This has been a “mast year” when the fruiting trees turn it up to 11 and scatter the forest floor with cob nuts, acorns, conkers and chestnuts. I know this because I pocketed a feast’s worth of chestnuts in the steeply wooded hills around Land Rover’s famed test facility at Eastnor Castle last week while I waited for the caravan of new Defenders to catch up.
Motoring hacks blithely witter on about driving over terrain you couldn’t stand up on, but watching David Sneath, Land Rover’s driving experience manager and architect of this tortuous launch route, slide down the gloop like Bambi in wellingtons, was a hilarious exercise in mud overcoming friction.
This was the 1989 qualifying route for the Land Rover-organised G4 Challenge contestants, blazed through the Herefordshire hills that are still used to hone the company’s renowned off-road vehicles.
Tough? What do you think? They’ve got names for most of it, like Nine Rope Hill; a commendable description if you don’t attack it with enough spirit and skill.
The best 4x4 by far
“The best 4x4 by far,” was what they used to say at Land Rover, and in most cases they still are. This £43,625, almost base model Defender 90 had just hauled me through a few miles of sopping, slippery mire you wouldn’t tackle on a goat with crampons and apart from the mistakes of its driver (requiring a short reverse and a bit more commitment next time) it didn’t miss a beat.
In one of the Defender-sized potholes, the 2.25 tonne, short-wheelbase 90 actually floated, but gradually settled and with all four wheels spinning like demon Catherine wheels it slowly emerged from the swamp, headlights gleaming like the fierce eyes of Kampos, the mythological Greek sea monster.
Did I mention this was on road tyres? The 20-inch Goodyear Wranglers are the middle all-terrain tyre option costing an extra £275, and the treads were so full of mud they looked like slicks, but they were still extraordinarily effective.
The only other option fitted to this stubby new Defender, which goes on sale this autumn for delivery in December, was the £1,020 locking rear differential.
A worthwhile addition I’d suggest, as we simply dialled in low ratio on the transmission control panel in the centre of the facia, the mud-and-ruts setting on the Terrain Response control, pushed the button for hill descent control and switched off the dynamic stability control (which stays on but reduces its effect) before waddling into the forest and emerging again a couple of hours later; very muddy but still grinning.
Under the skin
Built at Land Rover’s Slovakian factory on a modified Range Rover aluminium monocoque frame called D7X (X for extreme), the Defender is stronger than the old-fashioned body-on-frame construction of the previous Defender. Off-road body and suspension geometry are also Land Rover’s most extreme. There are no shared panels with the Range Rover and reinforcing everywhere, including beefed-up front and rear steel subframes.
Suspension on the short-wheelbase 90 is all-independent wishbone front and integral link rear, with a choice of air or coil-springs-and-dampers steel suspension. The steel set-up is cheaper, arguably more robust if less accommodating on the road, and reduces the ground clearance by 70mm. All the longer-wheelbase 110 models have air suspension as standard.
Engine choices comprise a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel with 197bhp or 236bhp; a 296bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol also with four cylinders, called P300; and a 394bhp, 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbo petrol with a mild hybrid system, badged P400. A full plug-in hybrid will be introduced at the end of the year.
All the cars are permanent four-wheel drive with the only transmission being a ZF eight-speed automatic and a set of low-ratio crawler gears.
A sense of occasion inside
Climb in to a Defender of whatever trim level and the sense of occasion is palpable. There genuinely is nothing like this car’s facia, with its magnesium-alloy twin spars running across the dash, the straightforward oblong display and switch panels, and the clear and mostly concise digital instrument binnacle.
I think they could have made the off-road controls more separate and clearer; while the vehicle will do most things, to get it to do that you need to know which buttons to press and that isn’t always obvious.
There’s a long storage tray in front of the passenger, facia-top air vents and the stubby gearlever. One welcome inclusion is the centre seat option, with a full-height seat back that folds flat when not in use. When it is in use, however, you lose the use of the rear-view mirror and though the ‘clear sight’ camera option gets around the issue, it takes some getting used to and the picture is affected by low sun.
