Jeremy Taylor puts new Land Rover Defender through its paces in remote and spectacular Namibia, southern Africa
Back in the 1920s it took a Model T Ford supported by 100 Himba tribes people to drive the most dangerous track in Namibia for the first time. Now, almost 100 years on, the latest Land Rover Defender can manage Van Zyl’s Pass virtually on its own.
Engage Rock Crawl and Hill Descent Control in the new configurable Terrain Response, raise ground clearance to 291 mm, then zoom in on the rock face below using a myriad of onboard cameras. The most advanced off-road vehicle in the world really only needs you for a gentle steer in the right direction.
If that makes this 1-in-3 descent sound too easy then a quick peep down the 600 ft ravine at the side reveals a different story. A crumpled Toyota pick-up and a Nissan are perhaps one reason why Land Rover decided this had to be the location for the media’s first-ever drive of the most important model in its history.
The drip-drip of Defender PR stops here, in this remote north-west corner of Namibia where heat, dust and an unforgiving environment are a constant. Kaokoland is one of the most inhospitable spots on Earth. Known as the place God made in anger, any other motoring manufacturer would be burning rubber in the opposite direction.
But this is Land Rover. The marque made famous for expeditions and adventures needs to prove that new Defender is everything it has claimed it to be, and more, in the harshest, most demanding of conditions.
Some LRM readers may have made their mind up about replacement Defender long before now. True, this technology-packed Defender is nothing like the lovable original – there’s really no chance of getting your hands dirty under the bonnet either, as its better served by a laptop than a spanner.
But after 450 Tarmac-free miles in Africa, for my money this is the most highly sophisticated and capable off-roader I’ve ever driven. A Defender for the new millennium, finally it’s time to embrace the future.
A 450-mile Tarmac-free drive confirms new Defender's credentials for our motoring hack. All photos: Nick Dimbleby
Three flights on from Heathrow and Defender Kaokoland Expedition touches down on the dirt runway at Opuwa, although not before a spectacular flypast to clear meandering goats and locals off the strip. A herd of new Defender 110s is also waiting to greet us, some sprayed Indus Silver with black contrast roof, others in the more appealing Pangea Green with a white top.
The latter looks even better for sitting on white, 18 inch steel wheels. They may be heavier than the six-spoke, 19 inch alloys but the steelies are so retro they’re bound to be a hit. Not that personality has been overlooked elsewhere in Gerry McGovern’s most desirable design to date.
There’s more than a touch of Discovery 4 about the bonnet and later, after three long days of following a Defender, I’m sure can I spot some original Freelander in the back end, too – although that mirage might have been induced by the relentless heat. Note the Defender-esque, squared-off wheel arches and tiny door mirrors in the mix.
Briefing us for the many miles ahead is Land Rover stalwart David Sneath. The Drive Experience guru has earned his reputation leading adventures around the world, as well as owning a collection of vehicles in what his understanding wife calls ‘the orphanage’.
Sneath has been there and got several T-shirts. He has a message just for LRM readers too: “All I would say is give this Defender a chance. Get in and drive it and think openly because you have to evolve to survive.
“I’m a staunch enthusiast and it’s true the modern Land Rover is more difficult to maintain than the classics but this is all about the future. This new model is not just evolution it’s a revolution. Try it and see what you think because the modern technology on board is simply outstanding off-road and on.”
Our route north to Van Zyl’s Camp is made from hard-packed sand with gravel stretches. The dust is relentless and brings me to halt many times. It will string out our convoy of six vehicles for up to five miles in places, with the ever-present danger of wildlife and the locals appearing from all angles.
For the first stretch I’m steering the more powerful of the two diesel models, the D240. Powered by the Ingenium 2.0-litre four-cylinder, the six-speed auto is barely audible, aside from start-up and harsh acceleration. And with a top speed of 117 mph, the stats show it will happily truck along all day at high speed, while returning in excess of 30 mpg.
Nearside deployable roof ladder is an upgrade to the explorer pack.
In fact, the more intrusive noise comes from the non-standard Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs, as well as the lightweight, 36 kg expedition roof rack which is a key part of the Expedition Pack. Now this is where you need to pay attention because apart from the 170+ individual accessories, Land Rover has created four different lifestyle packages.
Cringeworthy? Well, maybe the Urban Pack to ‘conquer the urban jungle’ is one accessory too far but I can see the Country Pack – wheel arch protection, mudflaps, full-height loadspace partition and a portable rinse system for the mutt – being a big seller.
Explorer Pack, fitted to all vehicles in Namibia, goes one stage further with a discreet snorkel that clings to the windscreen pillar and gives Defender a massive wading depth of 900 mm. Wheel arch protection and a naff matte black, 110 bonnet decal are included, as well as the side-mounted gear carrier case.
This hand luggage-sized appendage hangs over the off-side rear quarter and does a good job of restricting my door mirror visibility. And with a perfectly decent boot capable of devouring 1075 litres of kit, apart from a wetsuit or some Stinking Bishop cheese sandwiches, just what Land Rover expects folk to store inside the case is a mystery.
Much more useful is the nearside deployable roof ladder, which cantilever’s down in three stages and actually has a purpose. An upgrade to the Explorer Pack, it beefs up the image of Defender and gives easy access to the roof, along with a front undershield and A-frame protection bar that also houses an integral, remotely-operated winch.
