15 July 2023
Former LRM Editor, Pat, pits two Land Rover Defenders from different eras against each other on a 1500-mile trip through Botswana. Which Defender will come out on top – the old-style Defender 130 or the newer Defender 110?
I can just about smell Johannesburg; Google Maps on my phone tells me we have less than 200 miles to go and we’ve been up since 5.00am. Our plan was to drive all the way from Kasane, on the banks of the charming Chobe River in northern Botswana, to Johannesburg, a distance of 750 miles. We are breaking my first rule of African travel: don’t drive at night. A few seconds ago my co-driver had asked why not? “Here you see some crazy things at night. Drunk drivers, animals on the road and people running out of driving talent. It can kill you. Definitely not worth the risk.” We have less than five minutes to go before we turn off this dark and dangerous country road onto the main N1 toll road which is well lit and has several lanes. It connects South Africa with Zimbabwe.
I am behind the wheel of the big old 130 – Land Rover’s new Defender 130s have not yet hit the market here, though I have seen one. I love this old girl and she’s fitted with every Front Runner accessory ever made. She has been our chef, shower and cold beer provider on this trip. Old Defender 130s make great expedition trucks due to their size and carrying capacity, plus they just look cool. I remember driving one across the dry lake of Chew Bahir in southern Ethiopia and it was a mega adventure. I start to think back to that trip… Holy moly! The truck approaching from the front has its main beams on.
African driving is fine... in the daytime!
Despite the fact that I’m trying to look away to my left, I’m still being blinded. I then realise that the truck is in my lane and that it’s about to smash into us. I don’t want to die here – there are many more adventures still to be had. Before I have time to think about what to do next, I pull hard left on the steering wheel: there ’s no time to look out for pedestrians, donkeys or, God forbid, a young child. I wait for the impact of the truck. It doesn’t come… But we’re doing 120km/h through the dry and dusty bushveld. I daren’t brake for fear of rolling– old Defenders are notorious for just that. I allow the Defender to slowly come to a halt. St Peter is nowhere to be seen. I’m still alive. I bloody love old Defenders.
What about my friends behind us in the new 110? It has all the technology and driving aids in the world, but there’s no special red button to deal with a truck driver who has fallen asleep. Are they dead? Did the truck get them? Once the dust settles I see that they too took the off-road alternative to definite demise. Africa is most certainly not for those of a frail constitution.
One could be fixed roadside, the other possibly not…
This article is all about comparing the old Defender to the new one. All the opinions offered are by people who have done a mile or two in an old Defender. None of us own a new Defender but Land Rover South Africa has kindly loaned us one from its press fleet. If someone put £1 into my account for every negative or derogatory comment on social media about the new Defender, then I would probably have more money than the combined wealth of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. I bet 99 per cent of those keyboard warriors have never ever been in a new Defender, let alone taken one on an extended trip or lengthy test drive. That’s like me commenting on curling: I see it as people vigorously sweeping the ice for no apparent reason, while to others it is the winter sport of kings and queens.
Despite the fact that I’m attempting to compare Defenders old and new, I’d like to start by saying that there is no comparison. The 2016 Defender 130 is not too dissimilar to the 1983 One Ten also produced by Land Rover. It was assembled by hand and not by robots, it has coil suspension, a body on chassis and is without doubt the motoring icon of the people. Instantly recognisable and loved the world over. You can fix it next to the road with a Coke can and a pair of pliers. You can find spare parts for it in the most remote of locations. Case closed.
Not so our 2022 Defender X 110 D300 straight-six. It came off the production line at JLR’s newest and most modern production facility in Nitra, Slovakia, which was built at a whopping cost of €1.4bn. When running three shifts this facility has the capacity to build 150,000 cars a year, but thanks to much-publicised global supply issues, this has sadly not been the case since it first opened its doors. I very much doubt that Land Rover was producing more than 20,000 old Defenders per year towards the end of the production run.
Stanley Scrooby, Defender 90 Td5 owner: I always dreamed of going to Botswana and doing just that in the Defender 130 made it that extra bit special. I love all the extra space that you get with a 130; I would have put the rooftop tent on the cab and the other bits on the load bed rack, just to make it easier to access them. The 130 is an absolute overland beast, though I have to add that the new Defender did impress.