No one should buy a Defender without the excellent £173 fitted rubber mats option which cover every surface and the door trims in ballistic-grade nylon. The big handles and bare bolt heads are more than just an attractive pastiche of military all-terrain vehicles, they’re genuinely practical, and while I would hesitate to introduce a hose to the equation, you can sponge out this vehicle.
I set my motorcycle TomTom navigation unit to its ‘Wild Ride’ setting and followed the little arrow through Hereford’s cider country, stopping at Newton Court Cidery to buy some bottles of elixir for Mrs English. “Please park here and honk for cider,” said the sign. I did and proprietor Paul Stephens rushed out to see the new Landie, taking photographs and admiring its looks.
He immediately picked up on the low sill height, commenting that “you can just brush it straight out on to the ground.
“Go to Hereford market and you’ll see loads of these things parked up,” he said, gesturing at his venerable Series 2 Land Rover in the yard. “But after you’ve towed a trailer for a couple of hours, you’ll know you’ve been on a journey and folk are starting to look for replacements.”
His cider was excellent by the way…
Three doors and off-road geometry doesn’t make access to the rear seats the easiest, but while it’s a bit of clamber once you are in the back there’s leg and head space to spare for three adults and the seats are pretty comfortable.
Rear passengers sit higher than those in the front, so they can see the road (or trail) ahead over the heads of front occupants; it’s what Land Rover calls “stadium seating”. All passengers get a rather wonderful feeling of splendid isolation from the environment, whereas in the long-in-the-tooth previous Defender a great deal of that environment would be doing its best to get inside with you.
The rear seats split 40/20/40, with the middle one also acting as a ski hole.
Options and accessory packs
There are three basic models (Defender, First Edition and X, which is the six-cylinder mild hybrid), then three trim options (S, SE and HSE) and a series of accessory packs: Adventure (with an in-built compressor and rinse system); Country (wheel arch protection, mud flaps and rinse system), Explorer (roof rack and ladder) and Urban (spare wheel cover, scuff plates and alloy trim).
Using an update on the electronic architecture of the current Range Rover models, the new Defender is indubitably up to date. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, together with a 10-inch touchscreen.
The Defender also gets Land Rover's new Pivi software, which allows the connection of two smartphones at once. It comes with camera, radar and ultrasonic safety sensors for the automatic braking, lane-keeping assistance and the plethora of modern driver assistance systems. It can even update its 14 modules over the internet while the car is parked.
On the road
Air or steel suspension can’t completely hide the Defender’s dual purpose and the body moves around more than, say, a German SUV rival, or a Discovery.
There’s a slightly choppy side-to-side tossing even if the front suspension feels supple rather than pillowy soft. It’s well to remember, however, just how much of an improvement this is over the old model, which if you tried to drive in the same way would exit stage left at the earliest opportunity.
There’s a fair bit of body roll at the front and the steering, while feeling beautifully progressive off the dead-ahead position, isn’t as positive and accurate as the Range Rover Sport, say. But you can move along with alacrity in the Defender, with a comfortable and well-damped ride, and without the spine-jarring jolting of the old Defender. After two and half hours behind the wheel, it still felt comfortable.
Of the current engine options, the 394bhp, 3.0-litre straight-six turbo petrol is the most powerful, but it’s almost too much. Not that you feel at risk, but sitting so far off the ground the acceleration is gosh-wobblingly fast and at times it’s as though you inadvertently became a hapless extra in a Bond film car chase.
Having driven the diesel options in the 110 earlier in the year, the 295bhp/394lb ft P300 puts up a good account of itself, with brisk acceleration and enough torque to keep this 2.270-tonne vehicle rolling even at low revs, although with a WLTP fuel economy of 24.6mpg it is quite a thirsty option.
The ZF gearbox changes smoothly and assuredly, and if it’s occasionally slow to respond that’s entirely in keeping with the Defender’s slightly more gentle approach. The brakes are worthy of note, too, being progressive and strong but not over-sensitive, so you can drive smoothly in wellies.
