New Land Rover Defender ride review

8 Aug, 2019 3:30pm John McIlroy

Our first experience of the new Land Rover Defender shows that it’s ready for off-road action – and plenty more besides

Verdict

The new Land Rover Defender has the potential to be the general family do-it-all that the Discovery 4 used to be, not just an agricultural workhorse. That could make it even more significant than first anticipated.

The all-new Land Rover Defender is not just one of the 2019’s most eagerly awaited cars; it’s a vehicle that enthusiasts have been dying to see for the best part of a decade, ever since it became clear that the original version’s life was coming to an end.

The full reveal of the car isn’t expected until next month’s Frankfurt Motor Show - but jumbo-bg has been allowed behind the scenes at JLR’s Gaydon test base to sit alongside engineers in a late prototype of the vehicle, codenamed L663.

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Of course, the Warwickshire facility isn’t the only place where Defender testing has taken place. Indeed, the engineers present - whose focus is on the durability side of the project - inform us that development mules of the car have racked up a combined total of more than 750,000 miles of testing, everywhere from the frozen Arctic to dusty South African plains.

Our car for the day has an unstamped passport, however. It’s what’s known as an Extreme Events Sign-off Vehicle - which could mean lots of things for a Defender but in this case basically encompasses the sort of prangs that occur when you’re taking avoiding action in suburban rat-runs - or thudding along rough country tracks. So our prototype has been based at Gaydon and driven into kerbstones at all sorts of angles, and thrown, at speed, across bigger gaps than any of the world’s widest bridge expansion joints. 

“It’s basically impacts that are just below the threshold of the airbag cutting in,” Andy Deeks, the Defender’s Durability and Robustness Team Leader, tells us. “At least, they’re at that point in a Defender; some of its rivals don’t react in the same way.”

Do they put competitors’ cars through the same test, then? The engineers chuckle. “Oh yes. If you look hard enough in the bushes here you’d probably find the remains of a Lexus that didn’t like it very much.”

We choose instead to have a quick look around our Defender for the morning. It’s still not possible to discern the finer details of the L663’s styling - they’re still masked by bits of cladding and the eye-fooling patterns - but several key points do become clear. It’s sitting on 20in alloys but the tyres are 255/60s, allowing usefully tall sidewalls - and the Land Rover engineers say this is true even on the largest 22in items. The smallest wheels, 18-inchers, should be very squidgy indeed.

The spy pics so far have shown a car that looks perhaps slimmer than the classic Defender shape but up close, this is a chunky vehicle. The bonnet is reassuringly high, the suspension clearance in the arches clearly visible and the blunt rear end unmistakably Land Rover. It already feels safe to say that while this car will not be a pastiche of the old model, it will display clear lineage. We feel reassured, too, when we’re told that the air vent on the car’s front wing is “fully functional” - a sign that as it should with a Defender, form has, at the very least, been intertwined with function.

We make a final note as we climb up and into the car, which sits idling in the Gaydon test track car park: it is clearly powered by a petrol engine. And a sticker in the window points out that it has hybrid technology on board. We can’t discount the possibility that there’s a plug-in charging flap hidden under the disguise somewhere but our gut feeling is that this five-door example is a 110 with 48-volt electrification. Quite a technological leap, then, from the old model. 

You climb up into this Defender, just as in its predecessors, but even amid the yards of disguising fabric over the dashboard, and the extra buttons required for prototype work, it is immediately evident that once you’re aboard, this vehicle will be a much more civilised environment than what’s gone before.

We glance across at our driver for the day and he’s sitting in an entirely conventional position, with the steering wheel adjusted to the correct angle and, it would appear, enough space around him to avoid brushing elbows on the bodywork as he squirrels the Defender out of the confines of the Gaydon car park. He has reassuring amounts of steering lock for the first few yards, too - helped, of course, by electrical power assistance. These are all new developments for Defender devotees - but they already show how this new generation will have broader appeal than before.

