The new Land Rover Defender has now done over a million km in testing
It’s not launched yet but already the UK’s most eagerly-awaited new car is earning its keep in remote parts of Africa. What else could it be but the reborn Land Rover Defender?
Today, April 30th, is the 71st anniversary of the Series I’s world debut at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, and a day down in fans’ diaries as World Land Rover Day. So it’s apposite that Land Rover is taking the opportunity to build the anticipation around the all-new model, ahead of its world premiere in the autumn.
But what is it doing in Africa? The camouflaged prototypes charging across the Kenyan savanna are doing their bit to save the elephants by working with the brand’s conservation partner, Tusk Trust, on some real-life field testing. A side benefit is that it all makes for a great photo op…
For what will be one of the world’s most scrutinised and high profile reveals when the covers finally come off, Land Rover understandably wants to ensure everything is as perfect as it can make it.
Already the development fleet has covered 1.2 million km (750,000 miles) in some of the hottest, coldest, highest and most remote and challenging environments around the globe. And that’s as well as battling against the mud at Eastnor Castle in Warwickshire and the stopwatch at the Nürburgring in Germany.
What does all this tell us about the new Defender, what is sure to represent the biggest break with Defenders of old in the model’s history? It will probably be true to say its predecessor, which ended production in 2016, will have more in common with the 1948 original than it will with next year’s new one.
Alas at this stage Land Rover is confirming few details but we can glean plenty from the pictures and from what the company has previously intimated about the reinvention of such a beloved icon.
It is perhaps easiest to say what we believe it will not be: a retro interpretation of a classic trading on past glory. There will be nothing of the pastiche about the new one. It will have neither the separate chassis or solid rear axle which defined the old one, what had become by 2016 a cramped vehicle with awkward on-road manners. It will also not be built in the UK.
Instead Land Rover wants us to look forward and think modern, premium and hi-tech – as well of course as unstoppable in the rough and boxy enough to be instantly identifiable.
Even with its camo on, it does look boxy. The screen is raked back at a faster angle than the old one and noticeably curved – revolutions for the Defender in themselves. But the expanse of flat bonnet, with no apparent “turrets”, the flat roof, vertical tailgate and squared-off front end all speak clearly of form following 4x4 function. As does the long wheelbase and short overhangs for what are likely to be among the most impressive approach and departure angles in the off-road business.
Note too the spare wheel mounted at the back on the side-opening tailgate. Such tailgates might not be fashionable but they can’t be beaten for wide, step-free access into a flat rear deck, a likely important ingredient in what will inevitably become a diverse range of Defender variants.
The pictures also show Land Rover's signature air outlets aft of the front wheels and far from flush side glazing, in what is perhaps a nod to its predecessors with their riveted aluminium skin. Instead of a ladder frame chassis underneath expect a version of the Discovery’s monocoque platform complete with its independent suspension and electronic aids – step changes which should, at a stroke, revolutionise how the new Defender drives on-road and its crash worthiness, the latter being crucial to meet crash regs in countries like the US where the old one could not be sold.
The pictures clearly show two wheelbases, a three-door 90 equivalent and a five-door 110. Other versions – extended wheelbase, soft-tops, pickups, multiple-seating arrangements, utility models, luxury variants and even models with electrified drivetrains – have all been speculated upon and are likely at some point, though probably not immediately. The new Defender will likely be petrol or diesel powered at launch. In a departure, all models will be built at Land Rover’s new plant in Slovakia.
Apart from shaping up as a far easier and more comfortable drive, the interior is in line for complete modernisation. Land Rover is saying nothing officially on this but a picture of the dashboard – showing high-mounted auto gear selector and infotainment screen – previously teased on social media gives a flavour of what we can expect.
With camo on, the shape of the new Defender appears deceptively simple and it is clear a lot of its character, including a contemporary take on its design heritage, is yet to be revealed. Its proportions and stance, though, already look Defender-ish.
Ultimately how well it succeeds in translating the classic Defender appeal will be perhaps its biggest test; unlike Mercedes with the reborn G-Wagen, Land Rover has not after all reverted to a tracing paper copy of the old one.
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Meanwhile, if you happen to be anywhere near the 14,000-hectare Borana Conservancy reserve in Kenya keep an eye out for camouflaged prototypes doing what Defenders do best: towing huge loads, wading through rivers and climbing mountains.