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Semi-active TracTive dampers keep body roll to a minimum in fast corners : credit: © Patrick Cruywagen
Defender suspension that gives sports car handling and limousine comfort – too good to be true?

Let’s be honest, Defenders have never been known for their magic carpet ride quality or go-kart handling. The do-it-all nature of the Land Rover, and the suspension fitted to it, means it’s almost impossible to achieve – suspension that’s tasked with supporting a full loadspace with a 3.5-tonne trailer in tow, and still giving half-decent unladen manners while allowing the axles to flex off-road is never going to equate to Rolls-Royce-like smoothness or Lotus handling. It’s a compromise at best.

Generally, when people hear ‘suspension’, springs tend to come to mind first. But while they’re a vital part of the system, it’s the components that dampen the action of the springs – aptly-named dampers – that have a far more dramatic effect on how the vehicle handles on and off-road than they’re often given credit for.

As you drive, the spring at each corner compresses and extends, keeping the tyres in contact with the ground and the body as level as possible. It’s the job of the dampers to control how quickly the spring can move in each direction, by offering resistance against it. This is done traditionally by a simple piston moving through a cylinder of oil, and the more holes there are in the piston, the more easily it can move through the oil, and the softer the damping. Fewer holes mean more resistance; the piston can only move slowly through the oil and so the spring can’t move as freely, but the vehicle remains flatter through corners. It’s common for the compression and rebound strokes to be valved differently to each other, but each one is almost always fixed in a standard application, and either body roll or ride quality will be compromised. Often both.

The TracTive dampers can be used on Defenders with either lowered or raised suspension setups

In an ideal world, the valving in the dampers could be tuned on the fly for each road surface, driving style and task the vehicle is performing. And that’s exactly what the cutting-edge, electronically controlled TracTive Suspension dampers fitted to the V8-powered Defender we’re testing here are claimed to do.

TracTive, a Dutch enterprise, has offered its fully-adjustable electronic dampers for high-end sports and race cars and motorcycles for a while now, but it has only just released a system that fits our beloved Land Rovers, an application where they arguably make the biggest difference. Controlled by an electronic control unit mounted in the battery box under the passenger seat, the system monitors the pitch and roll of the vehicle at all times. The ECU then employs a special electronic valve in each damper to control the compression and rebound rates, stiffening and softening them automatically at speeds of 6-10 microseconds. The incredibly fast action of the ECU and electronic valves in the dampers means fantastic cornering performance, anti-squat under hard acceleration or when towing, and a luxuriously smooth ride over potholed greenlanes or around cobbled city streets. The dampers can be programmed from inside the vehicle using their own dedicated control interface. So, you choose how firm you want the front and rear suspension and how much you want the dynamic control to intervene when it detects the chassis pitching, diving and rolling as you accelerate, brake and corner. Then, save each setting as one of five pre-sets that can be quickly selected on the fly to suit the road surface or terrain, and your driving style.

 

The perfect case study

What better vehicle to showcase this revolutionary suspension system than a 355bhp V8-powered 90 on 21-inch alloy wheels? The wheelbase of the shortest Defender has always been a factor in ride quality, as there’s less time between the front and rear wheels encountering a dip, pothole or tight turn in the road – 110s and 130s flatten the surfaces much more effectively as standard. Add in slightly lowered -1-inch progressive springs and massive rims shod in low-profile tyres, with over double the standard power output, and this Rivolve LXV8 is the ideal test bed for the new dampers. Can the TracTive suspension really live up to the claims on a short-wheelbase Land Rover without big, squishy tyre sidewalls to help iron out the plentiful lumps and bumps smattered across a typical British B-road?

Martin checks out the 355bhp V8 that powers the Rivolve 90 and makes such a great sound

Before we take to the roads to find out, it’s important not to overlook what a machine the LXV8 is. ‘‘What’s the name about?’’ I hear you ask. Well, when Nene Overland set out to build a Defender to demonstrate its upmarket Rivolve line, it was decided that starting with a common-or-garden 90 would be a bit boring – so got hold of a rare LXV Edition instead.

These high-spec hard tops were launched in 2013 and limited to 65 units for the UK market, to celebrate 65 years of Land Rover. They could be told apart from lesser models by their Santorini Black paint with contrasting Corris Grey roof and facia, and came on black 16-inch Sawtooth alloys. While the original alloys are long gone, Nene Overland’s Andrew Harrison-Smith is keen to keep some elements of the original style. ‘‘We converted it to a station wagon, but didn’t want to fit sliding side windows, so went for Masai panoramic glass panels. The dark tint keeps it looking like a hard top from the outside, but the interior is much brighter now.’’

Easy to use TracTive touchscreen allows you to personalise your damping requirements on the move

And what an interior it is. The original dashboard has been accented in Corris Grey, and trimmed in leather with contrasting stitching. The centre console houses a double-DIN Pioneer head unit, which powers Symphony speakers that are set into the standard locations around the cabin, and the head unit also doubles as a reversing camera display. To the right of the ICE controls sits a switch mount for the windows and foglamp, along with that all-important TractTive touchscreen.

The cubby box and seats are Rivolve’s Retro Classic style in black leather, with inward-facing fold-ups in the back. Marine Teak has been used to line the loadspace floor, looking achingly stylish while being durable enough to shrug off mucky boots and excitable dogs. The extra light from the panoramic glass really helps lift an interior which uses mostly darker colours, and it oozes luxury.

Black leather fold-up seats and marine teak combine to bring style to the rear

Outside, the LXV8’s classy black and grey paint scheme is complemented by tubular side steps, and extended and colour-matched wheelarch spats stretch over the huge 315/40R21 Davanti tyres, giving the Defender an aggressive, squat stance. Rivolve’s uprated brakes peek from behind the wheels – massive eight-pot calipers up front grab onto 360mm grooved discs, and haul the 90 to a stop consistently from any speed without fear of brake fade.

