Land Rover Defender: Point Proven

Search the phrase “highly anticipated” and you’re bound to be presented with an image of the 2020 Land Rover Defender.

Featuring an all new outer skin, but with underpinnings that reinforce the legendary abilities of this nameplate through the ages (especially off the tarmac), this is undoubtably one of the boldest reinventions undertaken by a motor manufacturer in the last two decades.

But with so much having changed, does the reborn Defender retain enough of its predecessor’s charm and ability to appeal to stalwarts and converts alike? Well, did we really need to ask? 

While Land Rover has clearly steered the new Defender away from its rugged workhorse ancestors, it was always pretty obvious the company needed to ensure the new one would be every bit as capable off-road as it has ever been. If not more so. And even if just to prove a point. 

And after spending the best part of a day at Woodhill Forest, north of Auckland putting the new Defender through its paces (and quite a bit of mudwe’d certainly have to say the point has quite comprehensively been proven. 

Land Rover had done something we wouldn’t have thought either advisable or even possible with the new Defender. The storied British brand has aimed for the middle ground somewhere between luxury and comfort on one side and staggeringly adept and relentlessly off-road focused on the other. 

The Defender effortlessly nails both of these seemingly incongruous aims. 

While this is at its most visually obvious and impressive on the interior – with its brilliantly practical blend of easy-clean, yet high-quality materials – it is when you drop the Defender into low-range and head off the sealed stuff that this seemingly impossible blend of talents truly reveals itself. 

Low range is a simple press of a button away and, as the Defender cranks itself up to its full off-road ride height (showing off a truly impressive 291mm of obstacle clearance in the process), it just feels ready. 

The first thing that you notice is that the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission is so good at slickly moving through its ratios, that it barely seems like you are in low-range. But come to the first substantial obstacle and you are left in no doubt as the Defender simply crawls over it with a remarkable lack of drama. 

It also becomes quickly obvious that, despite all of the clever and almost seamless electronics that do a lot of the heavy lifting off-road, the Defender is also blessed with a base level of pure mechanical off-road competence that is actually above and beyond most others as well. 

This is born out when you start taking a look at the bare numbers: the Defender leads the class not only in ground clearance (the Toyota Prado has 220mm, the current Discovery 283mm), but also with its incredibly impressive approach, breakover and departure angles of 38, 28 and 40 degrees respectively. And that’s not even getting to its equally class-leading 900mm wading depth either. 

That basic mechanical ability combines impressively well with the Land Rover’s latest generation of off-road and stability electronics to give the Defender supremely confident feel off-road, tackling even the most imposing obstacles with a casual indifference. Perhaps most surprising though, is that it does this while the driver and passengers remain in impressive comfort. 

Yep, that’s right; the Defender also manages to keep its luxury side up when tackling the rough stuff. It maintains a deeply impressive ride quality even when you’re bouncing your way gently down a terrifyingly steep sand dune. 

Both Defenders we sampled – a P400 First Edition and a D240 SE – at Woodhill were impressive, but it has to be said that the D240 diesel engine is the better off-road, with a gentler, more progressive throttle that was better attuned to creeping over the rough stuff, where the petrol inline-six P400 was a tad more aggressive. 

However, this can be solved with a clever new innovation in Land Rover’s optional configurable Terrain Response system which allows the driver to customise throttle response in off-road situations; something we would welcome in every off-roader, to be honest. 

With its retro looks, quality interior and determined nature off-road, the new Defender fully reveal the strategy Land Rover started when it moved the Discovery more upmarket in its latest (fifth) incarnation. In doing so, the manufacturer has left room for this iteration of Defender; one that retains a lot of the charm of the original, all of its prodigious off-road ability and adds a layer of quality that Discovery 4 owners will find rather familiar. 

Photos Josh Hilliam. 

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