Time is tight, so the Land Rover team make a beeline for the area of Gaydon’s off-road course known as ‘Developing World’. It’s not the harshest of environments, we’re told, but rather stretches of road where you can get up to the sorts of speeds where potholes, dust, mud and water can present immediate threats.

The route to there along Gaydon’s access roads reveals more about our car. The engine has four cylinders, so based on the information about the vehicle that’s already leaked, it’s a P300 Ingenium turbocharged petrol, producing 296bhp and 400Nm. As with all new Defenders, the gearbox is an automatic, accessed by a stubby, short lever in the lower centre of the dash. 

And even five minutes along some of Gaydon’s broken tarmac is enough for us to tell you that this Defender is a world away from the car it replaces. It is comfortable, complaint - easily on a par with many a family SUV, in fact. And the Ingenium is remarkably refined by any car’s standards, let alone those of a Defender.

On the gravel, the Defender feels even more at home. We’re doing north of 40mph on a pretty rutted road and yet our car’s air suspension is soaking up the high-frequency stuff, keeping all but the worst judders away from the cabin occupants. It’s deeply impressive - especially when this is the area where the Defender probably faces the biggest crossover with ‘conventional’ capable SUVs. 

We ask how the car compares with previous Land Rovers in the really boggy stuff. “Well, look at it this way,” Deeks tells us. “We’ve had to reprofile the off-road development route at Eastnor (Land Rover’s UK facility) because it wasn’t enough of a challenge for it.”

Air suspension seems like a potential weak point on this most analogue of automotive badges; has it given any problems during development, we ask? “Not really,” Deeks tells us. “The system had already been developed strongly for use in Range Rover and Discovery, so we knew its fundamental strengths. The chassis has required modifications - different bushes and ball joints, and we made the front lower control arms thicker and changed the material too.

“We also beefed up the electric power assisted steering,” he adds, “but for durability; it’s a gen-two rack so we knew it was fine in terms of performance.” 

Radio chatter tells us that snapper Nick Dimbleby is waiting at the far side of the Developing World’s biggest water hazard. We increase our pace at the last minute, slapping this L663 into the murky liquid at an awkward angle.

Water pours down through the upper door seal, soaking my notepad and making my scrawled notes even harder to read than usual. I giggle, but the engineers aren’t amused. They pause for a brief confab, then someone jumps out to inspect the passenger door. It turns out that the aerial lead for our temporary radio set has been fouling the seal.

With the set-up tweaked, I’m told to expect a repeat run through the water, with even greater commitment. This time we build up speed long before the water, and stay dry long after the sort of splash that would stop many 4x4s, let alone soft-roaders.

If this is the sort of abuse that our car has received, then I’m inclined to feel a pang of sympathy for it. But on-road action is only part of the story. Land Rover also has a jig that tortures a car in half a dozen directions, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, for up to eight weeks at a time. 

All too soon, though, our time with VN68 MZD is up and it’s time to return to Gaydon’s control tower for a quick debrief. In a way, we’d expected the car to be able to plunge through water and to soothe out the pock-marks of a gravel road - and it did these easily. What has impressed us more during this brief flirtation with next-gen Defender is how rounded a car it is - how much extra breadth there is to its abilities.

Indeed, we could already see how, in longer-wheelbase 110 form, it has the potential to be not just an agricultural workhorse but also, whisper it, the general family do-it-all that the Discovery 4 used to be before it went even more premium for the current generation. And that, crazy as it seems, could make the all-new Defender an even more significant car than expected.

Key specs

  • Model: Land Rover Defender 110
  • Price: TBC
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
  • Power/torque: 296bhp/400Nm
  • Transmission: Eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive
  • 0-60mph: 8.5 seconds (est)
  • Top speed: 120mph (est)
  • Economy/CO2: 30mpg (est)/225g/km (est)
  • On sale: Early 2020