The 90’s purposeful look is also thanks in part to its 1-inch lowered springs, but the TracTive dampers are standard length and designed to work with both OEM and aftermarket coils. The only other suspension modifications are tubular front turrets, in standard length, and a standard rear anti-roll bar from a County station wagon – nothing you wouldn’t find underneath your typical Defender.

Distinctive Rivolve logo on grille

Up front, the 90’s nose is finished off with a pair of Lazer Triple R Elite driving lamps and Trucklite headlights, which are surrounded by colour-coded plastics. The company’s signature R adorns the grille. At the back, the rear crossmember is covered with a Corris Grey vanity panel and fitted with a NAS-style step. Clear LED indicators and tail lights increase light output, and contrast the Santorini paint’s red and green fleck.

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Under the bonnet lies a 5.3-litre V8 L83 engine. Made by GM, think of it as the fabled LS engine, but more modern and a lot more efficient. It churns out 355bhp and 382lb-ft of torque, and its original home is under the bonnet of Chevrolet pick-ups and SUVs. Due to its smooth power delivery and healthy torque curve, it suits life in a Defender well, as I’m about to find out.


So how does it drive?

TracTive control panel sits neatly on the facia to the left of the  Momo wheel

Sparking up the V8, a high idle soon settles to a hushed tone. The fully soundproofed cabin means an uncanny level of refinement, and the lack of a four-cylinder diesel also helps cut down vibration. Clicking up through the standard six-speed MT82 gearbox, the linear power and pleasingly short-throw accelerator pedal makes driving this 90 a breeze, and we’re soon making good progress along the Cambridgeshire back roads.

We pull over, and I explore the menu for the TracTive dampers. The layout of the controller is simple – each preset has stages of damping for the front dampers, rear dampers, body roll control and longitudinal pitch and dive control. The five stages of firmness are shown as orange bars; the more orange, the firmer the ride and the more intervention the dampers will give when accelerating, braking and turning.

I start with all the options set to full soft. The ride is incredibly smooth, even on the big alloys. I’d go as far as saying I’ve never known a Defender to ride this smoothly, but the ultra-soft settings come at a cost. Deep drain covers and potholes cause the front axle to hit the bump-stops, as there’s not enough resistance on compression to slow the spring. The body is also allowed to wallow more in all directions, in the way you might imagine a huge American saloon might. Novel for the first few minutes, but not ideal.

No 90 has ever felt so agile on the road or cornered so hard

​​​​​So, to ‘full hard’ then. The low-profile tyres now transmit far more of the surface into the cabin, but it’s actually not unbearable. The party piece of this setting is how flat the Defender stays, even when stabbing the throttle and unleashing all 355 horses at once. Hard on those big brakes and the nose doesn’t suddenly point at the tarmac like you’d expect, and the lack of body roll is astounding. I hate the cliché, but it really does feel like driving a go-kart, especially with the 90’s short wheelbase and smaller MOMO Nero steering wheel. The darty character and tons of grip encourage you to really push the Defender through bends, and the V8 provides plenty of grunt and an evocative soundtrack to go along with the pin-sharp handling.

With the extremes explored, you can really start to fine-tune the suspension for the best combination of comfort and roadholding. After a few miles of trying different A- and B-roads as well as smaller routes through villages and a green lane, we deduce that having the front and rear dampers set to almost full soft but with the anti-pitch and roll turned right up, the blend of smooth ride quality and body control under spirited driving is the ideal combination.

Blasting out of corners with the chassis firmly square to the road and both centre and rear torque-biasing diffs hunting for grip is a hoot, but then you can enjoy a blissfully cosseted ride over speed bumps and rough, pitted surfaces straight afterwards.

In a heavily-laden Defender, the option to firm up the dampers controlling the most loaded-up axle should also prove to be a big advantage, and I’d love to explore the benefits of the TracTive system while towing, too – I think it would sort out the slightly under-damped feeling Defenders sometimes suffer from when carrying passengers and equipment. Until then, though, I’m off for another blast around the block…

 

TracTive suspension – what’s in the box?

The TracTive Touring Line suspension, as fitted to this Rivolve 90, comes as a complete kit ready to bolt on and wire into your Defender, and retains the standard damper mounts front and rear. You get a set of four dampers, electronic control unit which houses the G sensor, a full wiring loom and the control panel touchpad to mount in the dashboard.

For lifted or lowered Defenders, the kit is offered with -2in or +2in dampers, which have exactly the same technology and internals as the standard-length versions.

Prices for the Tractive system, fitted, set up and tested start at £6718 – visit neneoverland.co.uk or call the team on 01733 380687.

 

SPEC LIST

Base vehicle: 2013 Defender 90 LXV hard-top

Engine and transmission
• L83 5.3-litre V8, 355bhp, 382lb-ft
• MT82 6-speed gearbox wheels and suspension
• 21in Anthracite alloy wheels r kit
• Tubular front turrets
• OE rear anti-roll bar
• Nene Overland -1in springs
• Centre and rear ATB diffs
• Rivolve big brake kit
• Safari Equip fuel tank exterior
• Rivolve Sport Wagon grille
• Extended wheelarches
• Trucklite headlamps
• Lazer 750R Elite driving lights
• Masai panoramic glass
• Tubular side steps
• Smoothed crossmember
• NAS-style rear step

Interior
• Rivolve Classic Retro heated seats
• Momo Nero steering wheel
• Pioneer head unit, reversing camera
• Symphony speakers
• Sound-deadened cabin
• Marine teak loadspace deck

 

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