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2020 Land Rover Defender | The long review

Yes, the time has finally come. So get comfy - this is going to take a while...

By Nic Cackett / Thursday, March 26, 2020

It can be hard sometimes to differentiate a modern car from its legend. Most long-running models get to evolve slowly thanks to the incremental nature of life cycle changes. Not so the Defender. It must go from cave dweller to city worker in the automotive equivalent of an instant. Its sheep-carrying predecessor must be respected, but not to the point of reverence because Land Rover wants to sell the all-new version to a much, much larger audience. Had the manufacturer launched it in China or America, it would not have been inappropriate.

But this is Land Rover. And this is Defender. For now (or back in February, at any rate) the message is an uncompromising one: this is the most capable off-roader it has ever made. And to prove it, Land Rover has brought its vast knowledge base and considerable logistical resource to bear, and deposited 16 cars into a virtually unpopulated part of Namibia's already sparsely occupied back country. Then it airdropped the marshmallowy global press corps into the blast furnace, furnished them with sleeping bags and mosquito repellent, relieved them of many filled-out indemnity forms, patiently explained that there were no daytime toilet facilities anywhere, and wished them well.

If the knowledge that you're going to return from a press launch endowed with the manly swagger that comes from being able to say: "yeah, I've crapped in the desert" isn't sobering enough, then flying low over Namibia's barren, water-deprived interior certainly is. Genuine geographic isolation is unknown to most Europeans and practically all Britons. But away from the capital, South Africa's next door neighbour gets empty in a hurry. Land Rover's base of operations is Kaokoland in Namibia's sprawling north west. The region encapsulates the many contradictions of the continent: rugged, gasp-inducing beauty, prodigious heat, crushing poverty, an often troublesome colonial legacy, a conspicuous lack of modern infrastructure, waving school children and almost faultless nationwide politeness.

Land Rover would do well to introduce every single Defender customer to their car on the hard-packed runway of Opuwo's part-time airstrip. There is nothing more acutely Bond-like than being shown to a cutting-edge, kitted-out 4x4 under the wingtips of a glistening Beechcraft Super King. And nothing more likely to make you gratefully count your chickens than the obviously straitened circumstances of the locals. The previous Defender melted into this sort of impoverished backdrop like a sheet of corrugated iron; the new one, with its supremely calculated, fancy-pants design, stands proud of it like a Musto shirt in a sweat shop. In Africa the Toyota Hilux is the once and future king, worshipped for its indestructibility and unflagging sense of duty. Land Rover was famously banished from this continent for failing to uphold either virtue.

Hard then not to see the location as a vigorous statement of intent. But if it is, none of the polo shirt-wearing brigade calls attention to the notion. In fact, the Defender is hardly mentioned in the build-up. Perhaps enough had already been said. Perhaps it's finally time for the car to do the talking. Only when gently goaded into it does Nick Rogers, JLR's indefatigable Executive Director of Product Engineering, deliver the sign off. A former apprentice, pledged to the manufacturer since before most of his audience were born, Rogers speaks stirringly about what the project means to him personally and how today marks not just the end of yet another arduous development cycle, but the realisation of an ambition which Land Rover has been internally mulling over for decades. Where umpteen previous projects were conceived, trialled and ultimately found wanting, the new Defender stands tall. Its very existence, for the men and women who have stayed loyal during the firm's often tumultuous past, is regarded as no little triumph in and of itself.

The sentiment is weighty, caught between Rogers' throat and a waiting convoy of 2020 Defenders. The base spec diesel and four-pot petrol models are absent; likewise the three-door 90, which had not even begun production at the time. So it's the five-door 110, in 240hp D240 and 400hp P400 flavours to choose from; the former in green with white steelies and six seats, the latter in silver with conventional alloys and seven seats. Both get the eight-speed automatic transmission and both are technically pre-build (i.e. not off the line). It's a measure of what's to come that Land Rover has chosen to fit each car with very serious looking Goodyear Wrangler Duratec tyres alongside optional side-mounted gear carriers, under shields, wheel arch/front end protection, raised air intakes, roof rack, deployable roof ladder and, yes, an integrated winch. Inside there's a proper push-to-talk, two-way radio which it's acceptable to lark about on - and (in a box) a satellite phone, which it's definitely not.

