Difficult Second Album Syndrome – it’s the thing that fledgling bands quickly thrust into the spotlight after a debut release met with critical acclaim will worry about most as the pressure gets put on them for an equally impressive follow-up. Sure, there are some stellar second albums such as Pixies’ Doolittle and Nirvana’s Nevermind that manage to break from the curse, but The Stone Roses’ Second Coming or Manic Street Preachers’ Gold Against the Soul? Well, they’re just rubbish.
If ever there was a difficult follow-up at risk of falling into that sophomore slump, though, it’s the Land Rover Defender. Like a band reinventing itself from heavy grunge rockers into wannabe popstars, the Land Rover brand has had a drastic change in image since the introduction of the original Land Rover Series I in 1948, let alone the introduction of the Defender name in 1991.
First conceived in the aftermath of World War II to be the first mass-produced civillian four-wheel drive with doors on it, and heavily inspired by the Willys Jeep used by many armed forces, it remained in continuous production for 67 years. A lot can change in that much time, and Land Rover’s shift from a builder of sturdy off-roaders to an aspirational luxury brand whose cars just so happened to be able to hold their own on the rough stuff always meant that the ‘new Defender’ – if ever one were to eventuate as it obviously did when it was finally launched last year – was never going to be anything like its predecessor. If ever there was an automotive equivalent of a ‘difficult second album’, this car is it.
There’s no more steel ladder-frame chassis, but rather an aluminium monocoque. There’s no more coil springs let alone leaf springs of the Series’ models, but rather standard airbag suspension on the long-wheelbase 110 model. There’s no manual gearbox like in most older Landies, but rather a standard automatic. It’s not even made in good old England, but rather at a new factory in Slovakia that cost £1 billion. This Defender clearly isn’t aimed at the underground alt rock purists that are, in this instance, the traditional 4×4 enthusiast crowd – this thing’s gone all mainstream.
While it couldn’t be further from the old Defender mechanically, there’s no doubt that visually, it looks every bit the part of a more modern Defender. Not only is the original boxy profile nicely maintained – if a little more curvaceous around the edges, such as on the wheel arches – but all the key Defender styling elements are there, such as the round headlights, checkerplate on the bonnet, and the side-hinged tailgate with the spare tyre mounted on it. Even the air intake at the back of the front left quarter panel is authentically located.
Inside, it’s well executed too, with items such as the skeletonised dashboard, which is actually a structural component, or the optional six-seat layout with a front bench truly harking back to the Land Rover Series models in particular. There are even safari windows in the back as well – another hallmark of this iconic model that helps it feel a bit more authentic.
It’s a cleverly-designed interior though, as there’s heaps of storage options all around you. The dashboard itself allows for storage almost all the way along, including behind the 10.0-inch infotainment screen (which runs the very slick new Pivi Pro operating system which is a huge step up from dated and oft-glitchy InControl Touch Pro) and to the side of the gauge cluster. In this seven-seat version with a traditional front centre console, there’s plenty of storage on two different levels as the shifter being mounted on the dash frees up a considerable amount of space down there, and there’s even a fridge under the centre armrest and a wireless phone charging pad in front of it.
There’s plenty of room in both the first and second rows in this three-row version, but the rearmost pew does feel like a real afterthought, sadly. Not only is there only enough legroom for either a four-year olds or amputees back there, but there’s effectively no cargo space behind the third-row when it’s in place. Personally, I’d skip it and just get a five or six-seat version myself, or wait until the longer 130 model comes along if three-rows are truly necessary.
The front seat controls are incredibly strange as well, as in this lower-end S model, at least, sliding or raising the seat base is operated manually, while the seat back is power adjustable, and the hidden adjuster for it which is a circular dial surrounding the powered lumbar controls makes this very regularly-used adjustment hard to find. Also, one friend did comment that the centre screen was on the smaller side and was mounted too low on the dashboard, although a larger 11.4-inch screen will be made available on 2022 models to remedy that concern if it is one for you, although the 10.0-inch screen of my tester didn’t really bother me.
These admittedly minor annoyances aside, it’s clear that the Defender’s interior is a very well-designed and thoughtfully planned out space that is a triumph of industrial design. From the aforementioned structural dashboard to the exposed bolt heads and painted sections on the doors, and the rubber flooring to the sustainably-sourced materials and rugged fabrics and leather elsewhere, it’s all thoughtfully and fittingly designed, and undoubtedly well-executed.
Does it feel like a modern Defender? Yeah, it does feel like it, if in a sort of modernised retro-esque way, but it’s not to the same degree of overt retro as a Fiat 500 or a Mini. It’s more tastefully executed here – call it nostalgia, perhaps, rather than retro, and it makes more sense.
If there’s one area it’s not at all like the Defenders of old, though, it’s in the way it drives. Fortunately, that’s a very, very good thing. Sat on a unique version of Jaguar Land Rover’s D7 platform – D7x, differentiating it from the D7u platform that underpins the Discovery, Range Rover Sport, and Range Rover – and launching new flagship six-cylinder engines for the Ingenium family of power plants and putting a high emphasis on mild hybrid and plug-in hybrid systems, it’s clearly looking to the future rather than the past when it comes to propulsion.
The P400 engine fitted to my tester – and, indeed, the vast majority of the original batch of Defenders sold in Australia and globally – is an all-new engine, and although it was first quietly introduced in the full-size Range Rover, it’s the Defender that’s really meant to be drawing the attention to this particular powertrain.
