I don’t envy the designers at Land Rover. Creating the new Defender must have been one of the most challenging jobs of the automotive world. The old models have been adored across the globe for decades, for their flaws as much as their off-road capabilities. Their designs were simple, rugged and instantly recognisable. The new one would have to be modern but still evoke this heritage. It would have to be comfortable without losing its character, and be just as effective in the dirt. It’s no wonder it endured 1.2 million kilometres in testing before it was released.
I jumped at an opportunity recently to test the new Defender myself. My brother, Andreas, was keen to join, too, and he tagged along in our dad’s beloved 2012 Defender 90 for comparison. Long-term readers of this column will be familiar with my dad’s obsession with Land Rovers, sparked by our old 1976 Range Rover, ‘Mzee’. Mzee is a fitting name now more than ever, as he sits retired beneath a fig tree in our garden.
Andreas and I picked up the new Defender we would be testing at the Inchcape showroom in Westlands. It would have been great to drive the new short-wheelbase 90 for a direct comparison with our old one, but it hasn’t been released yet. Instead we were given a 3.0-litre petrol 400 horsepower 110 S – the most powerful version of the 2020 Defender range. As well as engine specs, there are heaps of extras and accessories to choose from, conveniently grouped by Land Rover into several packs: Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban.
Before heading out on the road, we had a good look round the car in the showroom. Its designers were very aware of the importance of being respectful to its past, and there are plenty of features inside and out that echo the old Defender language. Externally, they’ve retained the alpine windows in the roof. The front and rear of the car are still flat, and the spare wheel is mounted on a side-hinged tailgate.
The interior may be more plush, but there are also lots of design cues from the old models. The gear lever is mounted on the dash to allow for the option of a foldable middle seat in the front. And the magnesium alloy beam that runs across the dash has been left exposed, maintaining that distinctive Defender simplicity.
As we drove to our test site – a network of dirt tracks in the Oloolua Forest – it was also very clear that this car isn’t merely a tribute to its predecessors. Unlike the old models, which were permanently rugged and agricultural to drive, it has a split personality. It’s as effective on the road as off it, thanks in part to a smooth eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s quiet and spacious – large humans like myself can drive it without scraping their knees on the underside of the steering wheel. Loyal Defender fans will argue that such quirks were part of the charm of the old models – and they were – but for long road trips I know which version I’d prefer.
The key question was whether this comfort was at the expense of its capability off-road, and from our brief test – as well as those of others – the short answer is No. The new Defender’s independent air suspension system allows you to raise it up by 145 mm. You can also control its terrain response on Land Rover’s new Pivi Pro infotainment system. We found this easy to navigate, and in low range mode it just shrugged off all the rough terrain that we threw at it.
Duty free, the base model in Kenya is almost Kshs. nine million, so it’s expensive. In terms of reliability, only time will tell. But I have to say, it’s made a great first impression.
For more information, head to www.landroverkenya.com.
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation.