Land Rover's redesigned Defender has launched under a tremendous burden of expectation.
Being the successor product to such an off-road and adventure icon, is fraught. Land Rover traditionalists dismiss it as being too advanced, ignoring the obvious state of a world that in 2020 requires safety and emissions standards which an original Defender could never adhere to.
We spent some time with the new 110 First Edition to see if it is worthy of the Defender name, and how it fits into Land Rover's increasingly crowded and segmented product portfolio.
Superior platform strength and robust abilities
The second-generation Defender is built on Land Rover's D7 large vehicle monocoque platform, shared with various Range Rover models. Specific engineering details adapt it to a D7x configuration.
Whereas the other large Land Rover luxury SUVs with low-range and meaningful off-road ability have aluminium sub-frames, new Defender replaces these with forged steel components, definitely a nod to its superior platform strength and more robust capabilities.
Within the constraints of crash safety regulations, Land Rover's designers have managed to give the new Defender a silhouette that most off-road enthusiasts might expect: A two-box design, broadly similar in outline to what your eight-year old would draw as their safari family car.
True to its legacy: Classic Defender design details
Inside this Defender, it is what you'd expect from a contemporary adventure SUV priced beyond R1 million. But what is surprising, and a credit to Land Rover's staff responsible for the vehicle's cabin architecture, are the number of classic Defender design details which have been retained and reinterpreted.
The door panels, tailgate and dash have exposed bolt heads and additional ambient light is allowed in through those slim roof windows. All these design elements pay homage to its Defender legacy.
'Terrifically comfortable' ride
Whereas the original Defender was an ergonomic nightmare, with a parking brake that would stab at your calf and an offset driving position that wedged you up against the door, the new version is terrifically comfortable. And it is not merely a question of impressive digital screens, intuitive touch haptics and some expensively padded seats — sound insulation is superb too.
The entire dashboard section has that classic Defender stowage tray which forms part of a structural crossbeam, and it is finished with rubber surfacing.
In a world where we are all carrying a myriad of devices, this stowage area is ideal for keeping smartphones from annoyingly sliding around while navigating steep off-road terrain.
The cabin also has a generosity of USB points ensuring that all passengers can easily keep their devices charged.
New interior technology
Some of the Defender's new interior technology required familiarisation. The rear-view mirror is digital, relaying a video feed and at first, I found it awfully distracting. Our eyes are so wired to be attracted by any high-resolution screen, that it overwhelmed my sense of forward awareness.
After adjusting the brightness down a bit, it become less obtrusive and the broad field of view became a useful driving tool in traffic.
Air-suspension makes all the difference
Beyond the ingenious interior, what does the new Defender drive like?
Again, it is predictably a world better than the old version, but that's hardly what Land Rover's designers were bench-marking.
Rolling huge 20-inch wheels and featuring air-suspension at all four wheel corners, new Defender has simply outstanding ride quality. It is responsive when twirling around traffic circles and stable at highway cruising speeds, but retains a sense of composure as it smooths over the worst road surfaces.
I can't imagine anyone benefiting from this new Defender's full potential without the air-suspension system. It civilizes awful rural roads without inducing queasiness due to pitch and roll, which is often a weakness in off-road vehicles with comparably high ground clearance.
The bodywork lifts 145mm between the suspension's lowest and highest mode, and that has a significant influence on the Defender's centre of gravity. That means it can track with great stability in "normal" mode, when you are cruising in the N1's far righthand lane, but also literally rise to expectations, when required, off-road.
Impressive 4×4 hardware
Its fundamental 4×4 hardware is impressive: 500mm of vertical wheel travel at each corner and a proper rear axle differential lock, something which was always annoyingly missing on the old Defender. But what truly defines this new Defender, is how seamlessly it comes together.
Land Rover's engineers deserve all the plaudits for creating a deep software code that harmonises new Defender's excellent mechanical package.
With the suspension raised to its off-road exploration setting and 291mm of ground clearance below the differentials, this new Land Rover has less terrain snagging risk than any luxury specification Land Cruiser.
The Defender's low-range gearing leverages every bit of the two-litre turbodiesel's 177kW and 430Nm, while a 38-degree approach and 40-degree departure angle enable navigating up and over — or down and through — the most daunting obstacles.
The calibre of technical off-road terrain that often surges anxiety among novice 4×4 drivers, is easily defeated by the new Defender. Not only by the impressive wheel travel and excellent throttle-to-traction calibration, but also by virtue of using the latest digital technology.
Multiple cameras and graphic overlaying allow you perspectives that are way beyond the driver's normal line of sight, or even an external route spotter's field of view.
Between a Defender and Discovery in purpose
It might have the Defender name, but this new Land Rover is something quite different.
For the benefit of clarity, one is best served thinking of it as a completely new product category. A comfortable family vehicle for daily commuting, capable of high cruising speeds without inducing unnecessary driver fatigue, or sacrificing matchless that off-road ability Land Rover owners require.
It is possibly what many Discovery4 owners wished the Discovery5 had become.
Not a 'fuel fairy'
It is not light on fuel. At 2 323kg and with a significant front surface area, the Defender is never going to be a fuel fairy.
We achieved an average of 11.3 litre/100km during a week's test driving which included a fair amount of off-roading.
For challenging sand driving terrain, I missed the convenience of paddle shifters to manually override and trigger the eight-speed automatic transmission's shift points, although the console mounted auto shifter can be used in manual mode and falls easily to hand.
It's like rugby…
I have driven many Defenders. Old ones with temperamental carburettor-fed V8 engines and the TD5 storm diesels. I have driven Camel Trophy specification Defenders and even a 110 powered by batteries and electric motors.
After testing the new-generation Defender, my conclusion on its status within Land Rover's deeply passionate community, is this: It's like rugby. I still watch 1980s rugby clips on YouTube, with great nostalgia, but although the rules are similar, there is no comparison to the modern professional game.
Rugby is now faster, better and more advanced. A modern team would overwhelm any amateur-era outfit. And that's exactly what Land Rover's new Defender is like: Same name, but a very different and better game.