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Land Rover Defender | Frankfurt 2019

It's officially here. Brace yourself

By Nic Cackett / Tuesday, September 10, 2019

You may feel like you've been waiting a rather long time for this moment. And we'll admit, the last year has dragged on - not helped by the familiar drip-drip of information nor the industry's wider failure to keep a secret. But it's nothing compared to the decades old sense of expectancy which has obviously borne down on Land Rover's product development workforce. Its senior figures make no bones about it: the question of how to replace the Defender has been discussed, at length, for a very long time indeed.

Partly, that's because the Defender itself has been around for a very long time. We needn't dally in its storied history, but the long and short of it is that the Series 1 launched 71 years ago and slowly evolved into what we know as the Defender in the early eighties (though it didn't receive that name until 1990). And there, tinkering aside, it has remained, virtually immune to anything as undignified as a life cycle. Longevity, raw-boned functionality and chameleon-like popularity have gifted it the kind of iconic status rarely achieved by the humble motor car - and because of that, with each passing year, the Defender has become more and more troublesome to replace.

Of course, it's worth pointing out that in the broadest possible sense, it has been replaced - many times over. Everything Land Rover has done since it launched the original Range Rover has arguably been about refining and repackaging Maurice Wilks's bright idea. Which adds an additional layer of trickiness; where to launch a new Defender in a market now heavily saturated with its own descendants? At first we thought Land Rover might use its world-famous nameplate to unlock a new entry point into the brand, and sell something simple and cheap and idiosyncratically rugged to the masses. Then, when prices reached a bewildering peak, it seemed conceivable that the firm might go the full 'G-wagen' and rework the concept to capitalise on the outgoing model's high margin, niche-filler status.

Instead, rather inevitably, it has picked a third way - and that's what you see before you: an all-new Defender, as seen through the prism of what the last ten years has taught a Tata-owned Land Rover. Hence the self-consciously bold, well-proportioned and imperfect looks. Hence the heavyweight emphasis on technical dura/capability. And hence the price, which starts at £45,240 for the D200 110, extends to £60,505 for the D240 HSE which surely most people will buy, and finishes at £78,800 for the 400hp 3.0-litre six-pot you might actually want.

There's a lot to unpack. Let's start with the toughest job, which, unquestionably, was handed to Gerry McGovern and his design team. The collective has stuck to the game plan which made the L405 Range Rover such a hit; namely, retain the instantly recognisable silhouette and rethink the rest. Objectively, you get three-door (the 90) and five-door (the 110) versions both featuring high sills, short overhangs and a side-hinged tailgate with a spare wheel mounted on it. Subjectively, the end result isn't going to please everyone and a straw pole of the office splits PH down the middle. Having seen it in the flesh, the truest thing to say about it is that it stands ambitiously out from the otherwise forgettable mid-size SUV crowd and probably succeeds in at least as many places as it fails. It's worth noting too that spec, colour, finish, wheel size and even door count are hugely influential - more so than normal.

Less open to interpretation is the nature of the underlying structure. It is rare to see platform architecture discussed with a glint in the eye, but clearly Land Rover's senior engineers feel they have gone the extra mile. The aluminium monocoque is 95 per cent new and purpose-engineered for the Defender. It has been dubbed the D7x (yep, for extreme) and is proclaimed to be the stiffest body structure the firm has ever produced. It is three times more rigid than a body-on-frame would have been, and Land Rover says it has subjected the car repeatedly to what it calls Extreme Event Test procedures - significantly above and beyond what would considered a normal standard for a road car.

It puts up some big numbers as evidence. With off-road tyres fitted, the 18-inch wheels will withstand a 7-tonne vertical load through the body. The Defender will tow 3.5 tonnes. It'll wade through 900mm of water. It's capable of half a metre of wheel articulation. In its most powerful P400 guise it'll accept a 900kg payload. In any Defender you can accommodate a static roof loading of 300kg and 168kg when moving. Through its recovery points, the frame will withstand a 6.5 tonne snatch load. Land Rover says it'll shrug off the effects of hitting a 20cm kerb at 25mph.

So it's sturdy then. And baked into that sturdiness is a similarly robust chassis. The Defender gets double wishbones at the front and an integral link rear suspension - a familiar JLR cocktail - but adds new steel subframes alongside uprated bushes and ball joints. Passive coil springs are available, but expect the higher spec cars to wear electronically-controlled air suspension which will raise the body by a maximum of 145mm when the terrain requires it.

Predictably, getting over terrain - of just about any sort - remains elemental to the Defender's reason for being. Permanent all-wheel drive, a twin-speed automatic gearbox and centre differential are all standard, and there's an active locking rear differential on the option list. Naturally it gets Land Rover's latest Terrain Response system, which has been made much more configurable in an effort to appeal to 'experienced off-roaders' who might not necessarily want their centre differential locked for them. This functionality - along with three settings each for throttle, gearbox, steering and traction control - is now individually selectable in the Defender, as is a new Wade programme.

At launch there will be a choice of two four-cylinder diesel engines, the D200 and D240 (the names signifying power outputs across the board); a four-cylinder petrol, the P300; and the P400 which twins JLR's new turbocharged six-cylinder unit with its mild hybrid tech and a 48-volt electric supercharger - as seen in the Range Rover Sport HST. All drive through the familiar eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. Unsurprisingly, there's no option of a manual transmission. But expect a plug-in hybrid to appear in the lineup before too long.

If that all sounds dangerously 21st century then brace yourself because there's more. Not only will JLR use the Defender to debut its next generation Pivi Pro infotainment system, it will also introduce software-over-the-air technology using a future-proof 5G network - meaning that up to 14 onboard electronic control modules can now be updated without any requirement to visit a franchise dealer. The engineers claim that within the lifetime of the new Defender, the "embedded diagnostics system will be able to alert customers to issues and either prevent or resolve them automatically as a data connection replaces a traditional toolkit."

The final revelation is saved for the interior, where Land Rover has employed a dash-mounted gear shifter so that it can accommodate an optional 'jump' seat in the middle - making the Defender a potential six-seater. In fact, in the 110, you can have a five, six or even 5+2 configuration (with a second row of seats in the loadspace). Nevertheless, the team still considers the model stripped out compared to its stablemates; certainly it leaves exposed some structural elements and fixings that usually get hidden away, and its maker enthusiastically claims that the car could be winched from a ditch using the bulkhead that spans the cabin.

Its comments like this, related by a middle aged man gleefully pulling at the Defender's dashboard, which speak to the exuberance poured into the car's underpinnings. Privately, Land Rover engineers who have seen it all speak of their personal connection to the last model, and to a sense of brand history in general. A determination to get the new Defender 'right' pervades almost every discussion, and even when pressed on a perceived weakness (the car's weight for one; it pushes 2.2 tonnes even in three-door four-cylinder format) there is a shrugging, smiling insistence that it has all been done for good reason.

Certainly PH has never been reassured so repeatedly with the mantra 'wait till you drive it, wait till you drive it'. Land Rover clearly feels like it has delivered on its promise, and built a new Defender worthy of both its near future and its long heritage. Frankfurt, though, is hardly the end of that journey. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of a very long beginning. Next stop - the world and his wife. Let's hope they can't wait to drive it either.

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