Of all the iconic nameplates that have been revived in the last couple of decades with modern interpretations – and I’m including the Mini, the Fiat 500, the Alpine A110 and the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen – I don’t think any will have been as challenging to reimagine as the Land Rover Defender.
The Land Rover, as it was called when it was introduced 71 years ago, would remain on sale in one form or another for longer than either the Ford Mustang or Porsche 911 have been in production so far. You could make a case for it being the most iconic four-wheeled vehicle of them all, if such a thing could ever be measured and defined, which presents Land Rover as we know it today with a sizeable challenge.
NOT ONLY FOR OFF-ROAD ENTHUSIASTS
But that’s only part of it. What makes replacing the Land Rover Defender with an all-new version such a mountainous task is the multitude of reasons the original became such a favourite. Because it didn’t only appeal to off-roading enthusiasts, the way the Sixties Alpine A110 only appealed to driving nuts. It found its way into the affections of farmers, families, hipsters, surfers, utility companies, artisanal food vendors and the military, as well as all those off-roading enthusiasts. It was far too many things to far too many different people to be a straightforward car to reintroduce.
Land Rover hasn’t given us a facsimile – certainly not to the extent Mercedes did with the new G-Class – but if you’re at all familiar with the Series I to III Land Rover or the early Defender, you will know exactly what this new model is trying to be. The upright stance and the almost vertical windscreen, the pronounced shoulders, the chequer plate sections on the bonnet, the alpine light windows in the roofline and the side-hinged rear tailgate are unmistakable. But the details are unquestionably modern, such as the distinctive headlights and the very sharp rear lights that seem to have been pinched directly from a concept car. The flanks of the new Defender are subtly curved front to rear, too, so although recognisable, they don’t seem dated or slab-sided.
THE DEFENDER 90 and 110 REMAIN
Just like before buyers can choose between the short wheelbase version, the 90, or the longer model, the 110. Those numbers used to denote the Land Rover’s wheelbase in inches, and although that is no longer the case there is something authentic about this new Defender being offered in two different sizes. Talking of authenticity, the Defender is likely to be peerless off-road just as the original was. Land Rover’s most capable off-roading device, no less. Optional air suspension and knobbly tyres give it bundles of ground clearance, while the very short overhangs front and rear make for excellent approach and departure angles. The new car comes with a centre differential as standard (essential in the rough stuff) but if you’re really serious about going deep into the woods you’ll want the optional active rear differential as well.
Though there are commonalities, so too are there significant philosophical differences between Defenders old and new. While the old one found its strength and durability in a robust body-on-frame design, the new one uses an aluminium monocoque that, says Land Rover, is three-times more rigid. And while the old Defender was the archetypal analogue off-roader, one that required real skill to drive through a muddy forest, this version is digital. Its Configurable Terrain Response system can be left alone to shuffle torque between the four wheels and tweak a brake calliper here and there, meaning the driver need only worry about steering and operating the pedals. It’s off-roading, minus the need for any particular skill.
NEW DEFENDER: ENGINES AND GEARBOX
There is no manual transmission option, all versions of the new Defender featuring an eight-speed automatic gearbox instead. That’ll be met with derisive groans among some. At least there is a full range of engines to pick from, starting with a 200bhp four-cylinder turbodiesel and culminating in a 400bhp petrol in-line six with mild hybrid capability. There’ll be a plug-in hybrid some time in 2020, too.
A Defender is no such thing if you cannot litter it with off-roading accessories. This new version is not left wanting: snorkels, roof tents, waterproof inflatable awnings, water rinse systems, roof racks, a winch, a removable fabric roof, external storage units… take your pick.
Land Rover offers four optional upgrade packages, too, including Explorer pack, Adventure pack, Country pack and Urban pack, all with various pieces of equipment to tailor the new Defender to your particular requirements. More likely to drive in city centres than soggy fields? You can have 22-inch wheels, additional brightwork and a spare wheel cover.
THE INTERIOR OF THE NEW DEFENDER
That level of configurability continues within the cabin, where you can choose between five, six or seven seats. The occasional-use jump seat between the two front chairs, which makes a row of three pews up front, is a classic Defender motif. The interior looks and feel robust, while cabin ergonomics have been vastly improved over the previous model. Though they could hardly have been made any worse. Land Rover doesn’t recommend new Defender owners hose out their cabins, but with a rubberised floor and flush fitting sills they could easily sweep or mop it clean. Curiously, Land Rover chose the most retrospective model it builds to debut its most advanced infotainment system to date.
There will be those who believe the new Defender should have been an analogue and utilitarian workhorse, one that disregarded comfort, refinement and on-road manners altogether. To them, this will seem like a gaudy fashion piece, one that won’t ever be repaired in the bush using a length of twine and some old-fashioned ingenuity. But with recognisable yet modern styling, two different wheelbase options, a range of engines, exemplary off-road ability, a durable and flexible cabin and that vast range of accessories, the new Defender stands a very good chance of recapturing the hearts of many of those who fell for the original. A task unlike any other, but I think Land Rover has proven itself to be up to it.
In the market for a used car?
CarGurus makes it easy to find great deals from top-rated dealers. CarGurus compares price, detailed vehicle data and dealer reviews to give each used car a deal rating from great to overpriced, and sorts the best deals first. Find out more and begin your used car search at CarGurus.