The old Land Rover Defender is dead. Long live the new Defender.
Thoroughly, exhaustively, irretrievably modernized, the new Defender appears poised to take on the duties of an upscale recreational 4x4 vehicle—more comfortable, more efficient, even in many ways more capable than its predecessor.
But will the new, unibody, independently suspended, 40-some-microprocessor Defender live as a stalwart conveyance for biologists, explorers, or UN and NGO personnel in developing-world countries? Will it be modified by fundies in Tanzania and Zambia to carry a dozen or more tourists on safaris, day in and day out? Will it be hacked by militants in the Middle East and elsewhere to mount Dushka heavy machine guns? Will it be serially abused by mining and oil companies? Will it be adopted—even by loyal Commonwealth countries—as their basic military personnel transport?
My guess is no.
The core of the new Defender is a vastly complex aluminum structure that combines chassis and body into one assembly, ensuring a torsionally stiff vehicle—far more so, in fact, than any separate body-on-frame vehicle can match—while maintaining carefully calibrated crush zones for elevated crash protection. However, that structure will not lend itself to shade-tree cutting and welding. I’m willing to bet there will never be a pickup version offered from the factory.
No: The new Defender is going to be an SUV, period. The so-called Commercial version might work for, well, commercial purposes, as well as for those wishing a no-frills platform to modify as an overlanding vehicle, but winch bumpers, roof racks, and the like will probably be the extent of practical alterations.
That leaves the existing pool of original Defenders to soldier on in traditional roles. Yes, they are straightforward to repair, and everything down to that elegant (but rust-prone) separate chassis can be replaced. But sooner or later, sheer attrition from wear and accidents is going to negatively affect the practicality of relying on that pool, particularly for government/military entities, NGOs, and businesses requiring reliable and well-maintained transportation. Where will they turn if their needs cannot be met by the new model?
There is really only one answer: The Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series. (Well, in some cases, particularly for the U.N., also the 100 Series. But let’s just stick with one line here.)
One could mention Toyota’s under-rated underdog competitor, the Nissan Patrol, and the über Mercedes Gelandewagen, the former never quite matching the Land Cruiser’s reputation for reliability or durability, the latter simply priced out of most utilitarian markets. Neither has a chance of cutting into Toyota’s sales.
Interestingly, Toyota has more than once mulled discontinuing 70-Series production. Sales of the three body styles in the line—Ute (pickup), station wagon, and troop carrier—pale in comparison to the Hilux and other vehicles, and production is archaically labor-intensive. The Australian mining industry—a huge and loyal market for the 70 Series—is largely responsible for the latest updates, especially enhanced safety features such as Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Electronic Brake-force Distribution, and front and side-curtain air bags for driver and passenger. Increased sophistication also arrived in the form of piezo injectors for the single-turbo, 4.5-liter V8 diesel, and increased luxury for the GXL version in the form of, gasp, electric windows and—into the realm of science fiction here—an electrically retractable antenna.
But the basics of the vehicle remain as if ticked off on a bespoke order form for explorers, guides, professional hunters, scientists, military operatives, and the odd jihadist: massive, separate, fully boxed chassis, mighty beam axles on mighty coil and leaf springs, huge fuel and load capacity, front and rear cross-axle diff locks, raised air intake, and a cargo area in the troop carrier voluminous enough to return echoes. (My wife and I and many other owners have built houses inside these things.)
It’s a completely outdated vehicle in numerous ways, yet utterly perfect for its intended use. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the 70 Series Land Cruiser in the next few years.