Some (positive!) thoughts on the new Defender

The Defender’s “Commercial” configuration shows promise for those wanting a basic overlanding vehicle.

The Defender’s “Commercial” configuration shows promise for those wanting a basic overlanding vehicle.

Now that the wait is over, and Land Rover Design Director Gerry McGovern’s stupefyingly uninspiring introduction at the Frankfurt Auto Show is behind us, and the bile from thousands of defenders of the original Defender is pouring down on the “Pretender” or “Offender,” as it’s been variously dubbed, I thought I would get beyond my own reservations regarding what I think of as the DC100 Version 1.1 styling, and look at the positive side of the new design.

We’ve known for a long time that the new Defender would be an about-face from the original: monocoque construction instead of body-on-frame, all-independent suspension rather than solid axles, efficient aerodynamic design rather than a box on top of a box. So it’s time to let go of those paradigms. The question is, is the new Defender capable of filling the role of a long-distance traveling vehicle, or even a true expedition machine?

Note the lead photos above, which show the 90 and 110 in what Land Rover calls the Commercial configuration. Steel wheels (albeit, at 18 inches, larger diameter than optimum), coil springs, simplified interior, and, in the 110, a cargo capacity of up to 900 kg (1,980 pounds). That is pretty close to the previous 110, and far above, for example, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon—in fact just about double. Also, from a pure looks standpoint, the Commercial’s solid white back quarter looks infinitely more handsome than the regular model’s bizarre body-color square covering the massive C-pillar, a design flub that completely ruins the linear continuity of the greenhouse. (I understand the body-color panel might be an option; if so it should be called the “Uglify package.”)

Look at the cargo area of the 110. The rear seats fold completely flat—three cheers to Land Rover for making that happen.

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There’s a lot of side intrusion into the space due to those C-pillars, which house AC ducts (note how they also bifurcate the alpine windows above them), but it looks long enough to lie down in, one of my personal criteria for a long-wheelbase overlanding vehicle—for those midnight camps after a long drive when you just need to sleep. However, the protruding hinges on the two-thirds split seat look like they’d dig into the back of anyone lying on that side. Still, overall a practical-looking cargo area, with less intrusion than the interior roll cage and speaker housings on the Wrangler Unlimited.

In terms of capability, the Defender should shine. The approach and departure angles on the 110 (38 and 40 degrees, respectively) compare favorably with those of the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited (44 and 37). The breakover angle is markedly superior at 28º versus 22.6º.

The Defender boasts a world-class fording capability of 900mm (just half an inch under three feet). Not only that, the Wade function on the Terrain Response system will automatically soften throttle response, lock the driveline, switch the ventilations system to recirculate, raise the (air) suspension to its maximum height, display the water depth on the infotainment screen, and drag the brakes slightly for a few meters after exiting the water, to dry them. Astonishing.

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Speaking of Terrain Response—Land Rover’s pioneering and much-copied user-selectable system that alters vehicle dynamics to accommodate varying terrain—the Defender’s system will also be user-programable to suit individual driver preferences and experience.

Land Rover claims an astounding 45º side slope capability and a 45º ascent capability for the new Defender. I seriously doubt any owner will approach either of those limits. And never in any company’s literature have I seen so many quantified references to strength and durability testing as I found in the full-length technical brochure for the Defender. For example, in regards to the vehicle’s double wishbone front suspension and integral-link rear suspension, the brochure says the Defender “withstood repeated 200mm (eight-inch) kerb strikes at 25 mph.” Say what? Also, “the wheels can withstand up to seven tonnes of vertical load into the body.” And, “The monocoque body construction developed for new Defender is the stiffest aluminium body Land Rover has ever produced and able to withstand 6.5 tonnes snatch load through the recovery points. “

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Returning to the interior, I think the dash layout might be my favorite feature of the new Defender. It is simple, elegant, and functional. To me it looks exactly like the 21st-century descendant of the Series II dash. Even the ubiquitous center touch/infotainment screen looks like it belongs there—something I can’t say about several $120,000 luxury sedans. Yes, the steering wheel has too many buttons, but most of them can be ignored anyway. Several features reveal genuine consideration to actual real-world use. Got cargo piled so high in the back it blocks the center rear-view mirror? Flip a switch and the rear camera projects the view into the mirror. Nice.

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And yes, gone forever are the three transmission/transfer case levers and their red and yellow knobs. In fact, given the dash mount of the automatic gear selector, I doubt the Defender is configured to ever accept a manual transmission. Which . . . and I never thought I’d write this . . . is a good thing. Modern automatic transmissions are superior to their manual counterparts in virtually every way, including power delivery and fuel economy, not to mention the ease of driving on slow rough tracks or the magic of hill-descent control. The new Defender is never again going to be a vehicle an owner disassembles to repair or rebuild under a mango tree in Zambia, so the added complexity of an automatic transmission is really not an issue.

One factor in the suitability of a vehicle for long-distance journeys is often overlooked, and that is comfort. To say the new Defender will eclipse the old one in this regard is stating the obvious. At a guess I’d say the new one will double the comfortable daily mileage an owner can expect to cover when transits necessitate a dawn to dusk marathon.

The remaining factor, of course, is reliability, the one area in which Land Rover has long taken a fourth or fifth place to its Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, and Jeep competition. I can only hope Gerry McGovern and his team fully grasped the critical need to get that part right this time.

I know one thing: After thoroughly studying the detailed specifications and capabilities of the new Defender, I find myself for the first time genuinely excited for an opportunity to drive one.

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