it a once-over, the Defender looks ruggedly handsome: its imposing stance, boxy macho silhouette and tall ride height looks like it’s ready for adventure. The standard air suspension means there is a huge 900mm of flood fording depth, one of the highest of all SUV’s. The roof-rack adds even more versatility, and there’s a locking utility box on the passenger side, between the C and D pillars which also adds more cargo space.
The powertrain is tried and tested mixed with cutting edge: the ubiquitous ZF 8-speed automatic transmission finds its way into the Defender, together with a 2-speed (high and low-range) transfer case. Our local units come equipped with the Ingenium P400 powerplant: a direct-injected, 3.0 liter V6 gasoline engine that is turbocharged and supercharged! A small electric motor also helps boost power especially at low RPM’s. All told, it delivers 400hp and a massive 580 Newton-Meters of torque. This results in an instantaneous surge of power the moment you step on the accelerator, even in ECO or COMFORT driving modes. The mild-hybrid also helps improve fuel efficiency, as we saw a real-world fuel consumption of 7km/liter for our total city and highway drive. Very decent, considering we were going around in circles waiting for rain to subside before we could start taking pictures of the Defender. With less than 700km/s under its belt, that engine will gain even more power and efficiency in the long run.
Inside, the seats are covered in leather but the edges have hard-wearing fabric to prevent ripping. The whole lower portion of the cabin is covered in water-proof plastic, which means you can hose it down after it gets some water in while fording deep waters. Aside from room spacious enough for five adults to enjoy long travels, there are oodles of cargo space inside for your gadgets, drinks and personal effects, and useful grab-handles when the going gets tough.
There’s a large LCD display in place of the traditional instrument cluster, and an even larger multi-media touch-screen LCD display on the centre console for the infotainment system. There’s Android Auto, but no Apple CarPlay for now on local units, but the sound system still plays awesome music. There are multiple cameras around, very useful when rock-crawling, and there’s even a bird’s eye-view monitor so you can see all that’s around the car. Taking things a notch further, there’s a viewing mode that allows you to see the Defender from the third person perspective to really help you assess your environment, be it parking or rock-crawling.
Ride height is adjustable of course, and you get as much as six inches of play from the lowest loading-only setting, to the highest off-road mode. Ride comfort is excellent: cushy and refined but with excellent body control on the highway. It is able to soak up a lot of bumps and ruts smoothly on poorly paved roads, and there’s a lot of suspension ‘droop’ so that makes off-road traction and stability promising. On the highway, the drive is serene, the brakes a tad over-assisted but powerful and progressive and the steering light but with very good feel. Finally, a Defender the average person can truly drive all-day, every day.
There is one bit of software I was dying to try, and that is the Terrain Response software. Unfortunately, JLR asked us to refrain from any mud-plugging for now as the Defender still has a long career ahead for test drives for both clients and media. But having tried the software’s prowess in the past in snow, ice, mud, sand and of course tarmac in Iceland a few years back, I am confident that the Defender’s off-road prowess will live up to its name.
The icon has returned, reborn for the 21st century. Long live the Defender!
A car enthusiast through and through, Botchi Santos believes that different people have different needs. He tries to find the best car for a specific audience, and spruces things up by delving into car culture, helping make the local car community vibrant and enjoyable for all. His passion for motoring is built around a belief that cars are among the top three life purchases.