CAPE TOWN, Western Cape – The all-new Land Rover Defender is officially in South Africa and it's surely one of the most anticipated SUVs to touch down for quite some time. In fact, not since the introduction of Mercedes-Benz X-Class has a newcomer caused such a stir. Where do we even begin?

The hype around this new-generation Defender began back in 2011 with the DC100 concept car. We won’t step into the argument about whether or not the new Defender is worthy of the legendary name; a redesigned icon will always have its supporters and detractors (those who yearn for a Defender of old might be interested in the upcoming Ineos Genadier). Let’s set aside the controversy and hype for now because it’s time to get behind the wheel to experience what the Defender really has to offer, both on road and off.

The looks

Our test vehicle is a Defender 110 P400 First Edition finished in Pangea Green, with the optional Explorer Pack (R55 820) fitted. It looks the business both out in the bush and on the road. The three-door 90 is set to arrive in early 2021 so hang tight for that one if that’s more your cup of tea. This five-door 110 is an imposing vehicle, measuring more than five metres long and 2,1 metres wide, making it larger than a Mercedes-Benz G-Class. To put things further into perspective, the Defender 110 is easily taller and has a longer wheelbase than the already gargantuan Land Rover Discovery 5.

The Explorer package is one of four optional kits to choose from and takes the Defender’s "off-roader" aesthetic up a notch by adding a raised air intake on the passenger-side A-pillar, large mud flaps, wheel arch protection, a chunky spare-wheel cover, a roof rack, a lockable side-mounted luggage compartment (good for 17 kg or 24 litres) and a divisive matte-black 110 bonnet sticker. A satin-finish paintwork protection film (R63 500) completes our test unit’s look.

The front-end is upright yet the windscreen is not nearly as vertical as that of the original. The nose features a "smile" similar to that of the Freelander, while the profile pays homage to the original Defender’s proportions, albeit now with some curved surfacing. Round back, it’s a bluff design with the signature side-hinged door and full-sized spare mounted on it. Like it or not, this vehicle turns heads and gets as much attention as some of the most exotic supercars.

Step inside

Pulling on the chunky door handle, it takes some effort to open the heavy doors and without side steps you’ll need to hoist yourself inside carefully. But once seated in the large, soft driver's chair, you’ll notice the cabin is a really pleasant place. The steering wheel is large in diameter and stands out across the flat facia, while the seating position is upright. Imagine looking down on Fortuner drivers; that’s how it feels with the driver’s seat in the Defender set to its lowest position. Forward visibility is good but rear visibility is hampered by the spare wheel, with massive rear headrests also blocking the view when checking your blind spot. Merge on the freeway and you’ll notice the external luggage compartment completely covers the rearmost window on the driver’s side. Certainly not ideal, but at least other road users will see you coming.

The cabin feels both luxurious and practical with multiple storage compartments and grab handles built into the facia. It’s well thought out ergonomically and there is a wide variety of options that can be specified (such as a refrigerated front armrest storage compartment). Still, choose wisely as R200 000 can easily be added to the base price tag. Jaguar Land Rover's new Pivi Pro infotainment system comes standard, though, and is a real improvement over the brand's previous systems. On the face of it, the 10-inch touchscreen only offers three options: navigation, phone and audio. Should you so desire, you can delve deeper into the vehicle's settings, modes and trip computer from this screen.

Since the Defender is wide, it offers ample space for carrying five adults in comfort while being practical too, with a large boot and a fabric load cover that can easily be folded away. It’s the perfect solution to an age-old problem. We can see the Defender becoming quite the school-run warrior ... but you don’t buy one just to go to the shops now, do you?     

Off the beaten path

The new Defender has been designed as an exceedingly capable off-road machine. With standard adjustable air-suspension on the 110, it boasts a maximum ground clearance of 294 mm, with the off-road height selected. Also, the boxy design allows for a maximum approach angle of 38 degrees, departure angle of 40 degrees and breakover angle of 28 degrees. These figures may not mean much to regular folks but they do give the Defender some of the best off-road credentials of any mainstream production car.

I headed to the Honingklip 4x4 trail in Botriver on a rather wet and overcast morning to put the Defender through its paces. I selected Auto on the Terrain Response system and headed onto the trail. The course is rated between a level 2-4 in off-roading speak and left me signing an insurance claim the last time I was there in similar conditions in a Ford Everest. It’s a trail that’s not for the faint-hearted and the rain makes it even trickier.

The Defender with aggressive Goodyear DuraTrac rubber is an absolute animal off the road, though. It seems almost as though it was designed to go off-road for drivers who don’t actually enjoy the thrill of proper 4x4 driving. It completed all the obstacles in the wet with absolutely no fuss. A wheel in the air? No problem. A deep water crossing? All good. Deep mud and ruts? No sweat. It really is remarkable how easily it completed the obstacles with five passengers on board. The only issue I found was that it’s very wide so panic can set in when tackling narrow sections lined with jagged rocks standing as tall as the side mirrors. The onboard technology and a flurry of external cameras do help but getting out and checking for yourself always feels safer. 

On the road

While it's terrific the new Defender is super-capable in the rough, we expected that. However, it’s on-road where it really shines and – let’s face it – this is where the new Defender will spend the majority of its time. It’s a heavy lump of metal so it won’t handle like a sportscar; instead, it feels very much like a Discovery, and this is by no means a bad thing. It’s quiet at speed despite the off-road-biased rubber and floats along while covering the open road. The roof rack does whip up some wind noise at 120 km/h but this is only audible because the rest of the package is so well hushed. Around town, the ride is a ever-so-slightly choppy over rough tar considering it’s fitted with air suspension at all four corners. We suspect that to ensure a payload of 850 kg and a braked towing capacity of 3 500 kg, Land Rover had to find a compromise somewhere.

This P400 is powered by a smooth 294 kW/550 N.m in-line six-cylinder turbocharged engine and it’s the one you want but certainly don’t need. It sounds great and performance is effortless but we returned an unimpressive indicated 16,4 L/100 km during our test, which hampered range (despite the 88-litre fuel tank). This figure, however, did include our off-roading stint. Adding to the pain of the Defender's heavy drinking habit was that only a few kilometres into our test, a “coolant-level low” warning notification appeared ... despite a quick look under the bonnet confirming the coolant was at its correct level. 

Summary

The new Defender is one charming machine, with the slight electrical gremlin the only thing sullying what was an otherwise lovely experience. This Defender P400 is formidable off the beaten track and offers impressive refinement and punch on the open road. It turns countless heads thanks to its bold yet unmistakable design.

Old-school Defender fans, of course, won’t be in the market for this fresh-faced model. But if you're considering a BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE or something similar, the new Defender might just sway you ... it's that charming. And with a 30-strong model list, there should certainly be a Defender to suit.



FAST FACTS

Model: Land Rover Defender 110 P400 First Edition
Price: R1 395 178
Engine: 3,0-litre, six-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 294 kW at 5 500 r/min
Torque: 550 N.m from 2 000 to 5 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 6,1 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 191 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 9,9 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 156 g/km
Transmission:  8-spd auto
Maintenance Plan: Five-year/100 000 km maintenance