Would you trust yours on a tough off-roading expedition where your life depended on it?
When JLR launched the new Defender at Frankfurt last September they went to extraordinary lengths to explain and demonstrate its off-road capabilities. The company clearly recognised that it had to show, and prove, that its new vehicle was a capable and accomplished off-roader worthy of inheriting the hallowed name.
Land Rover ambassador and professional mountaineer Kenton Cool drove it on the aptly-named ‘Expedition 001’ in Kazakhstan, a nod to the Land Rover’s indispensable role in journeys of exploration as far back as 1949 when its simplicity, practicality, fixability and relatively cheap price inspired a post-war generation to go out and explore the world. Six months later, journalists were introduced to the new Defender on a challenging off-road mini-expedition in Namibia, just before the pandemic put paid to the rest of the planned press launch.
JLR proudly proclaimed the new Defender to be ‘the most capable and durable Land Rover ever made’ and the global market reacted in gushingly positive terms. New Defender also has more electrickery on-board than any Land Rover that has gone before, and the press release suggested that ‘the data connection replaces the traditional toolkit’, which was perhaps down to one of the company’s software engineers getting a bit too carried away with it all.
Many hardcore Land Rover enthusiasts saw all this as deeply unattractive and a long way from the utilitarian values of the earlier models, and there were large numbers of harsh and strident voices insisting that to call the new vehicle a Defender was a travesty. Unfortunately, there were never enough of these supporters of the old Defender willing to buy it, which is one of the reasons why production came to an end.
Inevitably, things have now calmed down a bit and I reckon most people see the new Defender as an attractive and desirable vehicle well deserving of the Land Rover name. The order books are full, the waiting list is long, and there are plenty of people out there who want one, although very few will be buying one because they are planning an expedition to a far-flung corner of the world. Most are buying them for the same reason they buy any large SUV: lifestyle statement; nice thing to be seen in; inspires a sense of safety and security; tells everyone that you’re an adventurer at heart, even if only in your dreams!
But the real question we at LRM want to ask is this: would you drive a new Defender across the Sahara if your life depended on it? Or, for that matter, would you enter it in the Camel Trophy?
Our test team
Is the new Defender a match for the best of the old generation models?
We’re here today with Bob and Joe Ives, two men who know more about the old Defender than most, and certainly more about the Camel Trophy than almost anyone, having won it outright in 1989 in the Defender 110 they still own today. And it just so happens that Bob took delivery of his new Defender two weeks ago, so we are in the happy position of being able to compare the vehicles first-hand as well as get Bob and Joe’s views.
Editor Patrick came along in his South African spec 1998 110 complete with a 2.8-litre straight-six BMW engine, and I took my 1997 90 300Tdi, which is in my view the last Land Rover model built before electrickery became ubiquitous. We also invited LRM reader and diehard Land Rover enthusiast Adam Wormleighton to join us for the day, with his stunning Wolf 110. The sun was shining on this beautiful corner of Hampshire, Patrick had brought along his braai, the coolbox was full, and Bob’s off-road driving course promised to provide some interesting comparisons.
Bob and Joe Ives
Bob: “I have to say up front that it is by far the most comfortable Land Rover vehicle I have driven on the road,” says Bob. “It glides over our pot-holed local lanes and I barely notice the rumble strips in the village anymore. It certainly wasn’t like that with any of the Defenders I’ve owned over the years. I love the interior and I like the styling clues that link back to the old vehicle.
“I put down my deposit for the new one with my local dealer, Harwood’s of Basingstoke, back in January 2019. I spent quite a few hours configuring it online, and I had some fun to see if I could specify a vehicle that would cost £100k! I couldn’t get higher than around £99k, which is an eye-watering number when you think about what we used to pay for the old Defender. I thought the new one looked stunning in plain white with the black accents, so that’s what I went for. In the end the cost came out at just over half the maximum number I could get on the configurator, and mine was only the second one to be delivered by the dealer.
“I love the design and styling. It’s a kind of ‘luxury-utility’. I think it will appeal to D3 and D4 owners and perhaps a whole new category of buyers, and I hope it becomes classless just like the Series and original Defenders were, with a very different image to today’s Range Rovers. Fiona, my wife, thinks it’s too big and refuses to drive it. She’s sticking to her red 90!
Taking on the rough stuff with electronic wizardry
“I do worry about all the tech but there’s no denying that the traction and particularly the trailer control are very impressive. Some of the tech is a bit gimmicky but I’m sure it needs it all in order to sell well, and that’s really all that matters. I am fascinated by the ability to make the bonnet and engine disappear and look at the front wheels and suspension on the screen, driving over the ground that I can’t see!
“I would feel confident using it on a serious off-road expedition and if the Camel was suddenly relaunched and I was offered a drive in one, I’d jump at the chance. But if I was going to drive across the Sahara on my own, maybe I’d go in an old Defender Tdi.”
Well earned war wounds from the Camel Trophy, which it won in 1989
Joe: “I’ve been very impressed with Bob’s and I’ve actually ordered one, although my dealer tells me I won’t be getting it until sometime in 2021,” says Joe. “I’ve heard that Land Rover retailers are penalised if they sell a new Defender to a customer who then sells it on within six months. It’s fascinating to think that people may have placed their orders hoping to sell the car on for a profit before they’ve even taken delivery!