While the D200 and D250 turbodiesels are more expensive to purchase initially, their lower operating costs means that commercial operators will likely take them, or the forthcoming plug-in hybrid. Talking of which, the £35,000 plus VAT commercial Defender hard-top will be available early next year.
Look out of the Defender’s large front screen and a world of adventure and potential beckons, even on the humblest of drives. Get the settings and tyres right and you could retrace Lewis and Clark’s early 18th century expeditions across America.
Get the engine right and you could do the Paris-Dakar off-road race. Yet even trundling down to the shops, there’s an unmistakable impression of strength and security as well as a sense of occasion.
And before you point to the far Eastern opposition, don’t forget that a lot of excellent 4x4s aren’t sold in the UK any more and when they are, it’s very expensive.
Obviously, reliability is the key if you are asking a farmer, builder or an emergency service to place their faith in such an accomplished yet untried machine. Get that right and I’ll vouchsafe that Land Rover won’t be able to build them fast enough.
And while most (60 per cent) of folk will buy the long-wheelbase 110, for my money the greater agility, more pleasing proportions and sheer fun of the 90 would be my choice and I’ll give it five stars to boot.
Land Rover Defender 90 P300 SE
TESTED 1,998cc, four-cylinder turbo petrol, eight-speed automatic gearbox with selectable low-ratio crawler gears, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE from £43,625/now for first deliveries in December
POWER/TORQUE 295bhp @ 5,500rpm/394lb ft @ 1,500rpm
TOP SPEED 119mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 7.1sec
FUEL ECONOMY 24.6mpg (WLTP high)
CO2 EMISSIONS 260g/km (WLTP)
VED £2,175 first year, £475 next five years, then £150
VERDICT We already knew that the new Defender was pretty good in long-wheelbase 110 form but the shorter 90 version is, if anything, even better. With better dynamics, off-road agility and the same lovely interior, it is a complete star – and it looks terrific, too. Time and Land Rover’s reliability will determine how it goes down with the company’s traditional commercial markets, but on this evidence it should be out there doing the tough jobs for years to come.
TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five
Toyota Land Cruiser, from £35,295
The all-terrain vehicle of choice for UN peacekeepers and pretty much everyone else, though we don't get the full-size Amazon version any more. £35k gets you a base three-door with a 310lb ft, 2.7-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel running on steel wheels and with a pared-down interior festooned with huge, simple buttons. A five-door seven-seater with the same drivetrain and snazzier trim and wheels is £59,000. Pug ugly, with a body-on-frame construction, but super reliable and brilliant off-road, the Landcruiser is a formidable rival to the new Defender.
Mercedes-Benz G-Class, from £92,070
Undertaking a complete redesign of the car that up to last year was largely unchanged since 1979 was similar to the task which Land Rover faced with the Defender. That Mercedes-Benz kept closer to the roots of the hand-built, military-derived Geländewagen says much about the differences in approach and resources of the two companies. Still awesome off-road and now much better on Tarmac, the G-class is very expensive and very capable.
Mitsubishi Shogun Sport, from £39,140
They closed the Shogun production line and delivered the last 700 European-spec models last year. Now Mitsubishi is mulling a replacement, and this is what we get to fill the gap. It's smaller than the full-fat Shogun, tows only 3.1 tonnes and shares its body-on-frame underpinnings with the L200 pick-up. Mitsubishi says the market for full-size working SUVs is dwindling, but is it right?
Bollinger Motors B1, from $125,000 USD
Looking like a Defender scanned at 150 per cent in the photocopier, the new B1 SUV is built in Detroit, Michigan. Two motors, one in front and one rear, have a total output of 614bhp and 668lb ft, which with a 120kWh lithium-ion battery pack ensures a range of about 200 miles, with eight to nine hours of off-road duty. Each motor has its own gearbox, which gives a high and low range of gears and even in low range these beasts are capable of 68mph and 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds. Also available as a pick-up and a chassis cab. Forget Tesla's Cybertruck, if you want a working battery SUV, this is what you need.
Read more: 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 review
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