There’s an Adventure Pack, too, but you can guess where this is going and how much all these accessories are going to add to the bill. More on the eye-watering prices later.
Jeremy Taylor is impressed by new Defender's ride. Photo: Nick Dimbleby
Compared to the original, it soon becomes clear that this lightweight, all-aluminium monocoque Defender rides almost as well as a Range Rover. The D240 sits on electronic air suspension and an advanced, all-independent chassis. While the double wishbone front and integral link rear suspension are designed to optimise off-road travel, the result is also very pleasing on your backside.
On dirt, air suspension just soaks up anything this fast Namibian track can throw at it. The ride quality is nothing short of remarkable – no jitters, no anxious moments. The adaptive dampers work so well we could be cruising up the M6 rather than scrabbling across dirt and gravel.
To find the right traction for the conditions, one simply tweaks the touchscreen Terrain Response. Mud and Ruts, Sand, Grass/Gravel/Snow – all the usual Land Rover options are there, with Wade added for the first time. The new Pivi Pro widescreen and associated software is intuitive and doesn’t clutter up instrumentation either, just a fingertip above the dash-mounted gear-changer.
Reassuring ride qualities are reflected in a comfortable, functional and beautifully screwed together cabin that looks like nothing else in the Land Rover line-up. Yes, there’s more than hint of retro – that Series III dash shelf and the much-touted centre jump seat – but it’s all been done with purpose rather than just for show.
For example, the jump seat folds forward and flat when not in use, offering a couple of deep cup holders and extra storage space, as well as USB slots (I counted at least five dotted around the cabin). The jump seat headrest is fixed and would normally block the rear-view mirror when upright but Land Rover has thought about that, too.
Like some other Range Rover models, Defender has ClearSight, linked to a rear-facing camera on the roof. Press a button and the traditional mirror switches to a HD display that can also ‘see’ through a roof-high luggage space, offering a 50 per cent wider field of view. Somehow that camera never seems to get dirty in Namibia and it works even better at night.
Defender has a rubber floor so we can hose out all the dust at the end of the day (if there was any water), with the option of plush carpet mats on top. There are neat touches like the exposed Allen key screws and multiple grab handles, including one across the top of the dash covered in a unique, hardwearing material made from 36 recycled plastic bottles. I’d also recommend choosing the textile seat cloth rather than leather – it suits the rugged nature of Defender so much better.
Invisible Bonnet technology
Pioneering Technology makes the front of the car 'virtually' invisible.
The following day brings us to Van Zyl’s Pass and a chance for ClearSight’s invisible bonnet technology to show its worth. A view of the underside of a car when traversing razor-sharp rocks is very useful but cameras mounted on the underside of both door mirrors also reveal how close the front wheels are to approaching danger.
I wouldn’t say it makes the job of a spotter guide redundant but negotiating the kerb in your least favourite multi-storey car part will never be a hardship again. Just don’t rely entirely on the Pivi Pro screen and forget to look through the windscreen.
In fact, cameras dotted all around the car allow multiple views of the terrain. Apart from a bird’s eye overhead shot, a CGI image of the Defender can be superimposed over your real-world environment. It’s mind-boggling technical – goodness knows what Maurice and Spencer would have thought!
Terrain response helps to find the right traction for the conditions.
For the final stretch I’ve transferred to a top spec P400. The 3.0-litre, six-cylinder petrol features mild hybrid technology and is a nod towards the plug-in hybrid and full-electric model that will surely follow. It harvests energy under deceleration and braking, although the slowing effect is barely noticeable, unlike some cars.
The extra grunt over the diesel is instant, 550 Nm (406 lb-ft) of torque and if I could actually find some Tarmac this would be the first Defender to reach 60 mph in under six seconds too. A 48V battery is stored under the rear, redeploying energy as torque to improve fuel consumption to just shy of 30 mpg.
Our expedition is within a few miles of the Angolan border now, where a long and bitter civil war tore the country apart. Many fled in terror and as we enter the Namib Desert the virtually rust free chassis and bulkhead of a Series III left by escaping locals in 1975 litters the roadside. The rest of the vehicle has been picked clean by automotive vultures.
The Himba village of Purros is a final stop before a thrilling three-hour drive up the Hoarusib and Gomatum river beds on the Skeleton Coast. Shallow water and deep mud are all that remain of a once raging waterway a few months before. Elephant, Springbok and baboon are plentiful, easy to spot from the Defender’s Command driving position.
The P400 ploughs onward, a raft of technologically-advanced aids inspiring driver confidence at every challenge. Our three-day trek finally ends back in Opuwo, having scored just four flat tyres and no mechanical breakdowns between us. Old Defender would have tackled everything this expedition has thrown at us but the journey would have been longer – and a darn sight more uncomfortable too.
While the forthcoming 90 model will start at £40,290, the 110 is £45,240 and the commercial due later this year is estimated from around £35,000, plus VAT.
But Land Rover knows the real money will be made on the plethora of accessories. Even the entry-level 110 with a D200 S spec, plus Explorer Pack and winch is £56,200. The D240 S I drove with assorted expedition kit is £60,500. Ouch.
If you’re still in the bidding, the P400 in X spec costs £78,800 and the car I drove with accessories was a whopping £84,750 – or more than a Range Rover. It seems that driving a 21st century Defender also means you have to pay 21st century prices. I’m off to raid my pension pot.