The new Land Rover Defender has giant tyre tracks to fill. Is it a worthy successor for its proud bloodline? We got behind the wheel of a new Defender 90 to find out.
/ By Waldo Rendell /
What am I looking at?
The new Defender 90 is Land Rover’s smallest, most-capable and possibly most-anticipated vehicle on sale, with the weight of expectation – to merge evolution with tradition – walking a thin tightrope.
This particular model on test is the Defender 90 D300 HSE X-Dynamic, which despite being announced together with the larger 110, only arrived in South Africa several months later. Its arrival adds even more variety to Land Rover’s luxury off-road offerings, which remain in good health thanks to models such as the Discovery and Discovery Sport.
However it’s the Defender that moulded the brand into what it is today; its qualified and famous off-road credentials contributed to sectors such as medicine, farming, research, conservation, charity, military and philanthropy. In fact the Defender is such an iconic name that it probably deserves a medal for long service.
Despite a clean-sheet design, the Defender is keen to contribute more chapters to its own coffee table book.
In the metal
As you would expect, there are common design cues borrowed from the longer 110, and its tall appearance is slightly exaggerated by the wheelbase which has been shortened by 435 mm. Approach- and departure angles are the same as the 110 – 38° at the front and 40° at the rear, which is to say, excellent.
Angular styling echoes the old Defender but the build quality is tight and crisp with aggressive-looking rubber and plenty of ground clearance, even with the optional air suspension set to ‘Normal’. Small (Alpine) windows in the roof imitate the original, as does the rear-mounted spare wheel.
The doors close with the reassuring seal of a vehicle capable of wading up to 900 mm, and that’s happy to have its electronics submerged in water for over an hour. Needless to say, many of the components have been designed with practicality in mind, and overall build quality is tremendously satisfying.
The Defender has the honour of debuting Land Rover’s strongest platform to date, and some of that development involved repeatedly ramming it into a 25 cm kerb at 40 km/h … Unconventional methods indeed, but certainly effective!
Inside you feel protected, insulated and in command, sitting comfortably in a cabin that looks sophisticated yet is easy to use. Rear passengers have a far tougher time; access to the rear seats involves waiting a painfully long time for the electric seats to crawl forward and then lifting and twisting your way in through a narrow gap. I’ve even seen children to get back there.
To ensure that the first interaction isn’t an overwhelming one, Land Rover has retained well-marked buttons for driver and passenger. It’s a neat, effective slab of design that allows one to do things like adjust ride height, activate hill descent control or climate control without needing to interact with the touchscreen. Hooray.
The screen isn’t the largest but it runs Land Rover’s new Pivi system which is vibrant and energetic and also displays a variety of customisable information thanks in its vertical tiles and quick shortcuts.
The dashboard is another a purposeful piece of engineering. Besides sandwiching the touchscreen, the two vertical bars create numerous pockets for storage space and grab handles blend subtly into the design. It’s interesting to note that nearly everything in the Defender’s cabin has an alternative use.
Drive and tech
Body lean, pitch and roll were characteristics that defined the old Defender 90, as well as howling cabin noise, so we expected some of them to haunt the new model. Our concerns, however, were quickly set aside – the new Defender is wonderfully composed and stable. There’s not a hiss of wind noise around the steep A-pillars, or mirrors, and the air suspension is a revelation, perfectly calibrated to mask every bump with a supple yet controlled ride. The higher-side-wall tyres certainly contribute to this absorption; tyre roar, thankfully, is minimal at highway speed. There are several posh SUVs and sedans that could learn a few lessons about ride comfort from the Defender’s setup.
Surprise number two was the performance from the six-cylinder 3.0-litre turbo diesel, slightly helped by the 90’s lower mass (when compared to the bulkier 110). It offers strong surge in the later phases of right ankle flex yet remains silky smooth with imperceptible shifts offered by the gearbox. We wouldn’t call it an entertaining drive, but time at the wheel is effortless and calming, which is also assisted by the vehicle’s aerodynamics, as well as an ambience that feels (and is) entirely unique and rewards with special nostalgic moments – such as a fellow Defender fan giving you the thumbs up or raised index finger.
Taking the shortcut
Show a traditional off-roading anorak the amount of technology underneath the skin of the new Defender and they’re likely to show their prejudices over reliability and durability. That aside, off-road tech has been stuck on traction control systems and on-the-fly settings for about the last decade and has been in desperate need of a digital overhaul.
The Defender is equipped with the super-intuitive Terrain Response 2 setup that allows the driver to scroll through various terrain options. But even that isn’t entirely necessary because the system can be trusted to make its own decisions based off complex inputs. One of the keys to off-roading, however, is knowing where to place the front wheels… Fortunately the new ClearSight Ground View Technology takes out all that guesswork by using the many cameras to create an accurate and real-time display of the terrain underneath the bonnet.
It might leverage some of Land Rover’s DNA, but the Defender’s personality is not influenced by any of them. It feels fresh and innovative but also solid and tested at the same time. Every idea has been fleshed out and you still get the impression that the engineers jumped between old and new concepts frequently. The amount of personalisation in preconfigured packs helps to make those off-roading decisions a lot easier, especially for the novice off-roader.
We thought we’d need to find an epic adventure to unlock the Defender’s appeal but its enjoyment is far more layered than the anachronistic legend had us believe.
Model: Land Rover Defender D300 HSE
Engine: 3.0 litre, 6-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 221 kW 650 Nm
Transmission: 8-Speed auto
Ground Clearance: 291 mm
Price: R1 259 800
• Functional design
• Helpful off-road tools
• Punchy, silky drivetrain
• Tight entry to rear seat
• Meridian sound system isn’t all that special