The best 4×4 by far…?

Close to a year ago, Land Rover introduced what they claimed to be the best Defender ever built, to the South African market. While it was undoubtedly a technological watershed moment for the brand, we had concerns about it. Our inbox filled up with readers sharing some worries about how the myriad of functions will behave in true off-roading conditions. While not quite in the bush, Anton Willemse experienced the brute at the Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre.

In 1998, Mercedes launched their first luxury SUV, the M-Class (W163), which was supposed to replace the old G-wagon. However, their customers did not support this move and today they still build and sell both of these vehicles. Although this was the German brand’s first attempt at a luxury SUV, it was still a proper 4×4 with low range and a special off-road traction control system.

Fast forward four years, and onto the scene burst the first VW Touareg. As far as luxury SUVs go, this was even better. It had a decent transfer case with low range, and you were even able to get it with a rear locking differential. These vehicles were built to compete against established luxury 4×4 names like the Toyota Land Cruiser 100, the Nissan Patrol, Range Rover and the Land Rover Discovery.

At the turn of the century, things started to change for overlanders worldwide when we started seeing a shift from automotive manufacturers towards what some people would describe as “softer” 4×4’s (not due to performance, but because of the luxury finishes and bold designs found in these expedition vehicles). The race to develop more stylish and safer vehicles with improved fuel efficiency and a reduced CO2 footprint was in full swing. The market’s focus was changing, and the purists weren’t happy at all.

When it came to the iconic Land Rover Defender, the Brits held out and took forever to replace what is wildly viewed as the best 4×4 by far (as the many bumper stickers splattered on the bumpers of these vehicle would have you believe). However, when they did, there was no messing about. When photographs and specifications started to leak towards the end of 2019 and early 2020, the Land Rover purists were up in arms – they did not like the inevitable upgrades in body styling, tech, luxury and, with it, an inevitable price hike.

When it came to the iconic Land Rover Defender, the Brits held out and took forever to replace what is wildly viewed as the best 4×4 by far (as the many bumper stickers splattered on the bumpers of these vehicle would have you believe). However, when they did, there was no messing about. When photographs and specifications started to leak towards the end of 2019 and early 2020, the Land Rover purists were up in arms – they did not like the inevitable upgrades in body styling, tech, luxury and, with it, an inevitable price hike.

What was clear, though, was that this new Defender would wear its badge with pride, with the likes of brand ambassador Kingsley Holgate raving about the capabilities when we watched the online launch towards the end of June last year.

Off-road test loading

During the past few months, we have driven the vehicle alongside the legend himself on the Mzansi Edge expedition, which gave us some insights into the handling but left us wanting more. So, when Land Rover asked if we wanted to drive it again, we asked to take it off-road and decided to put it through a proper 4×4 test at the Land Rover Experience Centre, just outside Sandton. The idea was to understand exactly what made this new Defender so capable, even if it is so different.

It is undoubtedly a good-looking (I’d even say beautiful) vehicle. The design lines and craftsmanship is, simply put, magnificent. However, the most significant change for this vehicle and the entire 4×4 industry was the introduction of a monocoque design. Gone was the body on frame that so many people believe is necessary for a decent 4×4 and off-road vehicle. And in my opinion, it does make a difference.

While this new Defender does everything in a completely different way, it’s undoubtedly capable – and yes, I’d dare to say more so than the old one. The selectable driving modes through Terrain Response 2 (which includes an auto mode) optimise the locking rear and centre differentials to suit the terrain, tailoring traction control, throttle response, gear selection, steering and suspension.

So, with air suspension raised to an off-road height, we got stuck straight into the drive, and from the get-go, the Defender was in its element. From what has traditionally been a fundamental, no-nonsense four-wheel drive, the new Defender offers such levels of comfort and refinement that it’s a dramatic change. Steering is light and responsive at low speeds, which is always handy for such a big vehicle during low-speed, low-range four-wheel driving, especially when tracks become tight and twisty.

The Cross-linked air suspension allows for up to 500 mm of articulation and lends to the planted feeling through cross-axles and side angles. The system tries to keep the wheels on the ground through an air hose connecting the two front wheels, and when in the off-road modes, a valve opens up. As one wheel pushes up, air forces the other wheel down through this very clever system which successfully mimics a solid front axle.

The fact that the body is a solid monocoque does have its advantages, no doubt. There is a very low centre of gravity, and the vehicle is exceptionally balanced, but I believe that its rigged body does affect how it handles off-road. The main reason most other off-road vehicles still opt for a body on frame design is that it allows the chassis and body to flex. The Defender would have nothing of that – and the reluctance to flex means that you do get wheel lift more often and much higher than expected. And while that low centre of gravity balances it out, it is something to get used to.

Too tech-heavy?

As for the Defender being the most technical 4×4 ever built? They were not lying! There are over 27 processors on this vehicle sending thousands of signals per second, and the thought of just one of them failing while stuck in the bundus filled me with fear. However, I was assured that each of these processors is backed up by others, which means the actual idea behind so many is to have back-ups for the back-ups!

The question remains whether the new Defender remains a true off-road vehicle. While I probably will not take this beauty into the bush (simply because I’d cringe every time I hit a rock or an overgrown bush scrapes the over a million rand body), the different terrain settings for the vehicle certainly gets the job done. An example and one that stood out for me was an uphill obstacle with an axle twister in the middle. This was a paved obstacle, and we opted for the Rock and Crawl setting. I immediately felt the slight pause the vehicle had going up – every now and then, the Defender stopped to calculate where the most traction was. But we did get up, and there were some excellent wheel lifts. The whole exercise felt a bit awkward, though, as I was not used to 4×4-ing like this.

