COVID-19, nationwide lockdown, job losses, pay cuts, fuel-price increases, Eskom load shedding… when you’re in a slump, sometimes it helps to get away from it all. When the itch needs scratching, there is no place quite as meditative as the desert.
This is not your usual CAR road test, you understand, measuring every millimetric difference between these two vehicles. That will come when we test the Land Rover Defender next month for an extended period to consider the myriad factors that make it such a significant vehicle in the South African market. Instead, this encounter is about building a working relationship.
We followed the story of the DC100 Concept – the ambitious precursor to the Defender – unveiled at the 2011 motor show in Frankfurt. We were in the crowd (remember those?) at the 2019 Frankfurt motor show when the finished product drove down from the ceiling and wowed the world’s media for the first time. CAR’s former editor took it on an expedition organised by Land Rover through the Koakoland in Namibia just before lockdown and found it “immensely special” there, too. Now is our first chance to benchmark it against a staple of the South African off-roader realm: the Land Cruiser Prado. Into the dunes we go for some quiet reflection.
Veldskoene: Toyota Land Cruiser Prado 3,0DT VX-L
Atlantis dunes. Barely an hour out of Cape Town and I’m already jumping to conclusions. Thanks to generous cabin dimensions, a commanding driving position and comfortable slim-back seats that Toyota interiors currently do so well, the top-of-the-range Prado VX-L is wafty and bobs along comfortably. En route to Atlantis via Morningstar’s back roads, it has that typical big off-roader feel; a massive frontal area forcing its way through the air – not all that efficiently it must be said, consuming about 10 L/100 km at a cruise – requiring regular steering input from the driver to keep straight and true in a side wind. Even the subtlest crest in the road produces a hint of lean in the vehicle, as you might expect from a ladder frame chassis with beam rear axles. Box-fresh monocoque vehicles like the new Land Rover Defender just don’t drive like this these days.
Let’s not forget the current Prado, codenamed J150; having benefitted from regular model-year upgrades, has been in service in current guise since 2010. Nowhere is this more evident than inside the cabin, resplendent with wood panels, a small 8-inch touchscreen and buttons galore. All the tech is here: the dashboard, facia and steering wheel are plastered with controls for various functions introduced piecemeal over time. They’re just not organised into a central command centre as in Land Rover’s slick Pivi Pro touchscreen infotainment system. Search and you will find the Prado’s Multi-Terrain Monitor in the head unit which reveals a dead-ahead view of where you’re going, a kind of simplified version of Land Rover’s ClearSight Ground View technology. However, the resolution of the small screen is lacking by today’s standards and it’s a bit like the in-flight entertainment on SAA: not worth the bother.
There isn’t much performance on offer from the big 3,0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel. The 120 kW and 400 N.m, and a double-digit 0-100 km/h sprint time mean you won’t be going anywhere in a hurry. The Prado’s five-speed automatic gearbox is dated and has been for some time. However, thanks to a tall fifth gear, at 120 km/h on the highway you sit just above 2 000 r/min in the rev range which could be worse. As part of its product upgrade at the end of October, the Prado will receive the 2.8-litre GD-6 turbodiesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The revised motor churns out 150 kW and 500 N.m on the dot, making it the torquiest diesel engine Toyota has produced to date.
With our permits paid for, tyre pressures dropped to the recommended 0,8 bar, we proceeded slowly and sensibly along the churned sand tracks that led away from Atlantis’ refurbished parking lot and visitor area. Here, the Toyota’s power shortfall counts for little. On sand it’s not all about power and torque, instead it’s about smoothness, linear power delivery and a good feeling for the driver. Priming the Prado for off-road use is a faff, although many might argue that’s all part of the fun. Pop the transmission into neutral, toggle the Multi-Terrain Select system to Sand (your other options are Mud, Rock and Moguls), squeeze and turn the rotary dial to switch the transfer case between 4H and 4L. There’s a separate ride height selector alongside to provide additional clearance when required, and don’t forget to lock your differentials – centre and rear – before sliding the transmission into drive and edging forward to engage the drivetrain.
