The iconic Land Rover Defender is a tough act to follow but Charlie Flindt seeks the original’s soul in the brilliant, all-new, high-tech version
So, can the new Land Rover Defender 110S fill the very big boots of the iconic Defender? Charlie Flindt is happy to discover on-road excellence as well as off, but finds himself searching for the original’s soul in this high-tech version.
The farmyard isn’t the natural home of the Range Rover Sport HST, but it ended up fitting in rather well…
LAND ROVER DEFENDER 110S
When the invitation to go and drive the new Defender finally arrived, there was concern at Flindt Towers: I’d been allocated the Glorious Twelfth. If I wasn’t in my combine harvester, I’d surely be on a northern moor. But, come the day, the harvest gods smiled and there was nothing fit to harvest, and dozens of shoot invites had once again failed to arrive.
So, having loaded a couple of lorries with what I hoped would be malting barley, I headed up the A34 with a clear conscience. But I was still troubled. How should I approach this new machine? With awe and reverence at the rebirth of a great British motoring icon, with Land Rover’s reputation (not to mention Slovakian jobs) at stake? Or should I view it with cold detachment, as if checking out a new pair of wellies? I went for wellies.
As a result, the long and detailed lecture by Prof Gerry McGovern on the Defender’s multiple and subtle yet powerful design cues (part of the pre-test ‘webinar’ we’d been asked to watch) went straight into the mental dustbin. I walked up and down the line of waiting cars, kicked a chunky tyre, shrugged my shoulders and decided that, yes, it’s a bit fussy, but it looks like a Defender – in places.
The back, for instance, with its side-opening door and full spare wheel mounted on it. The ‘alpine’ skylights are there but the curious white square in the glass above the rear wheels left me scratching my head. Somewhere to show off one’s favourite LP cover, perhaps? (Olivia Newton John by Helmut Newton, since you ask.) And it’s very square.
If you seek Defender ‘styling cues’ on the inside, you’ll be delighted to know they’re all missing. You can get in without wrecking a belt loop on the door catch, there’s room for a right shoulder, the handbrake isn’t frotting your left calf and there is (I hope you’re sitting down) storage space. There’s a Panda Mk 1-style trough across the dashboard, perfect for farm essentials like boxes of .22LR and Mole grips. The central console had a big cubby hole, a small cubby hole – both perfect for holding a Thermos and an elastrator – and two cup holders, perfect for the day when skinny oatmeal cappuccinos finally reach the countryside. There’s also what looks like a cubbyhole but isn’t; it’s just a hole through to the floor of the cab. Good thing I only tried to put my phone in it, and not a skinny oatmeal cappuccino.
The rest of the interior is lovely. The seats feel nicely functional rather than lush, and there’s no sign of the old model’s Spartan-ness. The doors and windows seem to fit; I would even go so far as to predict dry feet when it rains.
Traditionalists won’t like the reverse pistol-grip gear knob, or the tiny buttons, or the electronic handbrake, and the rear-view ‘mirror’, which I hated with a passion, is now a mirror-shaped screen showing a flipped image from a rear-mounted camera. All very trendy, but if your eyes are focused on events 30 yards in front, you need to refocus when glancing at the ‘mirror’ – a traditional mirror needs no such refocusing.
You don’t realise just how vain you are until you’ve tried to check your hair 10 times, and seen nothing. “Just flip the lever on the bottom,” said the man from LR, as if he’d heard my complaint more than once. “It’ll go back to being a normal mirror.” Thank goodness. It turns out I’m not a vampire.
Narcissistic tendencies satisfied, we finally set off for the Malverns – a chance to try the highly sophisticated suspension and drive-line we’d heard about in the second part of the webinar. Within yards, I knew that comparisons with the old Defender were now utterly pointless. The new Defender drives beautifully, just loving the carefully chosen A-roads. How such a big, bulky beast can handle so nicely is just amazing. My hunt for niggles came up with poor visibility past thick pillars and big headrests, and brakes that were a bit full-on/full-off.
After the fifth charming Cotswold village (all of them being de-charmed by soulless housing developments), I was really enjoying myself. Surely this on-road excellence meant off-road talent had paid a price? Of course not.
Once at Eastnor, we were split into groups and set off through Clencher’s Wood, aptly named for scary off-road challenges – or they would have been in normal conditions. The long, dry spell meant grip was rarely in short supply but there were plenty of climbs and hairpins to get on with. All the time, our guide radioed instructions on accessing the screen-based menu for the multitude of suspension and transmission settings. No yellow or red knobs to be seen here. The Defender took it all effortlessly. It has a clever off-road cruise control, which meant you could put the wheels in the ruts and check your phone for messages. (My barley had passed.)
NO TYRE HOWL
We paused for a chichi lunch on a hilltop with a majestic view of Wales, then made the motorway dash back to Fen End. And – sorry to be repetitive here – the new Defender was extraordinarily good. Very little wind or engine noise, and even the knobbly tyres were well insulated; no sign of the 7.50×16-tyre howl that came from the veteran 109 when it reached top speeds of nearly 60mph.
At that point, I had to give myself a virtual slap. You can’t keep comparing this new machine to the old Defenders. It’s a pointless exercise. This new machine is staggeringly good in almost every department, but it’s yet another high-tech, high-spec model that sits nicely among – not way below – the multitude of other high-tech, high-spec machines that pour out of the Land Rover showrooms.
‘Farm spec’ it is not. Rigger glove friendly? No. Dead sheep in the back? No. Man in a barn able to fix it in 10 to 20 years’ time? We’ll see. It looks a bit like a Defender, it’s got ‘Defender’ badges all over it, but is it really a Defender – or a clever bit of marketing to add nostalgia to the ‘must-have’ frenzy that Land Rover hopes will bring in the buyers? I just hope all their malting barley passes, too.
Land Rover Defender 110S D240
♦ Engine: 1,999cc 4-cyl diesel
♦ Power: 240hp
♦ Max speed: 117mph
♦ Performance, 0 to 62: 8.7 secs
♦ Combined fuel economy: 31.8mpg
♦ Insurance group: 35
♦ Price: from £52,110