However, to discount the vehicle because it took me out of my comfort zone is not entirely fair. Like any other 4×4 vehicle on the market, you need to learn how to drive your vehicle, and with some time behind the steering wheel, I do believe things will get much easier and relaxed when going off-road with the Defender.

What a line-up

A comprehensive model range is available, with four specification packs including base Defender, S, SE and HSE models. Standard features in all versions include permanent all-wheel drive with a high- and low-range transfer box, air suspension, Terrain Response, LED headlights, Connected Navigation, 3D Surround Cameras, 10-inch Pivi Pro infotainment, a Driver Condition Monitor, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smartphone Packs to name a few.

The models on offer

The S adds 12-way powered front seats and a leather gearshift, a 12.3-inch high-definition Interactive Driver Display, automatic headlight levelling and High Beam Assist, as well as Ebony Grained Leather seats, among others. The SE furthers specification with Keyless Entry, a ClearSight interior rear-view mirror, electric steering adjustment, a 400W 10-speaker Meridian sound system, and blind-spot assist. The HSE gets a sliding panoramic roof, Driver Assist Pack, 14-way heated and cooled Windsor leather seats, extended leather upgrade and Matrix LED headlights with signature daytime running lights (DRLs).

Over and above the four specification packs is a top-of-the-line Defender X which is based on an HSE but adds a black contrast roof and bonnet, Starlight Satin Chrome accents, orange brake callipers, rear recovery eyes, a 700W Meridian Surround Sound System with subwoofer, Head-up Display, 14-way Windsor Leather with Steelcut Premium Textile and Configurable Terrain Response 2.

A Defender 110 First Edition, available throughout the first year of production, is based on the SE model but adds standout features such as unique First Edition badging, illuminated tread plates, a Black Pack, 20-inch wheels, and a black contrast roof with sliding panoramic glass. The First Edition also benefits from grained leather upholstery, a refrigerated centre console, domestic plug sockets and Configurable Terrain Response 2. It’s available in three exterior colours – Indus Silver, Gondwana Stone or Pangea Green.

Building your dream Defender

Customers can also personalise their vehicle in more ways than any previous Land Rover with four Accessory Packs. The Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban Packs each give Defender a distinct character with a specially selected range of enhancements.

The Explorer Pack (R49 504) includes a raised air intake, a lightweight Expedition roof rack to carry up to 132kg, a 24-litre exterior side-mounted gear carrier, a matte black bonnet decal, and wheel arch protection to help conquer the most uncharted African landscapes.

The Adventure Pack (R32 972), developed to make more of nature’s playground, consists of a portable rinse system for hosing off boots, bikes and wetsuits, a 20-litre Seat Backpack, bright rear scuff plate, front and rear mudflaps, a spare wheel cover, an integrated air compressor ideal for inflating tyres or air mattresses, and the same side-mounted Gear Carrier.

The Country Pack (R22 198) equips the Defender with front and Classic rear mudflaps, a full-height loadspace partition to prevent items in the rear loadspace from entering the cabin, wheel arch protection, a bright rear scuff plate and the portable rinse system.

Finally, the Urban Pack (R7 511) comprises bright metal pedals, a bright rear scuff plate, a spare wheel cover, and front under-shield protection to make the Defender stand out with style in the concrete jungle.

All of these Accessory Packs are upgradeable with extended options, including deployable side steps, deployable roof ladders, front A-frame protection bars, deep-sided rubber or luxury floor and boot mats, and different wheel options, to name a few.

So…would I buy it?

Probably the last question that I should answer is: would I buy it? And this is not as straight an answer as you would think. I stick to a particular brand, not because they are the best – in fact, they build pretty average vehicles. But their footprint in Southern Africa is what makes my choice easy.

Considering this, I would still consider the Land Rover Defender, although my heart will come to a standstill with every scrape on the expensive body. The vehicle is extremely capable and equally comfortable to drive. I do, however, believe that there are vehicles currently on the market or due for introduction soon, with possibly better off-road capabilities than the new Defender.

And while the drive at the Land Rover Experience gave us a good idea of its potential, I would love to take it to the bush with Toto’s Africa on the high-quality radio and the trees passing by me as I explore the bush.

OPTIONAL PACKAGES AVAILABLE TO DEFENDER CUSTOMERS:

Driver Assist Package: R15 300

  • Blind Spot Assist
  • Clear Exit Monitor
  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Rear Collision Alert
  • Rear Traffic Alert

Off-Road Pack: R18 500

  • Black Roof rails
  • Domestic Plug Socket

Like the Discovery, Range Rover, and Range Rover Sport, the new Defender sports a full-time four-wheel-drive system that blends the best of an all-wheel-drive system with the capability of a four-wheel-drive system. A rear Electronic Active Diff is available as an option should serious off-road work be required. The centre and rear differentials can act as both limited-slip and locking-differentials, and they frequently (and more importantly, quickly) lock and unlock while driving. The Defender is missing a locking front differential and instead relies on a brake-based electronic “differential” that automatically grabs the brake of a spinning wheel to force power to the wheel with traction.

Advanced Off-road Capability Pack: R11 300

  • All-Terrain Progress Control
  • Terrain Response 2
  • Configurable Terrain Response

Currently, the 110 line-up includes a flagship 3.0-litre straight six-cylinder P400 featuring efficient Mild Hybrid Electric Vehicle technology with outputs of 294 kW and 550 Nm. Alternatively, customers can choose between two 2.0-litre variants, with a P300 turbocharged petrol offering 221kW and 400Nm, and a D240 twin-turbocharged diesel producing 177kW and 430Nm.

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