Leaving behind terra firma, we aimed right, climbed the first steep rise and proceeded cautiously for the next half dozen crests and troughs until we were isolated, deep in the dunes. Following in the tracks of the Land Rover, I revelled in the Toyota’s cushioned, unstressed progress. This is what this vehicle was built to do after all. The driver in the Defender was less intent on simply getting there, adamant to push the limits of the new Landy, taking wider arcs through turns and steeper climbs when a simpler one would do. The sand can be a cruel and unforgiving mistress if not shown respect. Even on the Prado’s milder Dunlop Grandtrek tyres (the Defender’s Goodyear Wranglers wore a more aggressive tread pattern and softer compound), there’s no issue with traction. Interestingly, although the Defender First Edition wears 20-inch wheels as standard (22-inch wheels are optional) versus the Prado’s 18-inch, both have 60-profile tyres meaning there’s an almost identical contact patch on the sand.
Following behind gave me plenty of time to fully appreciate the Defender’s impressive sheet metal finished in Gondwana Stone brown. It’s an aesthetic I cannot praise enough. Handsome, cohesively designed from end to end, balanced with muscular surfacing and attractive details, I could not get enough of its imposing, blocky proportions. Only when you really get up close to the Landy do you begin to appreciate just how big and purposeful it is. By comparison, and on dimensions alone, it easily exceeds the Prado; a vehicle that has long straddled the line between tough off-roader and luxurious-yet-understated SUV. It’s by no means ugly, the Prado, just a bit awkward in places compared to the fully harmonised Defender.
New brogues: Land Rover Defender 110 D240 First Edition
Photographer Peet leapt from the car, happy to have found the spot to photograph the vehicles as the sun briefly sought solace behind a fluffy cloud. It was tranquil, quiet, surprisingly so this close to Cape Town. Bar the odd set of tyre tracks, there was nothing at all, just a landscape akin to Mars Rover video footage, heroed by a new Rover that could very well tackle the surface of Mars, given half the chance.
Equipped with the optional Adventure Pack (R38 661), the well-specified First Edition gains classic Defender-inspired mud flaps, rear scuff plate, spare-wheel cover, wheel-arch protection and an exterior side-mounted gear carrier for things like dirty shoes when you don’t want to sully the cabin. The portable rinse system and integrated air compressor in the boot to re-inflate tyres is particularly useful. I did notice, after a driver change, just how much rear visibility is lost because of the spare wheel and gear carrier. It’s a good thing it comes with a phalanx of cameras to provide a 360-degree view.
Taking up residence behind the wheel, I was immediately in awe. The purposefully sparse interior nails the brief of legendary off-roader in the 21st century. The 10-inch infotainment touchscreen in the centre of the facia is simple, intuitive and quick to respond to inputs. JLR’s ClearSight rearview mirror is standard fitment on the First Edition, as is the must-have sliding panoramic roof. Rather cleverly, the upgraded Terrain Response 2 system and climate controls are operated via hard buttons beside the dash-mounted gearlever so the touchscreen is not all smeary with fingerprints. The First Edition cabin is trimmed in a combination of leather and eco-friendly woven textiles, fit for purpose. To my surprise, there’s a satisfyingly thin grip to the large diameter steering wheel reminiscent of the old Defender. The weighting and steering response is suitably slack as well, just as it should be in a proper 4×4.
Setting off across the dunes, there was a notable absence of any shimmy through the chassis like there was in the Toyota. The Defender is based on the firm’s all-new D7x architecture with an aluminium monocoque that’s worth its weight in gold (or rather aluminium) in terms of drive quality and refinement. The structure feels tauter and more manoeuvrable than that of its body-on-frame competitor. The cabin is quieter and the sophisticated electric power steering means it turns on a dime with minimum input. Just perfect for those traditional Defender drivers who rest an elbow on the window sill and signal fellow owners with a well-meaning gesture.
Suspended with an integral-link setup at the rear and standard-fit air suspension, the ride quality was impressive as we crisscrossed rutted tracks. Throw in the commanding driving position which is 35 mm higher than the tallest Range Rover and adjustable ride height which raises the vehicle by an additional 135 mm at the front and 145 mm at the rear… and we were favouring the Defender.
Powered by the D240 Ingenium engine producing 177 kW and 430 N.m, not only do you get the characteristic diesel thrum that feels so at home in an adventure vehicle of this sort, but it shakes off any advances from the Prado with ease. No surprises when you remember the Prado is down on power, torque and gear ratios, and more than 100 kg heavier (2 435 kg versus 2 323 kg for the Defender).
It took less than 10 seconds from 0-100 km/h versus a sedate 11 seconds in the Prado. But it’s not all gushing praise because we did notice the big Brit’s throttle response from pull away could be crisper. Particularly evident on loose sand, there was a hint of lag at takeoff, followed by a peaky spike of traction-breaking torque when the full complement of twist does arrive at 1 400 r/min.
