Land Rover’s more civilised second-generation Defender (in P400 guise) meets its battlefield-born American progenitor in an all-surface bid for rugged 4×4 supremacy…
When asked what pieces of military equipment made the greatest contribution to winning World War 2, celebrated US Army general Dwight Eisenhower was quick to rattle off a list including such innovations as the M1 rifle, Sherman tank and the atomic bomb. But at the top of that list was a boxy little all-wheel-drive vehicle that came to be known as the Jeep. Serving above and beyond the call of duty by taking on myriad roles: from armed scout to general transport and a lightweight gun tractor, it became an indispensable instrument of war and would continue to wear its battlefield-earned stripes as it made the transition from military to civilian life.
Ironically, this battle-hardened 4×4 was the spiritual progenitor to a vehicle that would become something of a quietly spoken peacetime hero and a vital part of the UK’s post-war agricultural recovery: the original Land Rover. Like the Jeep, this compact 4×4 would retain much of its rugged character, even as it branched out from farmhand to a staple of overland explorations and, eventually, a lifestyle accessory of well-heeled country folk.
To the chagrin of died-in-the-wool overlanders and the relief of those tired of the Land Rover’s woeful ergonomics and clumsy road manners, the new Defender has strayed some distance from the original by adopting a far more modern and premium stance within the rugged 4×4 landscape. But when the range-topping six-cylinder Defender found itself headlamp to headlamp with a heavily Mopar-modded Jeep Wrangler on SA soil, it looked as though the sophisticated Brit had its work cut out.
The GI and the country gent
Although Wranglers rigged for overlanding are quite a common sight on our roads, the Mopar-equipped Unlimited Sahara still managed to turn heads whenever it rumbled by. Our test unit wore more than R150 000 worth of add-ons. While much of the addenda comprised cosmetic items such as decals and detailing, more purposeful inclusions – such as the two-inch suspension lift kit, winch, rock rails, steel bead lockers on the wheels and a quartet of blindingly bright auxiliary spotlamps – added to the Wrangler’s established off-road cred. It’s brash and perhaps a little over-the-top but when attached to a frame as distinctive as that of the Wrangler, it fits quite neatly.
If the Wrangler could be likened to a Bear Grylls-type outdoorsman with the latest technical equipment lashed to brightly coloured all-weather gear, the Defender is more of a Barbour jacket with a 12-bore folded neatly in the crook of its sleeve. Many will bemoan the departure of the original Defender’s workmanlike, pop-riveted panel work but Land Rover has done an admirable job of emulating such features as that iconic two-box profile and the skylights in the roof. At a glance, it may look as smooth-skinned and vulnerable as most modern SUVs but time spent in its presence will gradually reveal that although it’s more of a sophisticate, it’s certainly no softie with such aspects as the almost non-existent overhangs and towering stance.
On the road
If you’ve not driven the original Defender, it’s something you really should try. A complete motoring anachronism – like the Citi Golf – that combines offset pedals, minimal seat adjustment and NVH suppression to make time behind the wheel decidedly tiring. However, that was the ladder-framed workhorse; the new Defender is different.
It’s now a monocoque featuring a modified version of the D7 platform that underpins the Discovery and Range Rover, mounting an air-sprung double-wishbone front/multilink rear suspension arrangement in a setup that’s incredibly refined and stable. The on-road driving characteristics are akin to those of its more upmarket-pegged stablemates; the steering is light but responsive, the ride well damped and body roll is impressively reined in. In all, the new Defender’s on-road demeanour is extraordinary and far-removed from the bouncy, vague and uncomfortable everyday driving served up by its predecessor.
This 110’s cabin is not only very spacious, but well cocooned from road and wind noise and finished in a manner that’s upmarket in terms of perceived quality but still rugged and rubberised enough to handle a spattering of mud.
While it may not be the logical powerplant option – that base covered by the D240 turbodiesel – the P400’s 3,0-litre inline-six turbopetrol is delightfully smooth and brawny and serves up 294 kW and a hearty 550 N.m of torque in a broad 2 000-5 000 r/min spread. All that punch comes at a price, though, as the Defender gulped down 12,6 litres of unleaded on our 100 km mixed-use fuel run.
Sitting on a more traditional ladder frame chassis and suspended by coil springs augmented with uprated Fox shocks on Dana 44 live axles, fore and aft, the Wrangler is more traditional in its mechanical makeup. Those underpinnings may lend themselves to off-roading but the Wrangler’s road manners leave a lot to be desired. As loftily poised as the Defender, the Jeep is far softer sprung and shows a tendency to wallow in anything other than a straight line. There’s also disconcerting play in the steering wheel around dead centre that makes it feel disconnected from the road.
Inside, the Jeep isn’t nearly as hushed or premium as the Defender, with plenty of wind and tyre roar competing with creaky plastics as a disappointing soundtrack to motorway driving. The flat facia makes the front of the cabin feel spacious but the rear is pokey. Perhaps the biggest thorn in the Wrangler’s on-road side is its powertrain. Although it’s dependable and sounds throaty, the 3,6-litre Pentastar V6 is as old as the hills. Its lack of turbocharging means the 209 kW and 347 N.m outputs are modest for its engine and 12,9 L/100 km real-world economy is disappointing. Throttle modulation is an all-or-nothing affair with noticeable drivetrain lurch at low speeds so it feels wallowy and ungainly during town driving.
