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The first entirely new version of Land Rover's workhorse for more than 70 years looks impressive. But does it belong on a fleet?
Body colour roof, heated windscreen, heated, power-folding door mirrors with approach lights and auto-dimming, auto LED headlights and rain-sensing wipers, 18in steel wheels, all-season tyres, eight-way semi-powered, heated front seats, manually adjustable steering column, sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming interior rear-view mirror, two-zone climate control, loadspace cover, 40/20/40 folding rear seats (110 only), DAB radio with 180W audio output, Android Auto and Apple Carplay integration, Pivi Pro infotainment, 10in touchscreen with satnav, online pack with data plan, analogue dials with central TFT info display, autonomous emergency braking, 3D Surround Camera, ClearSight Ground View, cruise control and speed limiter, driver attention monitor, lane keeping assistance, traffic sign recognition and adaptive speed limiter, twin-speed transfer box, Terrain Response, air suspension (110 only), drive mode selection (110 only)
300hp 2.0, 400hp 3.0
200hp 2.0, 240hp 2.0
Standard, S, SE, HSE, X
Eight-speed auto with low-range transfer
There was little that could touch the previous Land Rover Defender off-road. Conceived in the aftermath of the Second World War, because the Wilks brothers at Rover wanted to produce a British equivalent of the Willys Jeep, the Land Rover - as it was known then - made its debut in 1948.
It had such a singular purpose that it continued with minor updates until the 1980s, when the Land Rover 90 and 110 were introduced, the numbers referring to the wheelbase lengths in inches of the three-door and five-door versions, which had grown over the years.
While updates continued in the 1990s and beyond, including the adoption of the Defender name, it retained the same basic shape, with aluminium body on a steel ladder chassis, until it was discontinued in 2016.
That meant that while it was superb as an off-road tool it was fundamentally compromised as everyday transport, and no amount of Ford Fiesta switches or car-derived diesel engines could disguise that.
Rival manufacturers with serious off-road cars seemed to invest in updating them. The interior of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class (née G-Wagen) seemed to reflect the design and switchgear of the contemporary E-Class throughout the 2000s, while Toyota's Land Cruiser underwent significant evolutions with each generation.
Of course, the Defender remained as capable as any other 4x4 off-road, and was purchased in significant numbers by utility companies and other organisations that needed its go-anywhere ability, including the MOD. It remained utilitarian, and in recent years gained appeal as some kind of cool fashion accessory for wealthy urban types, spending upwards of £40,000 on optioned-up examples. In fact, the special editions of the old Defender in its final year on sale were all priced at this level.
And yet, for Land Rover, it was apparently impossible to engineer the car with airbags, and as it was conceived as a model with the option of a second passenger seat in the centre of the front row, the position of the outer seats was close to the door, making it almost impossible for the driver to steer left without bashing your elbow against it, or opening the window to save the bruises.
The new Defender has been a long time coming, and gave Land Rover a dilemma: if it was too far removed from the authentic original it could make its fan base angry, and if it wasn't a modern interpretation of a capable 4x4 it wouldn't be a global commercial success.
As we know, Land Rover went with the modern look, and as a result of the pandemic the original media launch was delayed from April to August.
By the time we drove it customers had received cars, and Land Rover had even deployed 160 new Defenders to help the Red Cross distribute food to elderly and vulnerable people in late March at the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown.
The Defender had completed a tour of duty long before we even got behind the wheel.
The looks are more utilitarian than members of the Discovery family, although it's not too difficult to imagine the previous Discovery evolving into this shape rather than the nondescript North American SUV-alike it is now.
Engines are new to the defender too. The revised Ford/Jaguar 2.2-litre engine (first used in the Mondeo ST TDCi and Jaguar X-Type) detuned to 122hp is gone, and customers can now choose from a range of Ingenium petrol and diesel engines.
We tried the 240hp version of the bi-turbo 2.0-litre, with mild hybrid technology, but it's also offered in a 200hp variant. There is also a 300hp 2.0-litre petrol engine and a 400hp 3.0-litre with six cylinders and mild hybrid technology. Soon to reach the market will be a 3.0-litre V6 diesel producing 300hp, as well as a plug-in hybrid. There is also expected to be an SVR high-performance 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine for those after something to rival the Mercedes-AMG G63.
None of these engines are what you'd call frugal - even the four-cylinder diesels - although if the new model is more appealing to user-choosers eyeing up their first Defender the forthcoming plug-in hybrid might be more palatable.
There has been much talk of the brochure prices of the Land Rover Defender, which start somewhere north of £40,000 for the 110 (five-door) and approach the £40,000 mark for the three-door commercial vehicle version when you throw in VAT.
Some have complained that it's too rich for those who need a workhorse 4x4, but arguably the old Defender also was for most people, and the growth in double-cab pick-up trucks - occupying the £25,000-£40,000 price bracket - shows where many of those customers have gone.
In any case, many fleets will use total cost of ownership or a monthly lease to calculate costs, and those purchasing outright in significant numbers should be able to negotiate a decent discount.
Besides, these costs should be tempered by the incredibly solid residual values of the new Defender, which, even for our £55,000 SE test car, are still near enough 50% after three years/60,000 miles.
The interior is a world apart from its predecessor, and most familiar to anyone used to the current Discovery Sport or Discovery. The design is subtle, yet robust. The judicious use of Allen bolts is cosmetic - it could have been designed without these, but they lend the interior a more authentic feel.
It's a comfortable and roomy interior, without the compromises of its predecessors, although it is available in a five, six or seven-seat configuration. The rear seat squabs can pivot forwards to allow the seat backs to fold flat and maximise luggage space.
On the road the new Defender is just as you'd expect a large SUV to be: quiet, refined, rapid and sure-footed. It's impossible to forget you're sitting up high, and the car will begin to feel unsettled if you expect miracles when cornering or changing direction suddenly.
There is a range of safety features that were never made available on the old Defender, including autonomous emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, and lane keeping assistance, and it uses Jaguar Land Rover's new Pivi Pro infotainment with improved interface and software-over-the-air updates.
While rejecting the separate ladder-frame chassis of the original for monocoque construction, the Defender has a full complement of assistance systems to help its drivers master off-road trails.
The latest version of Land Rover's Terrain Response, and up to 900mm of wading depth, are impressive. Our test drive in the Defender was on the hottest day of 2020, which had been preceded by several warm days, but Land Rover's Eastnor Castle tracks still had sufficient mud to cause problems for many on-road-biased SUVs.
Our 110 test cars had air suspensionas standard, rather than the coil springs on the 90. But with the automatic locking rear differential, and low-range gear transfer, the Defender felt like it was just playing games that weren't challenging its true capability.
Compare it with its nearest rivals on price and ability - the Toyota Land Cruiser and the Jeep Wrangler - and the Defender feels more comfortable and more up to date. But it isn't missing any real off-road credentials - they've merely been modernised. And about time.