From Robbie Burns’ “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley” file, the plan for the Land Rover Defender was for Lady Leadfoot and I to take this latest iteration of the iconic Land Rover on one lap of Ontario.
Up to North Bay to visit relatives – socially-distanced, of course. Over to Sault Ste. Marie, and follow the Trans-Canada to Thunder Bay.
Head east to Cochrane, and hop on the Ontario Northland’s Polar Bear Express train to Moosonee, about as close to Hudson Bay as you can get by rail. (This part would reprise one of the great press trips of all time, which sadly, was restricted to American journos.) Drive to and hopefully dip the wheels into James Bay. Return to Cochrane, take 17 to Ottawa, visit our son, then return home.
Sadly, delayed availability of the Defender and the resurgence of COVID-19 in Ontario put paid to that plan.
But I did get a week with the truck, and enough time to get a feel for its capabilities. (BTW, those rugged off-road-ish pictures? That’s my driveway…).
The Defender has been out of our market since 2016. The new one has actually been under development for almost a decade, and is finally returning. A bewildering array of models and specifications are on offer, starting as low as $65,300 for the four-cylinder gasoline engine.
My tester was a Defender 110 (“110” means four-doors, “90” means two-doors) with the 3.0-litre Ingenium in-line six gasoline unit with turbocharger and mild hybrid electrification, generating 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Starting list is $76,000. I haven’t seen a detailed price sheet for my tester yet, but it seemed to have just about every box checked.
All Landies have an eight-speed automatic and of course full-time four-wheel drive with a two speed transfer case. This engine provides excellent performance, with 0-100 km/h given as 6.1 seconds. In high range, I found it maybe just a trifle too eager on initial launch, meaning you will need to develop a light right foot to make city driving calm. Don’t know what effect this would have in off-roading where gentle throttle application is often key to a successful ascent. To its credit, the auto stop/start feature to save a few drops of fuel in heavy traffic is one of the smoothest in the business.
The new Defender sits on an all-new platform, although some of the features – aluminum body work, tough-looking inside and out, state-of-the-art-at-the-time four-wheel drive technology, true go-anywhere capability – remain the same as ever.
If you have any experience with older Defenders, the first thing you note is that this new one is nowhere near as agricultural as its predecessors.
Yes, it can trace its heritage directly back to its progenitor in 1948, but it is a thoroughly modern vehicle with all the connectivity and high-tech features you could possibly want. And possibly much more. But it rides beautifully thanks to the air suspension that is standard across the board. You can adjust the ride height by simply pushing a button on the dash. “Max up” gives you better ground clearance when off-roading (enthusiasts will know what “38 degree approach angle”, “29 degree break-over angle” and “40 degree departure angle” mean; for others, they’re among the best in the business, meaning this thing will go just about anywhere).
“Max down” offers improved aerodynamics for better fuel consumption on the highway.
The four wheel drive settings are duck soup compared to how they used to be. Stop, select Neutral, click low range, and you’re done. Shifting back into 4×4 high is equally simple. Those boonies have never been so easily bashed. The hill descent control system that walks you down the steepest slopes can be shut off, but why would you? Get technology on your side.
Properly equipped, Defender can tow up to 3,720 kg, which is pretty substantial.
The high seating position, designed again for off-roading, means you have a better view of traffic in town as well. A rear-view camera gives a lovely broad depiction of what’s behind you without the rear seats or the spare tire mounted on the rear door getting in your way. Sadly, I am in the substantial percentage of the population – not sure how many of us there are – whose eyes simply cannot focus on a screen quickly enough for this to be a viable option. I had to switch to the regular mirror.
A wide variety of interior configurations are available, including a jump seat between the two fronts as an emergency extra. When not needed it folds out of the way to reveal a cubby bin and some extra cup holders. Never can have too many of those.
My tester especially looked the part with the “snorkel” air intake extension on the driver’s side. This is designed so that when fording deep water, the air intake is less likely to become a water intake, with serious consequences for the engine. Frankly, not an option I’d recommend to any but the most serious of those boonie-bashers, because it puts the air intake right near the driver’s left ear, and the intake noise can get annoying.
The interior decor was designed obviously for functionality, not prettiness, although handsome is as handsome does, and this one “does”. Matte-black finish everywhere reduces reflections. Grab handles everywhere too, which if you’ve done any serious off-roading you will appreciate. Lots of room – the tall roofline helps. I found the seats comfy and supportive.
As in all Jaguar Land Rover products (and all too many of their competitors) the shift quadrant is just plain wrong, in my opinion, with a push button for Park. Sliding the lever forward an extra notch is the obvious solution to this.
You also have to have your foot firmly planted on the brake pedal to activate the electronic shifter, which is probably some sort of safety feature but I found a hassle -especially in a tricky off-road situation where grabbing the correct gear in a hurry could be critical. This should be made easier.
At least they do the manual override properly – slide the lever to the left, then pull back to upshift, push forward to downshift.
There are roughly a million options and accessories you can spec to make your Defender truly your own. Among those fitted to my tester was a lockable box bolted over the right-side rear quarter-light window for carrying stuff you might not want inside, like your muddy boots or maybe the results of your fishing or duck hunting expedition.
A brief review like this can barely scrape the surface of a vehicle with as broad a bandwidth of capability as the Land Rover Defender. True, many of its owners will never challenge anything more difficult than a Home Depot parking lot in winter. It would require a back-to-back test at a place like Land Rover’s test ground in Coventry to see what this vehicle could do that “lesser” Land Rovers could not. For sure, it will go anywhere any sane person has any right to expect a vehicle to go, and well beyond that.
Still, for the dedicated off-road enthusiast, the new Defender has earned its metaphorical stripes. It delivers what its legendary predecessors always have, but in a modern high-tech manner which makes its capabilities available to a much wider audience.
Can’t wait to have the opportunity to tackle some real down-and-dirty…
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.