Neither car shone when it came to the 100-0 km/h braking test, with the Defender’s 3,31-second halt only garnering an “average” rating. The Jeep fared worse, turning out a 3,51-second braking time and an average braking distance of more than 50 metres, versus the Defender’s marginally better 48,29 metres.
Off the beaten track
From the road, Honingklip farm looks like a peaceful patch of fruit trees and fynbos nestled at the foot of the Hottentots-Holland mountain range. Venture beyond the small gravel car park and a winding dirt track turns this little slice of heaven in the Helderberg into a veritable highway to hell for anything lacking four-wheel drive, ground clearance or a low-range transfer case. The first descent into the more challenging section of the 4×4 trail is a steep, deeply rutted sand section with plenty of axle-twisters to test articulation. It’s here that the Jeep’s live axle suspension suddenly slips into some hiking boots and really finds its feet. The optional 2,0-inch lift kit with Fox shocks raises the Wrangler’s undercarriage a full 300 mm clear of the ground and works in conjunction with those live axles to provide the sort of articulation that independent suspension systems cannot match. Few 4x4s could adopt that Captain Morgan-esque pose with one wheel perched nonchalantly on a rock.
Fording a deep-water obstacle revealed the Defender is more comfortable during amphibious manoeuvres; it emerged unscathed from the water thanks to its 900 mm wading depth. The Jeep’s 760 mm rating meant its emergence from the deep was marked by a harmless but dramatic-looking plume of steam roiling out of its grille, where water lapped against the hot engine manifold. Admittedly, an on-foot recce is the best way to judge the feasibility of a water crossing but no-one was willing to brave the frigid waters on a chilly spring morning.
Considering its go-anywhere reputation, it’s perhaps surprising this Wrangler Sahara doesn’t feature locking differentials; that’s the preserve of the range-topping Rubicon model. Its Command-trac all-wheel-drive system is a fairly straight-forward setup that comprises lever-selected 2L/4H/4L presets capable of apportioning drive from 100% rear to 50/50 front to rear via a transfer case and backed up by the vehicle’s revised electronic stability control module.
In contrast, the updated Terrain Response 2 system in the Defender offers six modes (Normal, Wade, Rock crawl, Mud and ruts, Grass/Gravel/Snow and Sand) using a combination of configurable throttle, differential and traction control parameters to best suit the terrain. It’s bolstered by the inclusion of locking centre and rear differentials, all accessed via the touchscreen system.
A couple of button prods to raise the suspension to its 291 mm threshold and select the best off-road preset for your path, and all that remains is to steer as the Defender effortlessly traverses any obstacle. It’s on the throttle modulation front where the Defender has a definite edge over the Jeep. Here the Defender’s off-road progress over tougher sections is a leopard-crawl compared with the Jeep’s all-or-nothing cavalry charge resulting from that lurching lag between throttle input and power finding terra firma. The latter is far from ideal when tackling more technical obstacles where a measured throttle means the difference between an ignominious beaching or sailing through unscathed. At least the Jeep’s live axle suspension does a decent job of riding pronounced bumps and dips without tossing its occupants about.
That said, neither car struggled on the steep, rocky inclines and loose surfaces of several attack angle-testing dips and cuttings. The Jeep’s marginally better approach angle meant nosing downward into steep obstacles wasn’t the nervous, neck-craning affair it was in the Defender. Admittedly, ClearSight – the 360-degree camera array incorporating overlapping front camera angles to detect obscured obstacles and project them on the infotainment screen – does instil a bit more confidence in tight off-road spaces. Even so, the new Defender’s upmarket bodywork tends to subconsciously breed a little extra mechanical sympathy and cautiousness that’s not as pronounced in the Jeep. The only chink we could find in this Jeep’s armour was an exposed front sway bar that could be an issue when the going gets tough. Thankfully, Mopar offers an optional skid plate to protect it. Such is their capability, both cars can reconfigure your reactions to oncoming obstacles. Ruts, axle-twisters and protruding landscape that would usually cause some tension in anticipation of a scraped chassis or bent bodywork simply flow unchallenged beneath their wheels.
There were mixed feelings regarding the Defender’s evolution from spartan workhorse to upmarket accessory. Although, it may have shed its working-class roots – let’s face it, we won’t see one of these loaded with hay bales or painted olive and toting troops – the balance has shifted from utility towards everyday liveability.
Even the humble fish had to sprout legs and crawl out of the primordial soup. With its vastly improved packaging, a sea change in its on-road capability and the retention of its formidable off-road ability, the Defender’s evolution has resulted in a deeply impressive product.
The price of retro-flavoured Land Rover-ing is admittedly steep and its break from the 10% price gap rule we often hold to our vehicle comparisons is largely a result of the narrow niche these vehicles occupy. Where does this leave the Jeep? Well, it’s clearly in the Defender’s dust when it comes to everyday driving. Yet, its formidable rock-hopping ability and the feel-good factor that comes with its Tonka Toy appearance and military heritage – not to mention its relative affordability – means this often uncompromising 4x4 will soldier on, but in this particular test, it does so in the Defender’s more polished shadow.
Defender: Four stars
Wrangler: Three stars