“I also worry about the amount of tech in the new model, but from a Camel Trophy perspective you have to ask yourself about the costs of the things that any serious off-roading expedition would trash, such as the door mirrors, front and rear wings, and headlamp units. I think the plastic underbody protection would rip off in a second! But I’d love the chance to test it in something like the Camel, but not if I’d had to buy it myself!”
More driver skill required in this one and if it goes wrong you can fix it curb side
I did a bit of digging on Joe’s behalf and discovered that a non-wading door mirror for a New Defender retails at £344.64 although one with Wade Sensing comes in at £410.64 (since you’re asking, Wade Sensing mirrors have sensors in them that warn you if the water you’re driving through is about to become deeper than the vehicle’s maximum wading depth). A basic headlamp unit is £795 while an LED unit is a heart-stopping £1,569.75. Worth knowing before you get too exuberant off-road in your new L663.
Andy cancelled his order of the new Defender after realising he'd have to part with one of his other Land Rovers
“I’m not one of those people who criticised the new Defender when it first appeared,” says Adam. “I actually went to the Frankfurt Motor Show to see it, which was the first time I’ve ever bothered to go to a motor show! I’ve always thought of it as a completely new vehicle that shares the name and I think it’s pretty pointless to compare it with the original. The new one looks fantastic, drives well, is excellent at what it does and has real presence. I was really taken by it and I placed an order immediately.
“But I had second thoughts. Not because I’d changed my mind about what I thought of it, but because I realised that it would have to replace one of my current vehicles, either my daily driver Range Rover Sport, my modified Discovery 3 which I use for shooting, or the Wolf 110 which I bought in July last year and have enjoyed working on and getting up to scratch. I like all of them and I don’t want to part with any of them just yet.
“I’m also concerned about some of the reports online regarding reliability, so I decided that perhaps it’s better to wait a while. But I have no doubt that I’ll own a New Defender at some point within the next few years.”
A simple, practical and cheap vehicle to explore the world in
“I’m not a fan of gratuitous electrickery although I understand why all car manufacturers load their vehicles with as much as they can squeeze in, even if most customers use only a fraction of the tech that’s available. It’s because the industry is locked-on to the idea of driverless, autonomous vehicles. And if these are going to become a safe and reliable means of transportation all the tech we are seeing now, and more, must be made bulletproof and reliable. At the moment we are all guinea pigs in a vast global beta test to make it so.
“At a time when carmakers have developed engines that can go on for half a million miles, and structures that are all but rot-proof, it seems a shame that it’s all that tech that is likely to lead to a vehicle being scrapped.
“Having got that off my chest I have to say that I am mightily impressed with the new Defender and, thanks to Bob’s generosity, delighted at last to have driven one. It’s on-road manners are impeccable and it’s off-road capabilities are impressive, but I’d rather trust my toolkit than some Software-Over-The-Air, so the 300Tdi would be my choice for that solo crossing of the Sahara, I’m afraid.
There's no comparison when it comes to the interior!
“What JLR have come up with is a completely new vehicle, consistent with their position as a maker of luxury, premium 4x4s. As Professor Gerry McGovern said, JLR had to create ‘a new Defender for a new age, respectful of its past but not harnessed by it’. In this they have undeniably succeeded, and I am sure it will sell in the hundreds of thousands, but they have not created a simple, practical and cheap vehicle that people can go off to explore the world in. And that’s a shame.”
Patrick would take the old one over new one any day
“I drove over 200 miles in my old 1998 Defender to get to this assignment,” says Patrick. “And you know what? I loved every single millimetre of the drive. There is something pure and raw about driving an old Defender. You will never be able to take that away from anyone. Just saying.
“The New Defender might be the most capable Land Rover ever made but just how much capability does one need? And more importantly, at what cost? A decent Tdi 110 should be around £10,000 max while a new Defender 110 starts at £45,000. The new Defender is everything mine is not: handles well on tar, cosy and warm inside, no leaks, and more tech than the first craft to land on the moon. I am sorry but real men and women don’t need all of those things.
“If the script writers at BBC’s Top Gear wanted to make an award winning episode they should take a convoy of Tdi Defenders and put them up against a convoy of New Defenders on a brutal and punishing forest expedition. It would certainly help us answer the above question.
Proven in the worlds extremes
Expensive to replace
“I really don’t think we will suddenly see loads of new Defenders taking on the Simpson Desert or the extreme sand dunes of Namibia. The new Defender is aimed at an all-together different type of customer, one who likes the finer and more expensive things in life. Not one who will take three months off to drive from Singapore to London. Gone are the days where Defenders were purchased in large numbers by safari companies or the military. Land Rover has purposefully taken the utility out of the Defender, you can maybe get away with that on the G4 Challenge but not on the Camel Trophy.
“Land Rover brand ambassador Kingsley Holgate will be driving two new sponsored Defenders from South Africa to the UK as soon as the African borders open up again. If the Land Rover PR team are reading this then please get him to do some live videos of him servicing and doing software updates via the internet. If successful, it might convince one or two diehard old Defender fans that the new one is not just a pretender but a real Defender.
“So to answer the question, if it was a Land Rover sponsored Camel Trophy or any other extreme event then yes, give me a new Defender or a full-fat Range Rover. But if I had to pay for the Defender and the repairs, then a 300Tdi with a driver made of the right stuff and the right gear can go anywhere the new Defender can.”