An all-new 3.0-litre straight-six fitted with both a turbocharger and an electric supercharger powered by a 48V mild hybrid system, it produces an impressive 294kW (400PS, hence the nomenclature) and 550Nm, a version of ZF’s excellent eight-speed automatic is the only transmission option on offer, and in traditional Defender style, all models feature a full-time four-wheel drive system with dual-range, too.
While the Defender has never exactly been a quick car, or even anything close to anything close to being a quick car, this thing is different. A 6.1 second 0-100km/h sprint time puts it neck-and-neck with the likes of the Hyundai i30 N Fastback, and while it doesn’t exactly feel as ferocious as a hot hatch, watching the numbers on the dashboard grow larger and larger makes the spec sheet feel entirely believable.
Of course, the reason it doesn’t feel that ferocious is because of how much the standard air suspension isolates you from the road, so feedback from the car is certainly very limited. However, the way it irons out bumps yet allows this heavy car to retain decent composure through the corners makes it worth having, as does its heigh adjustability that allows for as much as 293mm of ground clearance and 900mm of wading depth.
Speaking of off-road performance, there’s no doubt that it’s an impressive thing on the rough stuff. The suspension articulation is pretty impressive for a car with an independent rear and airbags, its relatively short overhangs and good ground clearance mean you can avoid damaging its no doubt very expensive to fix bodywork (its approach, departure, and ramp-over angles of 30.1, 37.7, and 22 degrees at normal ride height, and 38, 40, and 28 degrees at off-road height are all pretty impressive figures) and the low-down torque that’s on offer despite it being a petrol engine means there’s no lack of grunt for powering through or out of any obstacles. The smoothness of its drivetrain no doubt is beneficial off-road, too, as suddenness with the throttle can always be one quick way of getting yourself stuck. Do note, though, my tester’s all-terrain Goodyear tyres aren’t standard fit, so they did perhaps give it an extra little leg-up.
Being a Land Rover product, off-roading it is an easy task thanks to all of its automated systems, such as the locking centre and rear differentials or the Terrain Response drive mode system that can be manually controlled according to the road surface you’re driving on, or simply left to its own devices to determine what traction control, gearbox, and throttle mapping is required.
So, it’s comfortable and refined on the road and very capable off-road – exactly what you’d expect a Land Rover product to be like – but it’s not without its issues. For one thing, the air suspension may deliver plenty of benefits, but it’s one hell of a liability when you’re out in the sticks.
The straight-six might be a very powerful and very smooth engine, too, but it’s also very thirsty – we’re talking an indicated 14.6L/100km over the course of my 600km with it, against a claim of 12.1L/100km. It’s not the only expensive part, either, as like with all JLR products, going over the options list can make this thing mighty expensive to buy in the first place. Although this P400 S may only be one step up from the base trim level (although specified with the current top-spec engine) and have an already steep $95,335 retail price, as this one here sits it would cost you $126,987 thanks to the liberal amount of options its been sprinkled with.
There’s one drawback that outweighs any of these, however, and it’s one that doesn’t actually bother me, and won’t bother the vast majority of people who buy one of these. Although this new Defender was never going to just be a new old Defender, the fact that it isn’t is going to be a big deterrent for the hardcore off-roader crowd.
Unlike an old Defender, it’s going to be hard to source aftermarket accessories for, and even harder to fit them to, and while you could rightfully argue it doesn’t need any of them, there’s no question that acessorization and modification are huge parts of 4×4 ownership, and so the fact someone who’d typically buy and fully kit out a Toyota Land Cruiser approach one of these with the same mindframe and expectations of what’s possible to do with it will be a big turn-off.
Of course, the average person who’s unlikely to ever pit it against much more than a gravel track or muddy camping site won’t be bothered by this at all as it’s far more capable than they’d ever need. Land Rover had to alienate one customer base, though, and off-road enthusiasts are clearly the ones that have been cut off here, but with far more ‘average’ consumers out there than off-road nuts – plus the associated costs involved with developing the sort of vehicle they’d have wanted – means that profit was always what needed to be chosen, and ultimately was.
In every regard other than its name and styling, this isn’t really a ‘new Defender’ – it’s just a new car called the Defender, but there’s nothing at all wrong with that, as far worse things have been done with other famed model names in recent memory. What’s most important is that it’s a damn fine car, and that’s something unquestionable. Were it the body-on-frame, live axle, manual gearbox-equipped Defender the purists wanted, it wouldn’t be nearly half as good to drive as this thing is, either, which is another important factor to consider.
It took me a while to figure out, but the conclusion I ultimately arrived at is that this Defender is what the Discovery 5 should have been. Once a boxy, practical, and capable off-roader, the Disco has now become a blobby, lop-sided, diesel Range Rover Sport Lite in essence. But this new Defender, it perfectly fills the role that the Disco should – and it proves Gerry McGovern can still design an attractive car, too.
I’m excited to sample some of the other variants of this new Defender – particularly the coil-sprung short-wheelbase 90 model as I think its rather perfectly-proportioned size makes it a far more appealing proposition – but this launch-spec petrol 110 has left me unquestionably impressed, even if a ‘new Defender’ it is not.
2021 Land Rover Defender 110 P400 S List Price: $95,335 | As Tested: $126,987
Pros: Incredibly smooth drivetrain, has all the right Defender styling cues, supple ride on standard air suspension, performs just as well on-road as it does off-road
Cons: Gets pricey with options, straight-six engine drinks like an Irishman, third-row seat is pointlessly small
In a nutshell: It might not be the new Defender that Defender fans of old wanted, but for what it is, the new Defender is a very good car both on-road and off. Arguably, though, it’s more like what the new Discovery should have been, than what a new Defender could.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Jaguar Land Rover Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.