We drive the 400hp 3.0-litre petrol first. Immediate takeaways? The seating position, manually adjusted fore and aft but electrically every other way, is excellent, ditto the seats: commanding, comfy and capacious (vindicated three days later by no back pain whatsoever). Expect to feel at home almost immediately, especially if you're familiar with Land Rover's recent output. That goes double for the control surfaces: the throttle response and electric steering are both unmistakably Gaydon-tuned - oily, super-slick and ingratiating in a minimal-thought-required kind of way. It gets underway in similar fashion, all polish and convenience. Anyone searching for a traditional Defender reference point right out of the gate will do so mostly in vain, although the A-pillar's upright angle and prominent sight of a surprisingly squared-off bonnet stretching out in front of you, married to a close-at-hand (albeit auto) gear shift, are faintly reminiscent of the departed. The P400's lusty, unhesitating 406lb ft of very mildly hybridised torque isn't - but, like much else about the new Defender, it's welcome regardless.

The drive to the first overnight stop will take around four hours, we're told. Time on paved roads? About three minutes. So those impressions will have to wait. Just outside Opuwo the tarmac turns abruptly to gravel and we take to Namibia proper. Officially, the route is called the D3703 - but when you're in convoy in this part of Africa, it could simply be called 'the way', so infrequent are the obvious opportunities to divert away from it. We're heading vaguely north-west, toward the border with Angola. This will be the easiest, least memorable driving we do and yet at the time it feels remarkable because it's the first time we really encounter the nation's inescapable sense of remoteness. Before long the convoy spreads thin to negate the plumes of impenetrable dust being flung into the air. But the only visibility we're ruining is our own; there simply isn't anyone else here. Just a lonely line of brand-new Land Rovers, distant hills, billowing dirt and boundless sky.

We don't know it yet, but this is by far the mildest day we'll get. The Defender's temperature gauge barely registers in the 30s. Plenty warm enough, though, when you're direct from Storm Dennis. In the car's prehistoric forbear you didn't need a temperature gauge because, unless it was snowing, your right arm was in permanent contact with the airflow, perched as it invariably was on the driver's window sill. Needless to say, that ergonomic quirk has gone - but the naked functionality of the outgoing Defender has not been forgotten. The dual cross beams which span the dashboard are structural components, and therefore make for exceptionally strong grab handles. They also create the rubber-floored shelf which proves itself the most convenient thing in the world after about nine seconds. For one thing, it has an inbuilt USB charger and runs all the way behind the infotainment screen, qualifying it as a proper outcrop - and for another, nothing which fits on it falls off. Ever. For someone who despairs at the chronic lack of accessible (and aesthetically pleasing) storage in new cars, the Defender's furrow is a triumph.

There's much else to appreciate, too. The Pivi Pro infotainment is JLR's very latest affair, a product of its all-new electric architecture, and probably represents almost as much blood, sweat and corporate tears as the car around it. The 10-inch touchscreen is just the most visible part of a system which will permit the Defender to receive software-over-the-air updates - updates that will eventually extend to 14 computer-controlled modules, including those overseeing the chassis and engine. 'Getting better with age' is the intended takeaway. Predictably, the screen is also the reason Land Rover has been able to keep the traditional switchgear below it to a minimum. This was critical to accommodating the fold-away jump seat which technically permits the Defender to carry three upfront, albeit temporarily and only if you've paid for the privilege. Alternatively, and on show in the P400, you can have a centre console. A ruddy great big one with yet more places to put stuff, including your left elbow, which is frankly what PH would have given the choice. Not everything feels as elemental in its build quality as the mega-shelf (how could it?) but for all its various soft touch elements, the Defender seems suitably rugged. Especially when it's wearing a thickening layer of Namibian topsoil.

