A couple of months into the launch of the new Defender, Anton Willemse finally had the opportunity to drive it and chews on a few critical questions: Is this a legend redefined? Is it a worthy successor to what is widely regarded as the most iconic adventure vehicle ever built? Is this a watershed moment for Land Rover design, technology and innovation?
Where does one start when writing about the New Defender? Would it be in 1947 when it was born, or 1949 when the first Land Rover Series I was sold in South Africa? Or would one focus on the fact that one of its biggest and certainly most expensive tests was done in Namibia? With so many great milestones and Land Rover moments to choose from, this certainly is no easy task. Dubbed the vehicle that conquered Africa, the Land Rover Defender boasts a very rich history when it comes to exploring the wildest parts of the world and specifically this continent we call home. It earned its stripes for its go-anywhere capability and simplistic mechanics which, many swear, means you can fix almost any mechanical problem with only set of pliers and some wire. Africa has seen and experienced all shapes and sizes of Land Rovers from the Series I, to the Lightweights and now the new Defender.
Kingsley Holgate, a man with almost the same legendary status in Africa as the Defender, can relate countless tales of problems they have encountered over the years and how obstacles have caused them to almost cancel expeditions or turn around. However, he has no stories about Land Rovers failing or placing expeditions in jeopardy. If any problems did arise, however, these could easily be remedied with the aforementioned pliers and wire. The Kingsley Holgate Foundation received their new Defenders shortly after the global launch of the New Defender a few months ago and in September they set off to explore the borders of South Africa in a 10 000km odyssey called the Mzansi Edge expedition.
The past four months have seen #TeamDefender – together with other humanitarian partners such as the Do More Foundation – traversing South Africa to distribute food parcels, face masks and other essentials to communities hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have crossed rivers, driven extreme mountain passes, tackled some precipitous cliff trails and crossed deserts on a journey to record stories from South Africa’s edge, reaching the country’s extreme geographic points. The Adventure Afrika team had the privilege of joining this remarkable expedition while tracking the Northern Border of Lesotho. Starting our three-day trip at Bloemfontein Airport, we were rearing to get behind the wheel of the new Defender. This first day saw us mostly driving the highway to meet the rest of the expedition at the picturesque Moolmanshoek close to Ficksburg.
Behavioural experts say that first impressions are formed within seven seconds. Approaching the legend that is the Defender and having only seen pictures of it beforehand, I must admit that it looks much more appealing in the flesh. However, looks aren’t everything. So, how does it drive? Again, first impressions count and on tar this new Defender offers comfort like no other – that is if you can figure out all the high-tech screens and options. This car is build for gravel travel, without a doubt. However, as someone who comes from the Defender-and-plier background, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was still a true 4×4, or if it had morphed into a Sandton kerbclimber that will only taste a bit of dust on weekends spent at posh lodges? In my opinion, it will without a doubt cover both the city slicker and the overlanders’ needs, with the biggest positive for me being the lack of ladder frame chassis. On the flip-side, however, this is also my biggest gripe (but more about this later!). When Land Rover announced the new Defender, they claimed it would be the most technological advanced 4×4 ever built and I can confirm that this was no lie! We simply don’t have the time or the space to delve into every sensor, electrical component and computer that manage this vehicle. There are 85 ECU’s managing about 21 000 network messages, making it an allterrain supercomputer. It is packed with technology, all updated and potential gremlins fixed. The old systems were notoriously clunky to operate and respond, but the new Defender uses a next-generation system dubbed Pivi Pro. This can download updates (Windows 10, anyone?!) or even fix problems while parked at your house, provided – of course – that it can access the internet.
The driver’s interface with the vehicle is via digital displays. These seem to be exceptionally reliable, but the thought of being out in Hwange or Moremi staring at blank screens is the stuff of nightmares. This is not a hop-in-and-go vehicle and after spending three days driving it, I still don’t know how to use most of the functions available. To be able to do this one would need a decent introduction or a course resembling nothing short of a PhD in Computers. Low range is activated at the touch of a button, increasing ride height and to lower it, there is another button. The Terrain Select button on the centre console activates a selection screen from where options such as different driving modes and locking or unlocking the centre or rear diff can be selected. The surround views of the cameras are amazing and although some of the views are only recordings, they even allow you the somehow see “through” the engine bay area or have a walk around the vehicle on the centre screen. However, I would still rely on spotters when I tackle serious off-roading.
Off into the mountains
Arriving at Moolmanshoek, we went for a short drive in the mountains and did some serious rock climbing and descending. The Defender obeyed with ease, although my nerves were shot as the wheels tend to get much more air than what I am used to or would prefer, resulting in a feeling that we might roll over. This is all due to the monocoque design of the Defender. It has about as much flex as a surfboard or ironing board and this, of course, affects the wheel travel and articulation of the wheels, but it gives a very low centre of gravity, allowing it to handle big wheels lifts. There is a constant fight between traction and the vehicle trying to select the wheel with the most grip to push or pull it forward. It is very reactive. There are many positives to the independent front and rear suspension, though. The lack of a solid beam axle with a huge diff helps with ground clearance and with the suspension fully extended it will give you 290mm.
With that, it increases the approach, break-over and departures angles to levels that you only see on some vehicles with aftermarket suspensions and bigger tyres. Colour me impressed! Wading depth is a massive 900mm and is controlled by another ECU that detects water depth with Wade Sensing Technology. It will even reduce the speed of the vehicle through a crossing. We did very little real 4×4-ing and spent most of the time tracking winding gravel mountain passes and seeing some of the most beautiful panoramas offered in the scenic Northern Free State and the Underberg in KwaZulu Natal. And here the Defender was amazing. Ride comfort and handling on these dusty roads were exceptional and the suspension made easy work of dips, bumps and corrugation.
One can’t really say anything negative about the new Defender. It truly is a modern marvel of automotive engineering. What I can say is that it is different – very different from the Land Rovers we grew up with. It brings a new way of 4×4-ing, overlanding and off-roading – you have to let go of some control (said no red-blooded redblooded South African male ever!) and trust the electronics and driver aids to do the work. It certainly allows the most inexperienced driver to look good behind the wheel. This, however, does come at a price – and it’s not a small one! The days of sticker prices and knowing exactly what you will pay when it comes to that are long gone – everything seems to be classified as an extra. This, of course, also means you can configure your vehicle to your exact requirements.
However, if you want to modify your vehicle with things like an additional fuel tank or a replacement bumper or bulbar, you may have to wait a while. Approved aftermarket accessories are not yet available. Will the tech stand the test of time, like the bloudraad Defender of yesteryear, did? We all know that electronics aren’t built to last forever. So, will there be a 2020 Defender on the road in 30 years? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see!