It increasingly seems that PHEVs are already being outflanked by history. It's not long since they were portrayed as the sensible long-term future of personal transportation, one that would provide a gentle slope into far-distant full electrification. But politicians have pronounced and we now know that, even with a five year extension over pure electric power, plug-ins are scheduled to die by 2035 in the UK. Many buyers, possibly most, will make the jump straight from dinosaur juice into full EVs.
Yet there are several good reasons why a PHEV can be a better solution, and not just the usual one about range anxiety. Electric cars are good at many things, but towing isn't on the list - even the brawniest depleted as fast as a pound shop AA battery when asked to haul. Nor has there been a truly capable fully electric off-roader yet, the issue of the need to combine low-hanging high voltage motors with the need for proper wading depth an obvious one.
Which is where the Defender 110 PHEV comes in. The niche it is being precision targeted at is pretty much summed up by Land Rover's claim this is the first plug in to come with switchable low range gears. It uses an electrified version of the four-cylinder P300 Defender's powertrain and offers slightly more performance than the six-cylinder P400. It costs more than the bigger engined car - a £2420 supplement on the trims where both are offered - but that will be offset by obvious tax benefits for anyone running one through a company. The PHEV is also substantially quicker than the D300 six-cylinder diesel, while carrying a much lower CO2 rating.
Plug-ins are always good at on-paper advantages, often much less in the real world. But on road the P400e quickly proves to be an inoffensive and thoroughly sensible addition to the range, although one that doesn't feel as polished as some of the other members of the clan.
The Evoque and Discovery Sport P300e PHEVs use three-cylinder engines and electric rear axles. But, like the Range Rover plug-in, the Defender sticks with four. The base engine is the same that powers the P300, itself no slouch, which contributes 296hp. This is joined by a 139hp motor can engage independently with the eight-speed autobox, either adding boost or powering the car by itself. This might not give the torque-juggling opportunities of having motors power individual axles or wheels, but it means the PHEV's blended electric assistance works through all four wheels and the switchable transfer case.
Electrical power comes from a 19.2kWh pack under the boot which can be charged at speeds of up to 50kW. This adds 27 miles of electrical range under the optimistic WLTP protocol, so probably low 20s in the real world of gradients and gloomy weather. On Land Rover's numbers the P400e's 2,525kg kerbweight makes it 264kg porkier than the P300, but only 62kg heavier than the bigger engined P400. It can tow, too - up to 3,000kg - although probably not for very long when operating electrically.
The pure EV mode is functional rather than impressive. The Defender 110 is big and blocky and 139hp isn't very much these days. Acceleration at urban speeds is acceptable, with the slightly odd sensation of the gearbox changing up as the motor drives it, but out of town the P400e gathered momentum at a stately pace when running under full electric power. It takes plenty of road to confirm the 80mph EV top speed. Pushing too hard on the accelerator will also fire the combustion engine into life.
Under hard use the two sides of the powertrain seemed to squabble a fair bit. This was most obvious when trying to launch out of junctions or into gaps on roundabout, with an initial accelerator delay similar to the sort that early, dull-witted DSG gearboxes used to deliver, followed by the abrupt arrival of full power. Requests for sudden overtaking urge created a similar pause as the engine and motor decided which of them was going to do what. But once full thrust arrives the P400e certainly felt impressively brisk; on Land Rover's numbers the 0-60mph time is barely slower than the forthcoming Defender V8.
Driven at the gentler pace that suits it better everything grew more seamless. In the P400e's Hybrid mode the engine cuts in and out almost invisibly at lower speeds, and the electric motor adds its assistance cleanly and invisibly on part throttle. Cruising refinement is excellent, only a small amount of wind-whistle at motorway speeds disturbing the tranquillity of the cabin. Land Rover also deserves credit for one of the best and and most rational PHEV instrument packs yet. There isn't a silly flow/ recharge meter, rather a digital rev counter which greys out when the engine isn't running, a blue band around its margin showing the contribution the electric motor is making, and turning green when it is regenerating.
The P400e is pliant and well damped, but the softness of its suspension settings limits enthusiasm for faster progress. Riding on pillowy air springs and with a nose-heavy handling balance it didn't feel nearly as keen as the last Defender I drove, a steel-sprung P300 90 in near base spec. That one seemed to really enjoy changing direction, despite the modest limits of off-road biased tyres. But riding on similar Goodyear Wrangler ATs the PHEV feels heavier and less incisive. Several of the dynamic cues that JLR is normally so good at were also slightly off: the light steering lacked any meaningful resistance, the brake pedal had a dead feeling as the electronics behind it tried to work out how to blend regen with friction.
Much of that comes from the compromises inherent in any PHEV, of course - the need to haul around the weight (and complexity) of two different powertrains. Range will always seem very limited when compared to a full EV, and fuel economy will be sub-diesel if driven for long periods with the battery depleted. But there's plenty of flip side, too. Barring the inability to order it with three rows of seats (because of the battery location) the P400e is every bit as spacious and practical as any other Defender 110. It's also fast, frugal when used for shorter journeys and - no point pretending otherwise - comes with the possibility of those enticing tax benefits.
But there are more dynamically accomplished cars in the Defender range, with that list including some of the cheaper and more humble examples. And that's without considering the monstrous V8 (and its equally monstrous price tag) that we'll finally be able to tell you about next week.
SPECIFICATION | LAND ROVER DEFENDER 110XS P400e
Engine: 1997cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged plus permanent magnet motor
Transmission: eight speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400hp @ 5500rpm (total system)
Torque (lb ft): 472lb-ft @ 2500rpm (total system)
Top speed: 119mph (limited)
Economy: 85.3mpg (WLTP)
CO2: 74g/km (WLTP)
1 / 12