The robust diesel engine throbbed and roared as I pushed ahead up a steep dune, albeit with vibration well-disguised inside the cabin. Almost involuntarily, I pushed the limits of its capability, venturing off the tracks and going a bit wild. I now understand just how easy it is in the Defender: it rides with such authority that it is almost undisturbed by the terrain that dictated proceedings in the Prado. It’s so hugely capable, the whole of the Atlantis dunes became my playground. Going off-piste is no problem in the new Land Rover Defender.
Well, that’s until it does become a problem. As anyone experienced in dune driving knows, overconfidence is your worst enemy. With photography of the Prado wrapped and Atlantis’ cut-off time fast approaching, I hopped into the Toyota and proceeded to the gate to get a head start on re-inflating the tyres and left Peet to grab the last few hero shots of the Defender.
Even if you’ve switched off the engine, the Prado conveniently remains in the pre-selected drive settings. I carefully followed our tracks and made it safely to the car park. I then got a call from Peet with dodgy signal: “We need help… the Defender is stuck!” I couldn’t understand how they managed to maroon the unstoppable Defender. The problem I faced was the SANParks rangers wouldn’t let anyone back in so late in the day. Plus, how would I even know where to find them? A few failed calls and I finally got hold of Peet. Like music to my ears, he said, “Not to worry, we’re right behind you… we got ourselves out.” The culprit was the Terrain Response 2 system which defaulted to Normal mode after the car had been switched off for a period of time. When the moment came to attack a steep dune, not being in the optimal setting meant the traction control bogged the car down. An easy mistake to make in a vehicle which places such emphasis on one-touch convenience for the driver.
So, there you have it, more eventful than we were hoping for but there’s nothing like a bit of drama to help bring about a verdict. What is immediately apparent, is this is a battle of old school versus new school, analogue versus digital. Traditional versus the new normal. Is one better than the other? Well, that depends on your preference. Here are two storied off-roaders conceived for a common purpose: to venture anywhere thanks to a competent mix of everyday practicality, off-road capability and diesel-propelled tour-ability. In the rarefied air of R1 million-plus, both are gunning for the same customer and yet, they couldn’t be more different in character. At the one end of the spectrum is the stoic Prado with its sensible, slow-as-possible-fast-as-necessary approach. It is better value in that it does everything the Defender does, for less outlay. In the same breath, you cannot deny the Defender has changed the game. It’s brought the 4×4 into the future with its aluminium monocoque, one-touch Terrain Response 2 and stunning high-definition digital displays.
Driving them back to back at Atlantis, it’s the Defender that feels more capable, no question. It’s easier and more agile, thanks to good engine performance, excellent traction and its sophisticated chassis. Not necessarily any less capable off-road in a similar scenario, the new Defender has shown up the Prado’s ageing drivetrain. The Toyota projects toughness; it’ll take a beating all day long and keep on slugging and let’s not forget, it didn’t get stuck once. Crucially for this encounter, the Defender matches the Prado’s hardy pragmatism while deftly smoothing over the hard edges inherent to a traditional off-roader. We await the imminent Prado with its upgraded drivetrain and enhanced technology, but it will have to be a mighty fine vehicle to best the new Defender.
What to expect next from Prado
In broad strokes, 150 kW and 500 N.m from the firm’s highest output 2,8-litre GD-6 turbodiesel engine, mated with a six-speed automatic transmission. The gain of 30 kW and 100 N.m will provide more flexibility as maximum power arrives 600 r/min earlier in the rev range at 3 400 r/min and peak torque is available over a wider spread from 1 600-2 800 r/min, aiding off-road performance and towing capability. The extra performance is thanks to a ball-bearing turbocharger with a larger turbine and impeller. The new Prado will deliver improved fuel economy via optimised pistons and piston rings, changes to the cylinder block and head, and a higher fuel-injection flow rate; the result of which is a claimed economy figure of 7,9 L/100 km and CO2 emissions of 209 g/km. Enhanced convenience technology comes courtesy of Toyota’s Safety Sense driver assistance – now with autonomous emergency braking capability – and latest-generation multimedia with a larger Nine-inch display screen. Long may South Africans appreciate the Prado’s sturdy blend of off-road capability and on-road comfort and practicality.