We put the new Land Rover Defender through its paces in Namibia

By Willem van de Putte Time of article published Mar 25, 2020

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It is here. After years of speculation, Land Rover will finally be delivering the first batch of new 110 Defenders to dealers shortly. The short wheelbase 90 lands towards the end of the year but order books are already open.

From the first leaked pictures many years ago that looked like the love child between a Kia Soul and a Fiat 500 that had aficionados abusing Jaguar Land Rover on every possible platform, through to the reveal of the final product at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year, this icon has now come full circle.

When I interviewed Chief Design Officer at Land Rover, Gerry McGovern, in Tokyo last year, he was at pains to emphasise that the Defender was Land Rover’s most capable off-road vehicle yet.

It was also important that they had the public’s support, he said, and to this end, market research indicated a 97% approval rate.

That gives you an idea of how important the vehicle is to Jaguar Land Rover, with the Defender completing the trio of the Range Rover and Discovery. A kind of holy trinity for the brand if you wish.

Lots has been written about the Defender and, understandably so, given its heritage and the build-up to the most eagerly awaited new car reveal for a while.

Social media has been flooded with comments, curses, brickbats and bouquets, but ultimately, none of the keyboard warriors have seen it in the metal, much less driven it. We have, and before the coronavirus shut the world down, we got to spend a week in neighbouring Namibia putting it properly through its paces.

We drove two of the three versions that will be available in South Africa; the D240 2.0-litre turbo-diesel with 177kW and 430Nm and the P400 3.0 litre turbo straight-six mild hybrid that produces 294kW and 430Nm. Also available will be the P300, a 2.0-litre turbo-charged petrol unit delivering 221kW and 400Nm.

Land Rover brought across 20 pre-production units for the time they were there. All were fitted with the optional Explorer pack and a winch, along with all the other good things you'll need if you’re going to be doing serious long-distance driving in tough and hostile surroundings.

Mention Van Zyl’s Pass, the Skeleton Coast and places like Sesfontein, Purros, Kunene and Kaokoland, and anyone that’s been to Namibia, will have a story to tell.

We were fortunate because we didn’t have to drive thousands of kilometres to get there, but flew to Windhoek and then in a charter plane to where the Defender team had based their headquarters at the Opuwo Country Lodge.

Outside, stood a row of glistening new 110 Defenders, the S240s with 18-inch steel wheels and the P400s with 19-inch alloys ready to be covered in African dust and mud.

A far cry from the last Defenders to roll off the assembly line, the new Defender is an all aluminium monocoque construction, but the stiffest ever created by Land Rover, and three times more rigid than traditional body-on-frame designs. After a practical demonstration of all the driver aids and electrickery, my Kiwi driving partner and I were allocated a five-seater P400.

Fitted with Configurable Terrain Response that makes its debut here, this allows the driver to set the vehicle up for off-road conditions to their personal liking. The Terrain Response 2 system also features a new wade programme and with a 900mm wading depth seeing the depth of the surrounding water comes in handy when you’re fording across rivers in the sticks. It’s all controlled via a high-definition touch-screen.

The 110s are fitted with air suspension while the 90, when it arrives, will have the option of coil suspension.

The air suspension provides an off-road ride height lift of 75mm, while in low range, there’s an additional 70mm increase, all of which we would need as we headed to the wide Namibian spaces.

Our destination was Van Zyl’s camp-site which gave us an opportunity to fiddle with the various settings, including the ClearSight Ground View which, with clever camera positioning, shows the hidden area directly in front of the vehicle, essentially allowing you to see through the bonnet.

In the Auto setting, constant monitoring keeps the vehicle operating at its most effective for general off-road purposes which should suffice for most owners.

The 3.0 litre turbo straight-six mild hybrid proved to be a perfect partner to the 110, with a sharp throttle response that easily handled soft sand and slow driving over rocky stretches. I doubt though that there was much renewable energy as the route sapped power throughout.

There are some clever touches on the dash that hark back to the original, like the side grip handles and the open space inside the dash where the front air vents used to be.

The evening was spent under canvas with a traditional braai which had the group of foreigners astounded at the amount of meat consumed.

Much of Namibia is divided into conservancies, and in this case, the home of the Himba People who still, to a large degree, live a nomadic life although as more and more of them are exposed to “modern” lifestyles and technology this, too, will change. A talk by a representative of the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) where Land Rover is involved by providing vehicles, explained that, as a result of community involvement, wildlife in Namibia has more than doubled since the 1980s. The community has become the eyes and ears when it comes to reporting poaching, and in this way, they have a sense of belonging while keeping the all-important tourist stream flowing.

Day two was through the Van Zyl’s Pass and into the Marienfluss valley, where the Defender would be put through probably its toughest test with a combination of serious rock climbing, descents and sand driving in 40+ degrees.

It would take two hours to descend the 10km pass. This time, we were in the diesel powered unit, ideal for low down torque when you’re slowly crawling over rocky terrain. It was also fitted with the optional front row centre “jump” seat.

With the suspension raised, in low range and rock mode selected, the vehicle came into its own with day two and day three convincing me that this new Defender is everything a Defender should be.

