CAR blog: Range Rover Sport vs Land Rover Defender, off road

Published: 02 September 2013

In one of the enjoyable surprises this job has a pleasant habit of throwing up, I’ve just been off-roading in a couple of brand new Land Rovers at the brand's off-road experience centre in Gaydon, adjacent to the automotive treasure trove that is the Heritage Motor Museum. And, as luck would have it, there was a chance to drive the two bookends of the Land Rover family, not just in age and technology, but character too: the new Range Rover Sport TDV6, and a Land Rover Defender 110 Station Wagon. I can’t imagine having more fun driving two cars without ever exceeding 5mph in either.

Off-piste in the new Range Rover Sport

Cranking any Range Rover to a 40-degree lateral angle or wading through a four-foot deep water trough feels a bit naughty. Doing it in a box-fresh Sport model is tantamount to vandalism. But, to maintain that sense of authenticity that pervades Land Rovers, the Sport has to be as adept as a mountain rescue rapid response vehicle as it is hauling itself around the Nurburgring.

Marrying new-school engineering with awesome tech whizzbangery is Land Rover’s answer. You know about the lighter, stiffer aluminium chassis, which makes the old Range Sport’s body-on-frame plus unibody construction look as cutting-edge as a signal box. Still, it’s difficult to completely appreciate the new structure until it’s teetering on two diagonally opposed wheels, balanced like a tightrope walker, with neigh a groan or creak from the frame.

Automation is the real game-changer here, though. The new Terrain Response 2 system monitors the surface the car is bumbling over via under-floor sensors, and adjusts centre and rear differential locks (electrically, rather than hydraulically), ride height, gear shifting and traction control autonomously. For a feature that’s likely to remain as dormant as the paddleshifter in a Toyota Auris CVT, Terrain Response 2 is freakishly capable. I had expected a slight lag in the system as it switched from Mud/Sand to Rock Crawl, and with a bit of Hill Descent Control lobbed in simultaneously, but, like the chassis, there’s no slack.

Overseeing matters from the throne-like sports seat, it’s a case of feet off the pedals, heart in your mouth, and roll over the crest. Even the novice off-roader (i.e: me) gets to feel like a hero. The Sport will tiptoe down a one-in-two slope without a stutter from the tyres, each brake working independently to ensure a straight, controlled descent, while passengers hang from their seatbelts. Striding up the other side with only sky in the windscreen, still no slip from the 20in wheels and no labouring from the 3.0-litre V6 is just as exhilarating.

Defender: a shock to the system

It’s difficult to state just how alien the Land Rover Defender feels to climb into, yet alone drive, after the new Range Sport. Strip off the badges and present both to a car-phobe and I’d wager Joe Bloggs would never know they’re products from the same manufacturer. If you’re reading, Mr Bloggs, none intended. Feel free to correct me.

Entering a Caterham or Ferrari is a crucial element of getting in the right frame of mind for driving: spot the carbonfibre, feel the bucket seat clasp your backside, and fumble with the thousand-point harness that looks like the multi-armed deity it might stop you meeting prematurely. The Defender, sitting at the other end of car-dom, has a similarly eventful entry procedure: it’s an expedition in itself. Scale the flank. Negotiate the sharp door and sill edges. Settle into the brightly lit cabin. Base camp is a cliff face of hard plastic fascia and hose-down rubber mats. Note the handbrake nestling in the footwell, the incongruously fragile-looking pedals, and the twin gearsticks sprouting haphazardly from the floor. Mercifully we’re in low-range only, so there’s just the main lever to arm-wrestle with today, which would be familiar to a 1980s Leyland bus driver. It's enormous, but unexpectedly positive in its action.

It’s a curious mix, the Defender: in some ways far easier to drive than the Range Rover Sport, and in others, a nightmare. What’s a doddle? Well, it’s a massive 283mm narrower, has far superior visibility and a clutch pedal that, despite spindly appearances, is just that bit easier to modulate than the creep function in the eight-speed automatic Rangie. The biggest issue is the turning circle, which, as with the huge, thick-rimmed steering wheel that’s writhing merrily in your hands as the Defender clambers over the rockery from hell, is lorry-like. Yet with no Terrain Response other than the nut that holds the wheel, it never gets stuck either. Once TR2 makes an appearance on the next Defender, that ‘best 4x4xfar’ tag might have to make a comeback.

Inside, there’s more noise, more vibration, but it’s not unwelcome. After the Sport, the Defender just feels miles more appropriate a vehicle to tackle rough stuff in. While the Sport says ‘leave it to me, I’ve got his covered’, the Defender is more of a ‘if you’re on form, we’ll make it through this together’ sort of character.

Like the paddleshifters versus stick-shift sports car debate, it’s another interesting angle of the manual versus automated trend. And although I’m not at all disappointed that the new Porsche 911 GT3 is PDK-only, offer me another spot of green-laneing and I’d take the 1940s-derived Defender workhorse, if you’re asking.

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