Is this new Defender actually any good off-road? Well, there’s only one way to truly find out.
Cue the condemnation. Perhaps because I have followed the development and release of the all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender more closely than other vehicles, I have seen plenty of the strong, vitriolic response from the grassroots enthusiast base.
“Blacktop cruiser with too much tech just waiting to fail.” – Michael on Facebook.
“That… that isn’t a Defender.. it is a funny looking body kit on a Discovery.” – Paul, also on Facebook.
“Another great 4WD turned into a Toorak Tractor…” it continues.
The hate is real. And I get it. The ingredients have changed dramatically since the old Defender ceased production. It’s hard not to feel jilted by a brand, once for the everyman, that has continually moved further and further upmarket with more complex and dazzling options.
Instead of those time-honoured basics like live axles and coil springs, and basic square body bolted onto a steel ladder chassis, the new Defender is radically different. In fact, it’s much closer to a Discovery and Range Rover.
Whereas the old Defender used to stick out like canine cojones within an otherwise modern and high-end Land Rover showroom with its glitzy vehicles, this new Defender doesn’t rock the boat so much. It’s thoroughly modern, both in terms of looks and engineering.
A modified, heavy-duty aluminium monocoque platform, dubbed D7x, promises to be 300 per cent stiffer than a ladder chassis. Steel is used for strength in important subframe components, and it provides an additional 20mm of ground clearance. Formerly live axles are now independent all round using height-adjustable air springs.
Despite having a much heavier ladder chassis with live axles and control arms, the sheer simplicity of the old Defender kept it relatively light. A kerb mass under two tonnes for a Defender 110; a heavy-duty four-wheel drive with a big payload and towing capacity is impressive.
In comparison, and even with the lightweight aluminium monocoque design, the Defender weighs at least 400kg heavier than the old model. Fandangles like crumple zones, ergonomics, airbags and strong body pillars add up, it seems.
Some videos I’ve seen so far of this new Defender off-road have been missing a few party tricks, and could arguably not be the best-in-breed representation of the new Defender off-road.
Thankfully, our Defender 110 P400 S, with Terrain Response 2, all-terrain tyres and the rear e-diff options ticked, leaves nothing on the table. Think of this as the Defender’s best chance of taking on a Wrangler Rubicon.
While P400 S specification starts at $95,335 before on-road costs, our tester has a wide variety of options fitted, which takes the price-as-tested number right up to $123,616.
|2020 Land Rover Defender 110 P400 S|
|Engine (capacity, cylinders, type)||3.0-litre turbocharged inline six-cylinder, 48V mild hybrid|
|Power and torque (with RPM)||294kW @ 6500rpm, 550Nm @ 2000–5000rpm|
|Transmission||8-speed torque-converter automatic|
|Drive type (FWD, etc)||Full-time 4×4, locking centre and rear differential, low-range|
|Kerb weight||From 2361kg|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||9.9L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||13.6L/100km|
|Boot volume (5-seater – Min, Max)||1075L, 2380L|
|ANCAP safety rating (year tested)||Untested|
|Warranty (years / km)||3 years / 100,000km|
|Main competitors||Nissan Patrol, Toyota LandCruiser, Jeep Wrangler|
|Price as tested (ex on-road costs)||$123,616|
So, with the camping gear packed, we had a date with some well known and particularly challenging hills a few hours’ drive west of Sydney. Our mission was a simple one: see how good, or bad, this Defender goes on a couple of nasty, steep climbs.
And along with working out our logistics, I was able to drag my own old Defender out for a bit of fun in the bush. Its duty was carrying swags, food, fridge and camping gear in the canopy, while the new Defender lugged the camera gear.
Let’s cut to the chase: low-range clicks in with a muted thud, and rock crawl is displayed on that 10.0-inch infotainment display. With cameras on to hopefully save any scratches on those 20-inch alloy wheels (a $3380 option), I started climbing.
Articulation is impressive, especially for a vehicle on independent all-round suspension. While it still might not be as outright flexy as something with coil springs and long control arms, the Defender renders itself to be balanced and stable through ruts, climbs and side angles.
Independent control arms, made of cast aluminium, mimic the natural articulation of a live axle by cross-linking air springs, allowing the car to sense the tucking and drooping of each wheel, and compensating accordingly. Because it’s actively trimming here and adjusting there, the body remains impressively stable, and pumps confidence into the driver’s seat.
You also notice the big difference each driving mode makes. Selecting rock crawl seemed to retune the suspension well for stability, limiting wheel spin impressively and dialling in a long, soft accelerator pedal for easy control.
If you’ve only driven live-axle four-wheel drives off-road before, the new Defender feels surreal in comparison. It’s certainly a lot easier. And while my own Defender held its head high with some serious wheel lifts on the steep climbs, it was certainly harder and more involving to drive.
