Land Rover Defender: first ride review

Published:07 August 2019

Land Rover Defender: first ride review
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By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator

► Riding shotgun in new Defender
► What have we learned so far?
► New 4x4 hasn't gone soft

CAR was the first media outlet worldwide to hitch a ride in a prototype Land Rover Defender. We’re in the passenger seat as Andy Deeks, the new Defender’s durability and robustness programme boss, demonstrates its capabilities. Fear the Defender has gone soft? Deeks is your inside man. Land Rover isn’t just a pay cheque for him - it’s clearly a passion, and he absolutely gets why the old-timer matters.

We’re riding in a heavily camouflaged 110. It looks like a sawn-off Discovery 4 with its set-square two-box simplicity and notably short overhangs for excellent approach and breakover angles. Deeks explains that they’re still working on the wading depth, but it’ll be better than any other Land Rover on sale today, and therefore exceed the Discovery’s 900mm. That's pretty deep.

Deeks describes the new Defender test schedule as halfway between a full-size SUV programme and those used for military vehicles, making a sterner test than for any Range Rover and even the Discovery. They're keen to make sure it's tough as nails.

Keep reading for our first new Land Rover Defender experience…

Give me tech specs – what have you learned about the 2020 Defender?

The new Defender is codenamed L663 and will be based on the D7U aluminium monocoque architecture, as rolled out already for Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Discovery with independent rear suspension and longitudinal engines. You’ll get your Defender in '90-inch' (three-door) and '110-inch' (five-door) wheelbases, though we’ll have to wait for exact dimensions, weights, off-road geometries and all those specifics. No-one is saying if they’ll bring back the 130, but the mention of '90 and 110 at launch’ is perhaps a clue.

Defender prototype rear static

Both air suspension and coil springs will be offered, with the former extending by up to 75mm and lowering by 50mm – air will give the best off-road performance, coils the cheapest point of entry, though you can imagine the simplicity of coils appealing to those wanting a rugged workhorse.

There’s permanent all-wheel drive, a standard low-range transfer case, three auto-locking diffs (front axle, centre and rear axle), with the hardware depending on each engine spec (if ‘not affecting capability’, as Deeks puts it), and a choice of 18-22-inch wheels with all-terrain tyres as standard, though 21s are left off the menu and more aggressive off-road rubber will also be available up to 20 inches.

Want a look inside? The Defender’s dashboard and door casings are draped with fabric to thwart prying eyes, and the (unrepresentative) four-spoke steering wheel is disguised to look like a three-spoker. We’ve already papped a Defender’s interior here.

What did you experience as a passenger?

The rough dirt road we’re driving on wouldn’t come close to troubling an old Defender’s off-road prowess, but one thing is immediately obvious: how serenely the new Defender sails over the pockmarked surface, and how casually Deeks can twirl at the electrically assisted steering. The old car would rattle and shake, its slower steering would demand more work, but bar the odd thunk in the really gnarly stuff, the new Defender mostly glides over the bumpy surface.

As you’d expect, Deeks says the 110 rides more comfortably and is more stable thanks to its longer wheelbase, while the 90 has the better off-road capability, ‘purely down to its geometry.'

The speed at which the new Defender can cover rough ground places even greater demands on durability. ‘It’s given us a bit of a headache to be honest,’ admits Deeks, ‘because the more capable and refined the vehicle, the faster people are going to drive, and the more durable it has to be - so all our durability targets and standard requirements have been uplifted.’

Defender prototype front cornering

When asked where they’ve gained the most, on-road or off-road, without hesitation Deeks replies there are leaps across the board. ‘Versus the old car there are huge improvements in NVH [noise, vibration and harshness], off-road capability and on-composure, but without losing that core DNA of Defender,’ he says. The Defender certainly handles the ragged B-road section of our test very ably, feeling composed and comfortable where an old Defender would shimmy, bounce and clatter.

Notably, this is the first Defender to be tested at the Nürburgring. And that tells you a lot about the changing brief for next decade's new Landie.

We’ve had the standard Terrain Response system in Auto for the entire drive, and as we pass over one particularly fragmented if very short section of tarmac, it feels like the road surface has changed, only it hasn’t – the continuously variable dampers have quickly processed the surface, and adapted to smother the ripples.

New Land Rover Defender: first impressions

It’s impressive, but much work remains to be done. At the time of our ride in late April 2019, some 200 test hacks had covered around 750,000 miles.

We’ll be putting the production Defender through its paces as soon as we can after its debut later in 2019, but on this early prototype evidence it certainly looks like there are large objective gains, both on- and off-road. Undoubtedly diehards will understandably continue to mourn the old body-on-frame icon, but it must make the new Defender’s debut a little easier to stomach knowing someone as passionate as Deeks is helping guide its replacement’s development.

Check out our Land Rover reviews


Price when new: £0
On sale in the UK: 2020
Engine: tbc
Transmission: tbc
Performance: tbc
Weight / material: tbc
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): tbc


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  • Land Rover Defender: first ride review
  • Land Rover Defender: first ride review
  • Land Rover Defender: first ride review
  • Land Rover Defender: first ride review

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator