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Tested: New Land Rover Defender P400 gets the balancing act right

Published Oct 12, 2020


JOHANNESBURG - As any automotive design team that has ever done it will tell you, trying to create a modern version of an iconic vehicle from the past is a lot harder than designing something fresh.

But Land Rover seems to have hit a sweet spot with its reincarnated Defender. It looks modern enough to appeal to your contemporary Land Rover customer, who might otherwise have considered something like a Discovery, but it still honours the original Defender in all the right places. Land Rover’s design chief Gerry McGovern says that the new design was “inspired by the past, not constrained by it”, and I think he’s hit the nail on the head, although styling is always a subjective thing and you might not agree with me.

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But the design, important as it is for pushing the right emotional buttons, is just one part of the great balancing act that a vehicle like the Land Rover Defender has to pull off. It must perform the role of a comfortable family vehicle on tar and, given its heritage, it is also expected to be a supreme off-roader that will tackle any trail or overland expedition.

It’s a tall order, but Land Rover appears to have struck the right balance here too.

Hopping inside, you’re greeted with everything you’d expect in a modern high-end SUV and the materials are of a good quality. There is a decent-sized touchscreen infotainment system, and if you order the S model you get a digital instrument cluster too, but you don’t feel bombarded with electronics like you do in many modern SUVs and the overall design is rather minimalistic and easy on the eye. The vehicle also offers spacious accomodation for five adults, at least in the case of the five-door 110 model that we had on test.

This vehicle does all you’d expect of it on tar - it’s smooth and quiet and the air suspension delivers a comfortable ride quality.

Our test car came with the flagship petrol engine option, denoted by the P400 badge. Here we get a 3-litre straight-six turbopetrol engine that delivers a beefy 294kW and 550Nm. It has mild hybrid technology too, but this is not enough to offset the inevitable drinking problem that results from a brawny six cylinder engine and a kerb weight of nearly 2.3 tonnes. Feather-foot it on the highway and you might coax the consumption close to the 10 l/100 mark, but throw in any town driving or some right-pedal-enthusiasm and the on-board readout quickly jumps to 13 and beyond.

But despite its weight, this vehicle is enticingly fast, and it has the goods to keep up with most hot hatchbacks, with Land Rover claiming a 6.1 second 0-100km/h sprint.

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But if we were paying for the fuel, we’d much rather have the D240 2-litre turbodiesel model, which still pushes a respectable 177kW and 430Nm. Then again, we might just be inclined to wait for the straight-six diesel that’s likely to arrive in 2021, with up to 221kW.

Overall, it’s a great package on tar, but we all know that it’s the off-roading ability that fans will hold it accountable for.

Compared with the previous Defender, the off-roading systems are thoroughly modern. Instead of a traditional part-time four-wheel-drive system, the new Defender gets permanent all-wheel-drive with a central differential, although it does still have low-range gearing and buyers can opt for an Active Locking Rear Differential. The air suspension system also offers a ground clearance of up to 291mm and the vehicle boasts a wading depth of 900mm and respective approach, breakover and departure angles of 38, 28 and 40 degrees.

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Land Rover has also removed much of the guesswork for drivers, with the latest version of its Terrain Response system, which aims to suit both experienced and inexperienced drivers. Those who know the ropes will be able to fine-tune individual vehicle settings to perfectly suit the conditions, while newbies can sit back and let the vehicle work out the most appropriate settings for the terrain by using the ‘intelligent Auto’ function.

To get a taste of what it can do off the beaten track we took our test car to The Wedge Outdoor Park in Muldersdrift. Here I was impressed with the vehicle’s ability to crawl and climb over obstacles large and small, and I was impressed with the throttle response and wheel articulation.

While I got a small taste of the Defender’s bundu bashing ability on a Sunday afternoon, my colleague Willem van de Putte assures me that this is the most capable off-roader that Land Rover has ever produced. And he should know. Not only does he own the previous-generation Defender, but he also drove the new one across some of Namibia’s harshest terrain during its international launch earlier this year.

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Many ways to customise your Defender

With all the different options and specification packages that Land Rover offers, you really can create the ultimate Defender of your dreams. In fact, you can have a lot of fun on the online configurator even if you’re not buying one.

Customers get to choose from six model grades - Standard, S, SE, HSE, First Edition and X - and four packs - Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban.

But what features do you get for your money?

Standard amenities on the base model include Land Rover’s 25.4cm ‘Pivi Pro’ touchscreen infotainment system with satnav and a 360 degree parking aid, as well as cruise control, dual-zone climate control, auto headlights and wipers, Lane Keep Assist, Emergency Braking and LED headlights.

The S specification grade adds 19-inch alloy wheels, a digital instrument cluster, Auto High Beam Assist and partial leather seats.

The SE comes with 20-inch alloys, Premium LED headlights with signature DRL, ‘Clear Sight’ digital rear-view mirror, keyless entry and start, Meridian Sound System, Blind Spot Assist and Rear Traffic Monitor.

In addition, the HSE gains Gloss Dark Grey 20-inch alloys with a contrast Diamond Turned finish, Matrix LED headlights, Ebony Windsor leather seats, adaptive cruise control and a sliding panoramic roof.

The Defender First Edition and Defender X come with most of the aforementioned features, but also add various unique styling elements, as well as Land Rover’s configurable Terrain Response 2 system.

Prices start at just over a million rand for a Defender 90 base model, and rise all the way to R1 592 000 for a Defender 110 P400 X.

IOL Motoring

Related Topics:

Car ReviewsLand-Rover