Another impressive point, which you only start to truly appreciate when crawling hard tracks, is the amount of ground clearance on offer with this Defender. Our underbody only scraped a couple of times, with the exhaust and control arms getting a tickle in the trickiest of spots. The underbody is a tidy design, with the odd scrape and bang not yielding any damage.
|2020 Land Rover Defender 110 P400 S|
|Length / width / height (mm)||5018 / 2008 / 1967|
|Ground clearance||291mm (highest setting)|
|Tow rating braked / unbraked / payload (kg)||3500 / 750 / 804|
|Approach / departure / ramp-over angle (degrees)||38 / 40 / 28|
|Wheels and tyres||20-inch, 255/60R20|
The Defender’s departure angle, 40 degrees in off-road mode, is like a bobtailed wagon. Ground clearance measures in at 291mm thanks to the lack of live axles underneath. The wheelbase, relatively long at 3022mm (118 inches), pushes wheels out to each corner. That yields a 38-degree approach angle and 28-degree ramp-over angle.
Because I (a) wanted to test out the traction systems as much as possible, and (b) didn’t want to damage a $120,000 car that I had effectively signed for, I was slowly crawling up these two well-known hill climbs in the hills that surround Lithgow, New South Wales.
Although the rolling diameter is good, the wheel-to-tyre ratio isn’t brilliant, and I only aired down to around 24psi for this crawling. While going lower might be possible, I was extremely conscious of the possibility that I could either damage one of those nice shiny 20-inch alloys or separate the Goodyear Duratracs from them.
Those tyres, by the way, are not standard fitment for a Defender in this specification. They are an optional extra, however, which can be fitted by the dealer before delivery. If you’re keen to go off-road, I’d recommend them. The Defender might not hold the blacktop as well through corners or under braking, and they do bring a little bit of additional hum, but they are worth their weight in gold when you’re doing hard off-roading.
I spent time on these tyres in Namibia as well, and out of our long convoy of vehicles, I’m only aware of one flat tyre in our group. That was among 18-inch diesel and 19-inch petrol Defenders, but it was impressive to see non-light-truck tyres with relatively narrow sidewalls take plenty of abuse with only limited failure. The Duratracs are impressive tyres.
Anyway, back to Australia. A few times, holding steady throttle in the rock-crawl mode through some particularly nasty pinches, the Defender would spin wheels and lurch around, progress thwarted. But every time, there was an easy fix. I simply stopped and, keeping the same line, I slowly, slowly added back in right foot. And each time, the car was able to amble forward with surprising ease.
While I understand those who might not agree with the direction Land Rover has gone with this new Defender, it does demand respect as an off-roader. It’s smart. It’s proficient. It’s effective.
Think about it. There are a few key elements that any four-wheel drive needs to be effective off-road: clearance, traction and stability. And while this new Defender isn’t to everyone’s tastes, it’s got copious amounts of all three. It goes about its business in such a different way to the old Defender. In particular, the feeling of stability and traction is impressive.
Is it the most capable Land Rover ever made? Swap those 20-inch wheels out for 18s, and I reckon it would be hard to beat. Smaller-diameter wheels would be better, but the brakes simply won’t clear something like a 16-inch or 17-inch wheel. It’s a shame, because the Defender would feel near unstoppable with a big sidewall – aired-down grip aplenty.
But what about durability? There are plenty of interesting points that Land Rover makes, which suggests that the Defender is indeed durable: chassis strength, impact testing of the suspension, and big suspension components. Read about all of those juicy details here.
However, there is another sense of durability with this Defender, which is the elephant in the room. And that’s durability and reliability over the long term. I’m not brazen enough to sit here and tell you that this new Defender will swing one way or the other. It’s indeed more complex than the old Defender, but so is just about anything else on the road. Acute details will come to the fore, and the true dependability (and legacy) of this vehicle will only be decided after the passing of time.
Sure, there’s a lot of additional complexity in this new Defender, especially when compared to the original Defender. Hydraulic suspension bushings replace straight rubber, and air suspension requires sensors, pumps and seals. Coil springs are inherently less complex. However, that doesn’t instantly mean it’s unreliable.
And that is the price you pay for something that is quite capable off-road, but also tidy, sporting and dynamically enjoyable on-road.
Also, how did the old Defender go? Although a dusted MAF sensor saw it stalling and choking on the climb in low-range first gear, the old Defender (a 2001 130 with 280,000 kays on the clock) did hold its head high with some impressive ability.
Because my canopy was quite heavy, the Defender was climbing like a 79 Series LandCruiser – i.e. not very well. With a lot of the vehicle’s weight concentrated over the back, the front end lifted regularly and the car was reacting heartily to ruts. But, it climbed despite feeling very doughy off idle (my MAF sensor needed cleaning) and the power-steering pump running dry on the angle. I topped that up as well.
I have to say kudos to the Mickey Thompson MTZ mud tyres I have fitted to my old Defender. They’re pretty noisy on-road, but they have always impressed me with their grip off-road.
And although the new Defender was certainly more impressive off-road, spending around $5000 on locking differentials front and rear, along with some extra reduction gears in the transfer case, would even the ledger a long way. But that old Defender would still be that: an old Defender. Awesome, no doubt. But lacking the safety, comfort, convenience and ergonomics to appeal to any more than a handful of die-hards (myself included).
What this new Defender brings is a complete redesign, which has inevitably enraged the small group of old-school enthusiasts. But, importantly for Land Rover, this new Defender will now appeal to a much broader audience. While the new model brings unprecedented improvements in other disciplines for the breed, I’ll consider the ‘off-road ability’ box well and truly ticked.