► Gavin Green on the new Defender
► Why the new 4×4 is destined to be a hit
► The plight of the modern off-roader
The dear old Land Rover Defender was never going to be easy to replace. While the latest Korean or formulaic new VW Group SUV may be acknowledged with an impassive nod, replacing the Defender involves high emotion. These Landies are more pets than products, pals not mere possessions.
Plus, that old Land Rover may well have been the most perfectly styled car ever: two simple boxes. Children could draw its profile, all part of its magic. The straightforward shape has also aged well, a lesson to all over-styled modern SUVs with their fuss and frills and funny forms.
It was a car that strode continents, discovered lost civilisations, won wars, kept the peace and engendered both excitement and happiness. It was a workhorse and a companion. It was also owned by rather nice people who loved animals, the wild and the countryside, and had an adventurous streak that has been the cornerstone of the marque ever since. It was authentic, a car that did great things, while so many modern SUVs are just big bullying sports futility vehicles.
In detail: the new Land Rover Defender
The goals for the new Defender were much different from that first 1948 Land Rover. That vehicle had a straightforward purpose: it was an honest rural vehicle, designed for farmers and those who worked on the land. Power take-offs drove farm machinery and acted as stationary generators. An early prototype had a central steering wheel because it was thought Land Rovers would be used for agriculture, like a tractor.
Later it won its military and adventure wings, thanks to the exploits of the likes of the SAS and Ran Fiennes. It was much later again that it became an ‘urban adventure’ vehicle, such a frivolous final act. If your idea of adventure is to cruise cities in a 4×4, then you clearly have little in common with the great Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham Fiennes.
Well, now there is finally an all-new Defender, and I think Jaguar Land Rover has done rather a fine job. This is a proper 4×4. It can wade rivers and clamber rocks. There’s more talk of approach, departure and breakover angles than of CarPlay, connectivity and heated seats. Adventure accessories include a roof-mounted tent, waterproof awnings, ‘expedition’ roof rack, raised air intake and integrated air compressor. Tyres are tall profile. The flooring is rubber. There’s a middle front ‘jump’ seat.
There’s also an Urban Pack ‘to conquer the concrete jungle’, for those insecure types who like to be safely isolated as they drive through towns.
Land Rover’s recent urban slant has yielded high profits, good sales and a premium positioning, but some of that old magic has gone missing. The modern line-up looks refined but not rugged. They are all surprisingly off-road capable, some wonderfully so. But the last tough-looking Landie was the excellent Discovery 4. None look ready to conquer the world.
The new Defender stops the urban drift. It reminds us that Land Rovers are serious adventure tools, buttressing the brand. The styling – square, chunky, short overhangs – is perfectly judged. Just as Ferrari needs sports cars that look like Le Mans racers, for owners to live the dream, so Land Rover needs at least one model designed to boldly go. Sadly, in the main it will be acquired by wealthy urbanites and the rural affluent, like all other upper-end SUVs. This is the sad fate of the big modern 4×4.
At least the Defender looks the part, especially in short-wheelbase 90 form and on 18-inch steel wheels (my favourite spec). And although I haven’t driven it yet, it will almost certainly perform like a serious 4×4 should. Land Rover’s pedigree here is unrivalled.
A small band of enthusiastic owners will no doubt cross continents, explore new worlds, use the in-built tents and winches, and go where no normal car can go. They’ll keep the 72-year Land Rover flame burning bright, even if most new Defenders will endure a cloistered world of tarmac and tedium. Wild at heart but caged in the urban jungle. Out of place but not out of mind.
More opinion pieces by CAR magazine