The point I’m trying to make is this: the new Defender is a luxury, modern vehicle with more electrickery than a rocketship, while an old Defender can normally be fixed by the person driving it or by the driver of an old Defender going the other way. If our 2022 Defender breaks down on this trip through Botswana, only a trained Jaguar Land Rover technician, diagnostic tools and a computer will get it going again.
Most old Defenders have a simple diesel engine under the bonnet. I’ve had an old-style Defender as my daily for over 15 years now and I am not going to lie, you need to love ’em to drive ’em all of the time. They are more tank- or tractor-like than a modern car will ever be. The majority of old Defender owners have a second or third car to help alleviate the pain or cope with the associated knee, neck and back issues…
When I travel to work in Milton Keynes I have to go up and down through the gears when negotiating the millions of roundabouts, which is a bit of a curse, to say the least. Having said that, when I find myself cruising in a convoy at 70mph in a fully-loaded old 130 after crossing into Botswana, I couldn’t possibly be any happier. Plus everyone is smiling and waving back at me. Try that in a new 110 and you might get greeted with a middle finger from someone bouncing along in a lifted D2 with big tyres. Also, in Africa people see new, shiny vehicles as an ATM of sorts, so their drivers can expect to pay more in fines and bribes than if in an old 130.
Rob Tasker: Defender 110 double cab owner: I spent a lot of time in that new Defender and when not driving it is like a hotel bed on wheels. One could quite easily nod off. Adding all the Front Runner gear to the new 110 was fairly straightforward, so too was taking it off after the trip. It is a very comfortable overland vehicle but I was missing my old-style 110 double cab. They just look and seem more at home on these type of trips.
Later on when we hit the road south from Kasane, Stan Scrooby takes command of the 130 while I hop into the new 110. Out of all the new Defender engine derivatives the straight-six D300 is my favourite and I have driven them all, including the quick V8. While I had 479lb-ft of torque at my disposal Stan was not so lucky as the 130 only has 266lb-ft. As soon as I flatten the accelerator the new Defender just takes off, great for when overtaking convoys of long trucks. With the 130 Stan has to have more of a measured approach when overtaking.
I have to admit that it was rather fun hooning across the Makgadikgadi Pans at 100mph in the new Defender. The South African-spec new Defender maxes out at 119mph and we aren’t far off that on the salt flats. Even though we have a roof rack, roof tent and awning on the 110, I’m still able to throw it about on tight turns at speed without having to worry about toppling over. It certainly out-handles an old Defender and just sits so solidly on both tarmac roads and rough tracks.
The 130, however, really comes into its own when we have to engage low range and crawl along over the rough stuff. This is what old Defenders live for. I know that a new Defender has lockers front and back too, plus a whole lot of other off-road aids, but just how much capability do you actually need?
Old Defenders are renowned for being uncomfortable, so when cruising along in the 130 I bend my left leg and put my foot on the handbrake for comfort. This also makes the cabin feel less cramped. Once the temperature starts to climb I open the driver’s window and crank up the not-so-good air con. When driving the old 130 off-road along one of the hunting concession cut lines, I feel at one with nature. You can smell the elephant dung and hear the squawk of the yellow billed-hornbill. It doesn’t bother me that there is dust coming in through the windows and coating the whole cabin.
Even with a roof rack, tent and awning on the 110, it can still be thrown about on tight turns at speed without worry of it toppling over
It’s a very different story in the new Defender 110, which costs 20 times more than I paid for my old 110 a few years ago. I drive it with the windows closed, air con on, seat massage and ventilation on… They’ve taken the Range Rover and put it into the Defender. Different shape to a Range Rover, but the same luxuries. It’s like driving a new Rolls-Royce but with a green oval badge on the bonnet. Forgive my excitement please – remember, I drive one of the old ones every day, and off-roading in the new Defender feels like I’m cheating on a mate. Driving a new Defender through the best of Botswana almost sanitises the experience; everything is just too easy and thanks to the air suspension’s excellent ride quality, bumps and potholes are barely noticeable. It really takes the off out of off-roading.
