First Drive: Land Rover Defender Review

We’re some time from the Land Rover Defender Hard Top arriving, but we took an early drive of the new 4×4 in passenger car form to see what we might expect.

It certainly wouldn’t need to do much to improve on the old Defender. While it’s a beloved model, and still capable off-road, there isn’t a single area where it can’t be bettered by modern machinery. Time, then, to get the pencils out and design a new one.

Of course, modernising a classic will always have the traditionalists arguing over the merits, or otherwise, of a new model and declaring that everything was better before. Upsetting the die-hards is a brave move then, but is there enough meat on the bones to make this new car worthy of that famous Defender name?

Land Rover Defender - Phil Huff

Land Rover Defender: Exterior

Arguably, Land Rover has fallen at the first hurdle, as the new Defender looks very much like it should carry a Discovery badge, especially given its size, although there are a few styling cues carried over from the classic model.

In fairness, replacing an icon like the Defender is never an easy task, as you’ve got to balance the needs of the die-hard fans with the needs of the latest version of urban hipsters. Seeing the Defender up close, Land Rover has done a pretty good job.

The blend of lines so straight you could use them as a ruler with curves and rounded edges creates a shape that’s strong, recognisable, but not scary. Overhead skylights, a boot-mounted spare wheel and faux-deck plates are all nods to the original, but the gentle taper and subtly curved edges modernise it nicely.

Land Rover Defender: Interior

No more are you banging your elbow as you shut the door. The new Defender is wider, as you’d expect, and substantially more luxurious than it’s ever been before.

You still sit up high, with a commanding view of the road, comfortable in electrically adjustable and heated seats. It lacks a little lateral support, which could be an issue off-road, but there’s enough adjustment in the seat and wheel to get everything exactly where you want them.

The dashboard has large buttons that can be pressed with a gloved finger, although the touchscreen infotainment centre might require a little more fidelity. Digital instruments sit under a horizontal bar that runs the width of the car and, while effective, you might wonder what’s wrong with simple analogue dials.

Surprisingly small windows don’t interfere too much with visibility, with the location of the front corners of the car easy to judge. It’s tougher at the back, where big C-pillars, a small rear window and a spare tyre all combine to restrict visibility. Of course, the Hard Top will have solid sides, so you’d expect issues; hopefully the digital rear-view mirror will make it to the commercial model, as it allows a clear view behind even if the Defender is fully loaded or covered in mud.

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Land Rover Defender: On the Road

The on-road performance was never a strength of the old Defender, but this new model is, as you would expect, significantly better.

The air suspension in the 110 model we tested absorbs most of the longer undulations in the road, although surface cracks still thump through a little, possibly due to the optional 20-inch wheels fitted to the test car. It’s more comfortable than a Jeep Wrangler, but the softly sprung Toyota Land Cruiser can compete here.

It’ll make surprisingly swift progress through twistier roads, but it’s never going to set any pulses racing; any number of road-focused SUVs will serve you better in these circumstances, but then that’s not the focus of the Defender.

It is far more capable here than a Wrangler or Land Cruiser, switching directions more sharply and being more predictable and controllable. Only the slow steering and ultimate lack of grip (more to do with the off-road tyres than the car itself) make it feel a little unwieldy.

Provided with a D240 engine option, we found the car to be surprisingly rapid off the line, its 240hp pulling it to motorway speeds quickly, but it’s rather rough and unrefined when asked to work hard. There’s an eight-speed automatic gearbox attached to it that’s smooth but slow to respond from a standstill – making pulling out of junctions more of a gamble than you might like – but works well once moving.

Land Rover Defender - Digital Rear View Mirror

Land Rover Defender: Off Road

Land Rover took us to Eastnor Castle, their home for showing off their products, but bone dry weather and a less than demanding route didn’t push the Defender to its limits. Some deep ruts that required ground clearance greater than an average SUV was the peak of demands, with the steep slopes something that any number of 4x4s could manage.

Land Rover is proud of its Terrain Response system that offers optimal power delivery for a wide variety of surfaces and conditions. It’s also got the right physical properties to make it through all but the toughest of terrain, and we do not doubt that it will do that without issue.

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Will it get as far as a Wrangler? Probably not, but then the Wrangler won’t carry five people a decent load in comfort. When the Defender Hard Top appears, the comparison might become more important.

Land Rover Defender - Off Road

Land Rover Defender: Payload and Towing

We couldn’t put this to the test, as Land Rover would have been unhappy with us tearing out the rear seats. However, it has revealed the specifications of the Hard Top model, which will come with a full-height partition to separate occupants from the commercial load area. Four hooks on the cargo side, and two stowage nets on the cabin side of 110 models, offer storage for small items.

The full-width load floor is completely flat, with up to six integrated lashing points, heavy-duty rubber mats and a set of lockable storage areas providing another 58 litres of underfloor storage at the rear of both the 90 and 110. An additional underfloor area is fitted to the 110 Hard Top, where the footwells of the Defender passenger model would normally be found, providing 155 litres of hidden storage.

The 110 Hard Top can accommodate a standard Euro Pallet, while the maximum load length measures up to 1,472mm in the 110. The 110 Hard Top can carry a payload of as much as 800kg, and the 90 can manage 670kg, both models will happily tow up to 3,500kg.

Land Rover Defender - Load Bay

Land Rover Defender: Verdict

For commercial operators, it’s tough to draw too many conclusions from a drive of the consumer model, but there’s no doubt that the new Defender drives amazingly well on the road and is capable off it.

It is, however, quite thirsty and the models we were in are far too well specified to be considered workhorses. That said, more rugged versions will be available in Hard Top spec and, unless you need the volume or payload offered by a proper van, the Land Rover could do the job well.

The biggest issue is pricing. The Defender isn’t cheap, with prices starting north of £43,000 plus VAT for the longer 110 models. That’s a lot to ask when a Land Cruiser, which feels quite dated compared to the Defender but is every bit as comfortable, is £10,000 cheaper.

Land Rover Defender - Phil Huff