That night, we camp. Or glamp, at any rate, on a site adjacent to a parched river bed, sourced with the assistance of some of the locals. The manufacturer's relationship with the region is longstanding, typified by its involvement with Tusk, a charity that promotes wildlife conservation via community development. It's a worthy cause, no doubt - although the only wildlife on view after dusk are the semi-feral dogs that have attached themselves to the camp - and which are petted at your own risk - and the entirely wild scorpions scattered among the sand and trees, which are best not petted at all. (N.B. Land Rover's former army medic tells PH that, via one of seven landing strips, he could have us back in Windhoek and injected with anti-venom at a world-class hospital within two hours. Which would be comforting if PH weren't accustomed to nothing more threatening than flappy moths, and the siren of a fully-equipped British ambulance in four minutes.)

Land Rover's reasoning though, is bulletproof. The makeshift campsite offers stupefying views of the Milky Way by night and, by day, easy access to Van Zyl's Pass. Named for its builder, Ben van Zyl, and famed as the toughest road in Namibia, the narrow track was originally forged over cattle passes in 1960 with picks and shovels, and is now periodically traversed by thrill-seeking 4x4 enthusiasts with (yes) Toyota-branded 4x4s. A shattered pile of cars at the base of one dramatic drop-off speaks to the route's many hazards, although honestly it's hard to feel much trepidation in the Defender. Senior Land Rover products tend to give off an aura of invincibility even before you take the trouble to fit them with proper tyres. Allied to that are the good vibes already accrued through four hours of effortless driving on loose ground, and an early-doors inkling that the Defender might just be a little bit special.

Among jagged prehistoric rocks and improbable slopes, that feeling gets its first proper footing. The car is proficient to the point of nonchalance. Sure - this is rock crawling at its most painstaking; glacially-paced and with sufficient hand gestures to park an A380. And this is where Land Rover lives and eats and pays the bill; the Defender has to be better than good here. But it is, and then some. Initially, there's a Discovery-ness to it: the assurance, the ease-of-use, the air-sprung clearance and obvious aptitude. But where the Disco comes off as puppyish and a little too well-padded for its own good, the Defender is relentlessly purposeful and apparently hewn from granite. Tip a Discovery onto two diametrically opposed wheels in a transition and it'll creak under structural duress; the Defender's reinforced D7x aluminium monocoque doesn't make a sound. If it flexes at all, it does so in a way that is imperceptible to its occupants. Land Rover says its new platform is three times stiffer than a body-on-frame would be. That's easy to believe.

Of course the Defender has all the gizmos to help you over football-sized rocks. There is a twin-speed transfer box and the very latest Terrain Response 2 system, which is both configurable and endowed with All Terrain Progress Control if you tick the right boxes. Keep on ticking and you'll get an active locking diff on the back axle (to match the one in the centre) and enough cameras to cover a Premier League match. Tellingly, though, in all but the stickiest situation most button-pushing seems redundant. Once the Defender has been raised to its full height, it feels virtually unstoppable thanks to exceptional approach and departure angles, half-a-metre of suspension articulation and, crucially for serious off-roading, a minutely controllable throttle. Granted, this non-interventionist sensation is only partly true - left in its Auto mode, the Terrain Response is making all sorts of calculations about what's going on below - but the impression up top is that you're hero-driving over uncharted territory like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and, like a permissive 'Track' setting in a modern supercar, it's the implied level of do-it-yourself interaction that hits the spot.

If that was all the Defender turned out to be - a more resolute Discovery with a likeable dash and showy exterior - it might have been sufficient for the consumerist Land Rover buyer. But as we descend the pass (and sign our names on the super-heated rocks that mark its end) another dramatic change in topography proves an additional point about the latest model. Where Van Zyl cut a passage through mountainous terrain that could be mistaken for European, there is no question that the valley it accesses is African in origin. As the countryside flattens, it quickly turns to scorched sepia-toned sand. By the time we pause for a cuppa, the spirit-level horizon has receded to meet the faraway sky. We're told we have a lot of ground to cover before nightfall. So we're going to pick up the pace a wee bit.

