It’s been a while. On 29 January 2016, the last of the classic Land Rover Defenders rolled off the production line in Solihull. After more than two million of them had been built with a shape and look virtually unchanged since 1948, it was the end of an era.
And this new generation Defender is the beginning of a new one. It’s certainly starting in the biggest possible way with a starring role in the next James Bond film, No Time To Die, released in late 2020. Land Rover refers to this latest Defender as “an icon reimagined for a new generation” which, were it almost any other manufacturer and almost any other car, might leave you snorting with derision.
Not here though. The Defender carries with it so much historic imagery and so much emotion, both nationally and internationally, that Land Rover faced an almost impossible task. Not entirely unlike BMW with the new Mini, the Defender hasn’t had the benefit of constant generational updates and the links between that 1948 original and the last 2016 car were plain to see.
And with that bought two major problems. Firstly (whispered quietly so as not to upset enthusiasts), the outgoing Defender wasn’t really all that great. Yes it had plenty of character and emotional appeal, but judged purely as a new car still on sale in 2016, it was poor on too many levels to even list.
The second problem however was arguably even bigger. While the old Defender was always marketed as the farmer’s best friend, farmers themselves have lately been buying more practical alternatives such as pick-ups. And they alone wouldn’t be enough to make this new Defender profitable. Instead, this new Defender had to retain that original country appeal, while maximising its lifestyle potential too.
It certainly looks the part at least. Upright, squat and purposeful, there are more than a few classic Defender styling cues for enthusiasts to get excited about. The squared-off back can look a little awkward from some angles, but generally it works well, especially in the shorter three-door 90 version that arrives later in 2020. For the moment, there’s just the 110 five-door version, while a plug-in hybrid and a commercial version join the shorter 90 in late 2020/ early 2021.
Either way, as you’d expect from a car wearing that emotive Defender badge, the range itself boasts more flexibility than an elastic band factory. The 110 offers seating configurations for five, six or five-plus-two with two small seats folding up out of the boot. Again in a nod to the Defender’s past, there’s an optional centrally-mounted small front seat suitable for children. Plus, as well as six trim levels, there are four accessory packs to choose from – Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban – to tailor the character of your car especially to you.
Under the bonnet, there’s a choice of two petrol or two turbo-diesel engines, which drive all four wheels via an automatic gearbox as there’s no manual option. The sheer size and nature of the car means that the majority of sales will be powered by one of the two diesel options which return 37.2mpg average fuel economy and 199g/km emissions. That might not sound that impressive against a traditional family car, but compared to the old Defender, it’s simply night and day. And the forthcoming plug-in hybrid is sure to take that one step further still.
But if the new Defender seems impressive on paper, that’s nothing compared to how it feels on the road. It would be unfair to compare it to the old Defender as that’s akin to comparing a Penny Farthing against Chris Froome’s Pinarello. Instead, it’s far better to almost wipe the old version from your memory bank altogether and treat this Land Rover as an entirely new entity.
For starters, it’s comfortable – a concept probably long forgotten by old Defender drivers – and drives remarkably well. That might sound an obvious throwaway comment for a modern car, but for a car wearing a Defender badge it’s something else entirely.
Where before there was a hard ride, little body control through bends and steering that made an oil tanker feel precise, this new Defender feels remarkably, well, normal. Ok, so you’re not about to be throwing it into bends with the verve of a hot hatchback, but by the same degree, it can be hustled down your favourite twisty B road without requiring a call to the emergency services beforehand. It is, quite simply, little short of a revelation.
Is it perfect? Well, not entirely no, but then that’s perhaps to forget what this car is all about. It’s still a two-tonne-plus car that has to obey the laws of physics and, by and large, is arguably one of the best off-roading vehicles on the planet (more on which in a moment), so there are certain, inevitable, compromises. That said, it would certainly be no hardship to drive this Defender everyday and previously that would have required you to bankroll your osteopath’s annual family holiday to the Caribbean.
Other ups and downs are that the rear panniers that hang off the side of the roof look great but restrict your rearward vision and the rear view mirror camera is hard to focus on when you’re driving. Thankfully a flick of a switch can revert it to a traditional mirror, which we preferred. Inside though, there’s lots of space, especially in the rear seats plus a decent boot with a waterproof lining.
Finally, and this probably tells you all you need to know about the new Land Rover Defender and where it’s pitched, there’s the subject of its off-road ability. You’d expect it to be good, better than ever in fact and it is, but at the same time, it’s also incredibly undramatic about it all. There are probably only a handful of new cars in the world that could match or get close to what the Defender can deal with, whether that’s muddy tracks, deep ruts, three-foot deep water, a combination of all three or worse. All you really need to know is that it’s likely that your nerve will probably give out well before the car’s abilities do. It has to be experienced to be believed.
That this new Land Rover Defender will be a success isn’t in doubt. And nor is the fact that it will delight and anger traditional Land Rover fans in equal measure. Just as this is an all-new Defender, so it is a completely different car with an entirely different look and feel to its predecessor. Thank goodness. With 25,000 pre-orders already taken and the key US and Chinese markets yet to open their order books, that’s suggests that this latest Defender will be bigger and better than any Defender before it. Crucially too, it’s also the best.
Model: Land Rover Defender
Price: from £40,330
Engines: Petrol – 2.0-litre, 3.0-litre; Turbo-diesel – 2.0-litre, 2.0-litre 240bhp
CO2 emissions: from 199g/km