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Land Rover Defender 110 S 2020 review

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Does the new Defender have the off-road prowess to justify its name – and how does it drive? Cue three tough days in Namibia

I don’t know if it’s bold or reckless to launch a Land Rover in Namibia.Not because of the barrenness, what with it being the second least densely populated country on earth, having a land mass three and a half times the UK’s but only 2.5 million inhabitants. Not because the terrain is challenging and so vast that there’s a national park the size of Belgium.No, it’s because the default car of choice is a Toyota.It’s not that you don’t see Land Rovers. Walk around the capital, Windhoek, and you’ll find Range Rovers as you will everywhere money lives, but out in the wilds – and Namibia is second only to Mongolia when it comes to wilds – the Hilux is king. Namibia is a country where four in 10 brand-new cars are Toyotas, where it used to be a much higher percentage than that, and where the Hilux’s capability and longevity mean that, in the places you’d really want to test a Defender, the cars that aren’t Hiluxes are other beaten-up Japanese pick-ups. There are a few old series Land Rovers going on adventures, but the working or adventuring truck market is one, you have to conclude, the Defender left some time ago.What does it want to be now? Well, this is it, the new Defender, the most difficult vehicle to replace since Volkswagen tried to reinvent the Beetle. The old car had a separate chassis because that’s how you did things in 1948 and, although updated during its life, true modernisation had probably faltered by the 1980s and the Land Rover hasn’t been a ubiquitous, everyman’s vehicle for most of this century.And so, as with the modern Mini, the new Beetle and the Fiat 500, the reinvention comes. Not an easy task. “All of our marketing blah-blah about reinventing an icon is true, I think,” says Felix Bräutigam, Jaguar Land Rover’s chief commercial officer, who has joined us for the drive and, having worked at Porsche (and with a 911 GT3 RS 4.0 and the last-ever manual Jaguar F-Type in his garage), I think you’d like him a lot.“The 60-second elevator pitch for the Defender is ‘capability’,” he says. “This is not a sport utility vehicle. It’s a 4×4.”Interesting distinction, and not one I often make. What else is a 4×4, not an SUV? Search Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes G-Class and Toyota Land Cruiser and you’ll find their makers all file them under ‘SUV’, but Bräutigam has stripped out the term in Defender literature. Land Rover would like you to think this is the real deal, a Land Rover like no other. “Land Rover is a three-legged stool again,” he says.Is it like the old one? If you imagine Land Rover development had continued in, say, Porsche 911 or Honda Civic style, with regular updates and model cycles and some technology step during each one, is this where you’d end up?I don’t think so: the new Defender, one of the most capable vehicles on earth though it may be, is pitched where the previous Defender left off, as a premium want-vehicle, not as the need-vehicle that is how the original series Land Rover began its life.A 911 has always been a sports car, the Civic always a family runabout. But I think the Defender has changed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a thing. We can discuss its looks – I will as we go on – but the trouble with assessing design is not that you and I think differently, but that as familiarity sets in, even our respective views change. I already feel differently from how I did when I saw this car last year, for better and worse.The hardware, then, is where objectivity lies. Underneath the body, with its bluff back end, reassuringly familiar side-opening tailgate and three- and five-door variants badged 90 and 110, sits a derivative of Jaguar Land Rover’s big aluminium D7 architecture.Don’t think that means it’s overtly based on something else: the platform has a suffix for different models, so a Jaguar XE is a D7a and a Range Rover is a D7u and even a Jaguar I-Pace is D7e. But it means there are shared modules and crash structures and, notably, commonality in the expensive bit between the front axle and the dashboard.But the new Defender’s aluminium shell, in all of the body-in-white and not just the outer panels, is unique to this car. It sits higher than on any other Land Rover, too.Attached to the bonded and riveted shell are steel subframes front and rear, with independent suspension all round – wishbones at the front, integral link at the back. No, it doesn’t have a separate steel chassis any more and nor is there a solid axle to be seen, as you’ll still find front and rear on a Wrangler and beneath the back of a Land Cruiser, G-Class and every pick-up. But Land Rover claims a 29kNm/ deg torsional stiffness, a 900kg maximum payload and a towing limit of 3500kg (3700kg in the US).Engine options are 2.0-litre diesels with 197bhp or 237bhp, a 2.0 petrol with 296bhp and a 3.0 V6 with 396bhp. A plug-in hybrid is coming soon: “We didn’t want to make a last hurrah of a pre-Greta era,” says Bräutigam. “This is a justifiable car.” For now, though, we’re driving the most powerful diesel and petrol.All engines drive through a ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox. There’s no manual option and I doubt there will be. There’s an electronically controlled centre and rear differential and the Defender gets Land Rover’s Terrain Response system, so it is not a car with which you can choose to lock the differentials as you can in a Wrangler or G-Glass. But it does have a low-ratio transfer case and, remember, despite each wheel’s independence and the unitary body, it’s not an SUV. Well, we’ll see.Later, base models will have coil springs as standard, but early cars – we’ve driven two 110 variants, with 90s coming later – will run on air springs, one of a raft of technologies that serves to improve the Defender’s off-road capability. We’ll test that a lot here. “Once through these traffic lights,” I’m told at the start of the drive, “we won’t see Tarmac again for three days.”

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