Now, when someone tells you that on what is predominately an off-road launch, it typically means you're going to go from walking pace to a let's-all-enjoy-the-scenery gambol. Not here. Not in possibly the emptiest part of an already notoriously empty country. Not, somewhat incredulously, in a Land Rover Defender. PH is still second in the convoy, directly behind the 'HQ' lead car, which, without further warning, proceeds to reel in the skyline like it were attached to a Sega Rally machine. On a Sega Rally-appropriate surface. It isn't relaxing at all; it's eyes-on-stalks time. And as its maker intimated it would do, the Defender proves itself to be fun with a capital 'eff.

Now that declaration comes with all sorts of caveats. Driving on sand is not dissimilar to driving a test car on ice and snow, where all-wheel-drive stuff is notorious for flattering to deceive. And frankly, who wouldn't savour the experience of lunging across rust-coloured terrain, Desert Storm-style? Mitigating factors, both. But there's no denying the facts of the day: for several uproarious hours, we collectively wet our pants. The secret is multi-faceted - the steering's beefed-up rate of response is very well judged; the Defender seems tremendously agile given its weight and ride height; the 'Sand' drive mode allows a judicious amount of slip at speed; the power delivery, even in the D240, is spirited enough to keep you at speed, especially with the gearbox locked into 'S'.

But mostly it's about the terrific sense of balance that Land Rover has endowed the Defender with, and the four-wheel drive system's knack for exploiting it. Later, back on gravel, the dynamic upshot couldn't be clearer: tip the car into a likely corner slightly too fast, back off for a moment, and round the tail comes in a lazy swish, leaving you with only the rest of the afternoon to tidy it up. No, it isn't an essential character trait for what is now very much a family SUV. Nor does it really have anything much to do with the concept of 'Defender' as it stands in most people's minds. Yet there is method to the fatuousness: Land Rover promised to make the Defender's replacement memorable to drive. It is.

We overnight in the spectacular Okahirongo Elephant Lodge on the banks of the ephemeral Hoarusib River. There are no elephants and nor is there any river, but the establishment more than makes up for it with its otherworldly, moonscape setting. Suffice it to say you can see for miles. And miles. We're not here for not seeing elephants though, but for the hotel's proximity to our final waypoint: the (in)famous Skeleton Coast. Land Rover has pulled many strings (and officially greased innumerable palms) for permission to repeatedly drive into the conservation area, although it's a riverbed just inland from the Atlantic shoreline that we're actually heading for. To get there, you first have to breach the adjacent desert, which is notable for full-scale, cinematic sand dunes and for ultimately not slowing the convoy down one bit.

Said riverbed is a different matter. On its recce of the route, immediately following heavy rainy season rain, Land Rover's expedition team cheerily admits to getting repeatedly stuck. For hours on end. Mercifully, the intervening days have seen plenty of drainage, and for most of the morning we make skiddy, splashy, wildlife-startling progress along the winding route. Then, quicker than you can shout 'giraffe' into the radio, the going suddenly gets ultra tough. Muddy patches which had previously been easily traversable become tyre-sinking quagmires without warning. We get stuck. Someone behind us gets stuck. There are punctures. There is much scurrying about with winches and spare wheels. It is viciously hot in the sun. In the shade there are mosquitoes.

Cheeringly, the obvious solution is to drive much, much quicker and let momentum carry you on its shoulders through the tricky bits. Standing water included. Considering the seven-seat P400's inflated 2.4-tonne unladen kerb weight (further increased by all the mission impossible addenda), it does this well enough; helped along as it has been everywhere by proper tyres and no shortage of peak torque. What's really impressive, though, is the punishment it soaks up along the way. Land Rover has been banging on about the seven tonnes of vertical load the forged subframes are built to absorb from day one. But it isn't till you're actually sitting there, with a stupid cringe on your face as you exit half a foot of water over a foot of very substantial berms at A-road speeds that you begin to appreciate those numbers. The Defender really does seem to have been built to exceed any limit labelled 'normal'.