First shown to the world at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2019 and only available on the showroom floor from 2020, the new Defender is still the new off-roader on the block. Global chip shortages certainly haven’t helped sales and production. Overland accessory companies like Front Runner were quick out of the blocks with its new Defender Foot Rail Kit, while its popular Slimline II roof rack just slots on top of the rails – voilà, you have a platform for whatever kit you want to transport on the outside of your 4x4. It was for this reason that our first stop before departing Johannesburg was the Front Runner HQ in Kyalami. In less than an hour our new Defender had the rails and rack on. To make sure the two Landys we’re similarly equipped, we also put a rooftop tent and Easy-Out awning on the new 130 too. Despite the addition of the kit and rack, there was no noticeable increase in the noise levels from outside the 110 as we sped along towards the Botswana border.
Two racks: one on the cab for boxes, jerrycans, water and gas, the other on the load bed for the rooftop tent
Defender fans have long argued that the old 130 is the ultimate overlander because of its size and carrying capacity. Our old 130 is certainly living proof of that argument. While it was set-up for overlanding in a similar way to the new 110, it has two roof racks. One on the cab that carries our boxes, jerrycans, water and gas. The second rack is on top of the enclosed load bed and on this is our roof top tent. One of my favourite parts of the 130 is the fact that it has a load bed cargo slide so accessing anything that we had in there is a breeze. This slide is a blank canvas, and designed so that you can customise your gear arrangement on it.
One of the biggest worries on an expedition or high-mileage road trip is the possibility of a breakdown. Can you fix it there and then, or is help from nearby? When it comes to the new Defender, you can fix punctures, replace filters and do some of the basics yourself, but for the most part you will need a sat-phone to call a Land Rover mechanic to assist with the diagnosis. I know people who have successfully done this while in the middle of nowhere in a modern Land Rover such as the latest Discovery.
Ironically it is the 130 that suffers the only technical issue of the trip. We initially think that it is the mass airflow sensor which is not reading the correct flow. A quick check with the diagnostics tool and we find out that it is an ABS sensor; this is quickly resolved with a fault clear and reset. The main thing is that we are able to fix it and carry on with our once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Both vehicles are pretty fully loaded with kit and this obviously negatively influences the fuel consumption. The tank on the new Defender is 14 litres bigger than the standard 75-litre tank on the 130. The heavily laden and not very aerodynamic 130 uses at least 20 per cent more fuel than the 110. Land Rover’s modern diesel engines are certainly more efficient than the old ones.
Both Defenders are very capable, but only one has true charm…
I really don’t feel that we’re suddenly going to see a heap of new Defenders on the big overland routes around the world and I’ve already explained my reasons why. Explorer Kingsley Holgate took the first L663s on a trans-Africa trip without any dramas and he loaded them way past Land Rover’s legal limits. People like Kingsley are the exception rather than the general rule, though.
On our trip to Botswana we decide not to do the northern section of the Hunters Road like the rest of the convoy does, because the thorn bushes would have destroyed the paintwork on the new Defender. Would I have done it in my old Defender? Yes, of course I would! That’s what they’re designed for.
It’s great being comfortable and cool while doing 100mph, but more important when overlanding is the ability to fix your vehicle when it breaks down, and with Land Rovers old and new, they most assuredly will. Old Defenders have this iconic legacy that the new Defender will never possess. Fact. Old Defenders have a soul, new Defenders are highly capable but soulless.
There are certain things money can’t buy: the smile you get when climbing into an old Defender or the looks from others when driving one. Or when your son asks if he can drive your old Defender when he’s old enough for his licence. You don’t get any of
that with a new one. That’s why, to me, the old Defender is the winner.
Like to have your own Land Rover library?
Try our Budget Digital Subscription. You'll get access to over 7 years of Land Rover Monthly – that’s more than 100 issues plus the latest digital issue. All issues are fully searchable so you can easily find what you are looking for and what’s more it’s less than 10p a day to subscribe. Click here to find out more details and start enjoying all the benefits now.