It has downhill descent control that you can set using the cruise control buttons but, having done some hectic passes in Lesotho, I preferred using the brake pedal as we inched down the most difficult part where car wrecks greet you on the left of those less fortunate souls whose cars succumbed to the pass.

Up over the rocky Joubert Pass and onto the Marienfluss with its hard sand roads and coloured oil drums as direction indicators allowed us to give the oil burner a bit of stick, and with the needle touching 100km/h, the Defender revelled in the convoy dust while the air suspension worked overtime on the corrugations.

Slow crawling through soft sand river beds with the sun almost setting after close to 11 hours of driving, we pulled in to the Elephant Lodge in Purros.

When I checked in, a number of my mates and fellow Defender owners asked me about the drive. The old one would have completed the trip, no doubt. However, after 10 hours of driving rock, sand and corrugations, if they could recognise me under a coat of dust, I would have needed a stretcher to carry me to the lodge. I jest, but you get the picture.

The evening included a talk by a representative from Tusk, one of Land Rover’s worldwide conservation partners, on their progress in trying to save wildlife across the continent in the face of ever-increasing odds.

In all my years of driving, I’ve driven some corrugated roads, but the stretch heading to the Skeleton Coast must rate as one of the worst.

“Try and find a speed so that the wheels bounce on the top of the bumps,” came the suggestion over the radio. Well, unless it’s above 120km/h, there really wasn’t a happy speed to be found. In this situation, the air suspension comes into its own, as we witnessed on the car in front of us as it consistently adapted to prevailing conditions bouncing up and down like a kid who forgot to take his nervous system stimulant.

All we could hear inside was the dull sound of the suspension working away and no rattling or squeaks, not bad, considering that all of the car’s 5 000km had been done in Namibia in this kind of environment.

Occasionally, the car would drift off course simply because of the extent of the deterioration of the road, something that was easily rectified by gently steering back.

Some spectacular rooster tails in the dunes for photographic visuals had us smiling from ear to ear, especially because we were again behind the wheel of the 3.0 petrol.

We entered a river bed which the previous week had been bone dry but an abundance of rain had blessed the area for the first time in three years and turned it into a muddy bog that required careful negotiating to avoid patches of quicksand.

I say avoid, but if you’ve been in this situation and have a convoy of vehicles, you will get stuck. If you don’t, as they say, you’re not trying hard enough.

Despite our best efforts (or worst depending on how you look at it), the winches were used liberally, even needing to suck the lead car out after it had sunk deeply in the clay. Here, the 6.5 ton snatch load through the recovery points again pointed to the vehicle being a proper Defender.

Hours later, covered in mud and after a packed lunch, the long stretches of Namibian main roads beckoned towards Sesfontein and home base.

Some of the Namibian dirt roads are better than locally previously tarred roads, so using a heavy right foot when you’re behind the wheel in a vehicle loaded with electronic safety features becomes almost obligatory. On the long stretches of hard, smooth dirt, the Defender couldn’t get enough, and on long sweeping bends, a gentle drift had us asking for more.

The reality of driving like that though is that things get a bit hectic at the petrol pump, and after a day’s hard driving in low range in soft sand, mud, quicksand and hard and fast playing that saw the cars covered in plumes of water, consumption was almost touching on 30L/100km.

The previous day in the 240 diesel, consumption showed 23L/100km, slightly better considering again there was a lot of sand driving in low range.

When we pulled back to Opuwo Country Lodge, we had done almost 800km, the third rotation to have done so and another one 24 hours behind us.

Land Rover had built a full workshop with the latest equipment, including diagnostic equipment and a hoist to properly clean and service each vehicle. On their return to the UK, this would become the lodge’s laundry room.

What made this trip different is that because the Defenders were still pre-production units, technicians and engineers were constantly monitoring real-time live data and feeding it back to HQ in England where it would be analysed and changes made to the soft and hardware where necessary. There was nothing hidden from us or sanitised. That’s difficult when you’re up to your knees in mud and clay.

As an example: the tyre pressure monitor keeps blipping under a certain pressure, way more than you would normally drive on in sandy conditions, and this will be updated when production starts.

The engineers also picked up a small issue with gear changing when in sand mode, nothing noticeable when you drive, but a minor software tweak will improve it.

They also found that constant hard water driving would shorten the lifespan of the wheel arch protection material, so the guys in the workshop designed and built something on site which will end up on the finished product.

I’m happy to also report this Defender is now fitted with a sun visor that swings across to the side window. It has a very decent set of headlights, and your feet don’t get wet in the foot-well when the slightest bit of water, forging or rain, threatens.

When McGovern said he wanted to make this the best off-road vehicle that Land Rover had ever made, the team he surrounded himself with had the same mission, and they have done a sterling job that could not have been easy considering the heritage of the vehicle.

There is one nagging elephant in the room though that pertains to Land Rover’s reliability, perceived or real.

Orders for the new Defender are streaming in world wide. If those owners don’t have to resort to social media to vent their frustration and the engines, drive-trains, suspension, technology and overall quality are as enthusiastic and hard working as the the team that put it together, the Defender will again take its rightful place in the JLR stable.

And if you’re lucky enough to get to own one, please be lekker and continue to wave to your fellow Defender owners.

Go to www.landrover.co.za for a comprehensive summary of the technical specifications,pricing and to build your own Defender.

Drive360

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