The emperor’s new clothes: the new design will undoubtedly create controversy but it’s still recognisable as a Defender … sort of. Picture: SUPPLIED
The emperor’s new clothes: the new design will undoubtedly create controversy but it’s still recognisable as a Defender … sort of. Picture: SUPPLIED

The Land Rover Defender is back, but not as traditionalists will know it. It’s a Defender for a modern age, one where many want an SUV to be connected to the world more so than to be able to wade through a river or climb a mountainside.

The Defender first made its appearance as the Series 1 way back in 1948 and impressively it continued until the company killed it off in 2016. Concepts like the DC100 were met with mixed reaction, testament to the loyal following for the model.

We were fortunate to attend an exclusive preview of the new Defender at the company headquarters in Gaydon, UK where we learned more about it from the team that have created it.

“While we recognise its unique heritage, we cannot allow us to be hamstrung by it,” Gerry McGovern, chief design officer for Land Rover told us. “It’s about capturing the essence of the original but not being held captive by it.”

While the design will undoubtedly be controversial, it’s still clearly a Defender in the overall design execution. There are elements like the chequer plate on the bonnet, exposed torque screws in the door trims, the narrow rear door with a mounted spare wheel and the utilitarian look to the padded magnesium dashboard, all of which continue the theme of the original. You can even hose out the interior. Carpets are optional.

However, you’ll have to be careful with the hose, because there are lots of electronics in the interior. There’s a 31cm digital instrument cluster providing a range of different information and views. 

Accessing the offroading trickery is through a touchscreen but the new Defender claims to be as terrain-capable as before. Picture: SUPPLIED
Accessing the offroading trickery is through a touchscreen but the new Defender claims to be as terrain-capable as before. Picture: SUPPLIED

But the big debate will surround the new Pivi Pro touchscreen infotainment system. It’s not so much about the fact that it is always connected and capable of receiving over-the-air updates, although that will be an issue in all those places a Defender owner likes to go where cellphone coverage is distinctly lacking. It’s more about the fact that you won’t find manual levers to switch to low-range; instead it’s all in the touchscreen.

Modern SUV buyers might well relate to this, after all they’re used to it in other models, but those who expected to be able to fix their Defender at the bottom of a dune in Nambia, or outside a padstaal in the Kalahari could well be put off.

But McGovern fully expects this. He says this is not about appealing to those who loved the original so much as attracting a new, younger crowd, those who spend their time in urban cafés but want their SUV to portray their spirit of adventure. That’s why there will be themed models, based on the initial longer wheelbase 110 that will arrive in SA in the first half of 2020 and then the shorter 90 in the second half. 

As well as basic models, including commercial vehicles for farming, aid workers and so forth, even available with steel wheels, there will be a Country with a 6.5l water tank so you can hose down your mountain bike. The Urban will feature brightly coloured side panels, 22-inch wheels and other trendy accessories.

In the numbers game it certainly appears to live up to its offroad-capable heritage. Standard ground clearance is 291mm and there’s optional air suspension. Picture: SUPPLIED
In the numbers game it certainly appears to live up to its offroad-capable heritage. Standard ground clearance is 291mm and there’s optional air suspension. Picture: SUPPLIED

For those who want to make the most of the Defender’s more hardcore character, the Explorer has a ladder, snorkel and a roof rack to put your tent on. Then the Adventure has an integrated air compressor and pods mounted on the side to put your gear in. And there will be over 170 accessories even before the aftermarket guys get to work.

The question is, will it be as capable as the original or is it just about the gadgets? Accessing the Terrain Response system though the touchscreen will provide you with the chance to adjust the four-wheel drive settings. There’s a twin-transfer box, locking differentials and fully customisable settings to get your Defender to do what you need it to do.

In the numbers it certainly appears to live up to its offroad-capable heritage. Standard ground clearance is 291mm and there’s optional air suspension. There’s 500mm of wheel articulation and a massive 900mm wading depth. The short overhangs provide 38° approach and 40° departure angles and it can tackle 45° gradients.

Gone is the traditional body-on-frame setup too, replaced by a new monocoque architecture codenamed D7x that Nick Rogers, executive director of engineering told us is ten times stiffer. It also provides for electrification, including a 48V mild-hybrid and a plug-in hybrid, although these are not currently planned for SA.

Initially, there will be a twin-turbo diesel engine providing 177kW and 430Nm in the D240 and a straight-six petrol in the P400 producing 294kW and 550Nm. There’s no manual gearbox, instead the Defender will have an eight-speed auto.

It’s designed to be as practical as it is claimed to be capable. There’s an optional fold-down jump seat in the middle of the front seats to provide space for three. Alternatively a wide centre section provides plenty of storage but also some clever features like the cover that fits over the cup holders and wireless phone charging. 

The 110 will be available with a third row of seats similar to those in the Discovery Sport providing space for up to seven. The Alpine windows in the roof remain to provide more light and visibility but rear seat passengers might be irritated by the side panels which block their view out on the 90. They’re delete options so if you have kids, consider whether you need them.

And you’ll also have to consider the price. At the moment Land Rover SA has only supplied indicative pricing, with the 90 starting at R830,300 and the 110 from R910,400.

So who is going to buy it? According to Finbar McFall, product and marketing director at Land Rover, there will be two types of core customer for the new Defender. There will of course be the “expert”, the person who will get the most from the vehicle’s capability. But he expects the biggest volume to be those who will only use some of its ability, much like the majority of SUV owners, come to think of it. These are the people the new Defender has been designed and engineered for. It’s a vehicle that is as much a lifestyle choice as one for those who need to cross a continent.

Land Rover had to get this one right and we can only formulate a definitive opinion on whether it truly is the new Defender after we’ve driven it. In the meantime, grab the popcorn because there will be heated debate between its critics and those who will be the defenders of the Defender.