March 2021 | 912 words | 4-minute read
The new Defender has big shoes to fill and an illustrious legacy to live up to. It’s been the vehicle of choice for cross-continent expeditions, military operations in conflict zones, and for anyone with a spirit to explore the world’s most remote regions.
Land Rover has a long history in Africa. Enduring images of Land Rovers crossing flooded rivers, climbing dunes in the Sahara, on safari in game reserves, and immortalised in movies like Born Free and The Gods Must Be Crazy have made this vast continent the so-called ‘spiritual home of Land Rover’. It was fitting then to have the debut drive of the all-new Defender where it felt, well, at home.
We are in Namibia to drive the reborn Defender. Home for the next three days is Kaokoland, a harsh and barren region in the country’s northwest, with no roads, just faint tracks through the desert and rocky trails in the hills. The punishing terrain is out of the comfort zone of many 4x4s, but it’s an environment the Defender thrives in.
The reinterpretation of an icon
The Defender comes in two body styles: the three-door 90 series and the five-door 110 series with a longer wheelbase — the one I’m driving here.
There are four engine options: two 2.0-litre diesels with 200hp and 240hp; and two petrols — a 300hp, 2.0 turbo-petrol; and a 400hp, 3.0 mild-hybrid turbo-petrol. In India, only the 2.0-litre P300 petrol (300hp), priced from Rs 79.94–90.46 lakh, is currently available for sale. All engines are equipped with the familiar 8-speed ZF automatic transmission.
For the Namibia drive, there were only two variants: the standard 110 D240 diesel shod with 18-inch steel wheels and the 110 P400 that got 19-inch alloys. Both variants were kitted out with the optional Explorer Pack which includes a raised air intake, external storage boxes, a fold-down ladder for easy access, a sturdy roof carrier, and lots of matte-black plastic bits and decals to give your Defender an expedition-ready look.
In fact, this test drive is more of an expedition covering over 860km, of which only 4km was on tarmac! You expect the Defender to be brilliant off-road, but how good is it on road? The Defender feels remarkably sure-footed, despite the high centre of gravity. The steering is fairly accurate and has a reassuring feel, imparting a good sense of control; the ride is brilliant and quite settled, especially in Comfort mode. All cars come with adaptive air suspension which alters the ride height.
Sultan of soak
I start out from Opuwo in the diesel D240 and head west to Van Zyl’s camp — our night stop, tucked into the forest beside a sandy riverbed — before tackling Van Zyl’s Pass the next day. The first impression of the new Defender is fantastic all-round visibility from the lofty, comfortable seats, aided by the upright A-pillar and large windows. The rear seat occupants will appreciate the high seating position, great under thigh support and superb legroom. The Defender’s ability to soak up the punishing terrain is mindboggling, and every evening I emerged from its well-insulated cabin with not a tired bone in my body; this included 12-hour-long drives with few breaks. Besides, the Land Rover’s cabin has abundant storage space and the sturdy shelf above the glove box safely held onto my mobile phone, GoPro and suction mounts.
Riding on 18-inch rims and high-profile tyres, I was astonished by the ease with which the D240 Defender flattened small rocks that popped out of the road. The high tyre sidewalls no doubt helped. Steel wheels may seem prehistoric in this day and age, but the advantage they have is that on hard impact they bend and don’t crack like an alloy, thus lowering the risk of a puncture. That’s why they are a no-extra-cost option.
On day two, I switched to the more powerful P400 petrol for the drive up one of the world’s toughest passes — Van Zyl. Built by a Dutchman, Ben Van Zyl, this pass was carved out by locals using spades, axes and hammers, with no earth-moving equipment used. It took 1.5 hours to cover 10 km! Forget the dirt road, the steep inclines and descents are just paths covered with massive rocks jutting out to test every millimetre of the Defender’s wheel articulation and ground clearance, but the Defender proved it is the most capable off-roader in the world. The 3.0-litre mild-hybrid has a nice broad spread of torque and enough lowdown pull to yank the heavy Defender up a cliff.
We are back onto relatively flat terrain in the Marienfluss Valley and switch to manual mode to get the most out of the P400 motor. It’s easy to hit speeds of 150kph on dirt tracks and the overall sense of control is incredible.
On the last day, we drove to Namibia’s famed Skeleton Coast. Pushing through the desolate landscape we didn’t see another car for 12 hours and, at one point, drove 20km up the Hoarusib river! The region’s haunting beauty and tough terrain would make even the bravest off-roader think twice before venturing into some parts. But by now, fully settled into the Defender and accustomed to its off-road prowess, the bouts of panic when crossing a river or scrambling up a slippery dune were few and far between. I knew the Defender would sail through any terrain effortlessly. The king of off-roaders is back!
Author Hormazd Sorabjee is editor, Autocar India