We reflect on this back in Opuwo, the odyssey finally over. One of Land Rover's technicians tells PH that he looked after the cars lent to the James Bond set, and that the previous three days were nothing compared to the punishment meted out by a stunt crew and demanding second unit. No Defender faltered there either. Bruised and battered, they all soldiered on to the end. Of course that proves nothing in the long term. But it's a good anecdote, and to begin with virtually everything about the Defender is anecdotal. Its performance in Namibia answers several important questions and poses many more. Firstly, crucially, it is enormously likeable. Most modern SUVs negotiate the muddy stuff obligingly if you show them due consideration, but the Defender drives like it needs no consideration at all - like it will do things on the wince-scale that beggar belief. That it can do this at speed, continuously, is obviously significant. That it manages to make the experience not only endurable, but enjoyable as well might just place it in a class of one.

Does that make it a right and proper replacement for the previous Defender? Not quite - because how could it? The previous model was a hurricane shelter of idiosyncrasy, sentiment (some of it misplaced) and mechanical folklore. It was perhaps the archetypical example of a car being considered greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly it was hopeless at most things even before this millennium arrived. If you were partial to that, it was intensely loveable. But the accusation that it was actually crap by modern standards is hard to refute without unpacking a lot of personal bias.

Nevertheless, it is that indefinable spirit which Land Rover has tried hard to rekindle. And, to its credit, it has not chased this intangible, lightning-in-a-bottle quality without forgetting to build an objectively good car. The Defender has the conventional bases more than adequately covered: it is ergonomically sound, very practical, technically impressive and pleasant to sit in. Moreover, after three days of solid travel in Namibia - days which included some of the most arduous driving imaginable - it hadn't frayed the nerves or shredded the spine or seriously tested anyone's patience. Try that in its predecessor.

Granted, that hardly makes it perfect. Its looks remain divisive. It is very heavy. Its fuel economy isn't going to win any awards. And it's not cheap by any stretch. Ten minutes on the configurator suggests that a Namibia-spec 110 P400 would set you back around £90k - roughly the same amount an entry-level Range Rover would cost with an identical 3.0-litre straight-six. Now, plainly the cars we drove were a special case - the 110 currently starts at £45,460 - but a standard P400 is still £79,655 while the just-launched 90 is £75,475. A 400hp Range Rover Sport HST, which would be quicker everywhere and absolutely no slouch off-road, is £81,250.

The most powerful model's positioning reflects a basic assumption on Land Rover's part: that buyers will fall in love with it in much the same way as they did with the previous Defender. This is plausible. The car is certain to attract more than its fair share of early 'tick everything' adopters - and, based on three days of first-hand evidence, they're unlikely to be disappointed. For everyone else the idea that the Defender will not be especially affordable is frustrating, but hardly unexpected - new versions of the previous model remained resolutely costly, even when it was chronically outdated.

Perhaps it's also worth pointing out that this is very much a new beginning. An additional, long-promised Land Rover product pillar is finally standing, and the firm's ambitions for it are certain to be extensive. We already know that there will be a lower-cost 'commercial' grade Defender later this year, designed to appeal to business. By extension, a judiciously stripped-out, wholly ruggedised version doesn't seem completely out of the question, not when it would provide a keen starting point to the range and be, in all likelihood, a fan favourite. Similarly, Land Rover might choose to drop its venerable V8 onto stiffer engine mounts, thereby accessing a part of the market currently wedded to the Mercedes-AMG G63. Thanks to the Defender's new bandwidth, neither option is far-fetched. It is the very definition of a go-anywhere car.

2996cc, six-cyl turbo, petrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 119mph
Weight: 2,343kg (DIN, 7-seat)
CO2: 257-277g/km (WLTP, 7-seat)
MPG: 23.2-24.9 (WLTP, 7-seat)
Price: from £79,655

1999cc, four-cyl turbo, diesel
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 240@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 317@1,400rpm
0-62mph: 9.1 seconds
Top speed: 117mph
Weight: 2,248kg (DIN, 5-seat)
CO2: 234-251g/km (WLTP, 5-seat)
MPG: 31.7-29.6 (WLTP, 5-seat)
Price: from £52,070

PH Hat tip to N. Dimbleby for the pics; B. Bryson for the manly swagger

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