Land Rover’s reborn Defender is no off-road pretender

Bronco who? The 2021 Land Rover Defender leads the pack of off-road-ready SUVs

While the original Land Rover arrived after the Second World War in 1948, it was still very much a product of wartime thinking and ingenuity — do more with less. When it landed, the Landy was very much a bare-bones ride, but one with extraordinary off-road abilities.

Not all was good, however, as the original had 50 horsepower, a suspension that was the epitome of crude, and an interior not much better than that found in a horse-drawn buggy. Fast forward to today, and you have the latest Defender packing a classy facade and all the electronic trickery demanded of a multi-faceted SUV.

We recently covered its minimalist yet still luxurious interior, its on-road attributes, the versatile nature of the design, and the ability to add two seats to the standard five-seat configuration — if you really wanted to. This leaves me with the oily bits, and what the Defender can do off-road.

It starts with a 2.0L turbo-four with 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. For many potential punters, this engine will be ample — it brings an 8.1-second run from rest  to 100 km/h. The better choice, however, is the 3.0L turbocharged inline-six that works with a mild-hybrid belt alternator/starter setup and a 48-volt lithium-ion battery. So far, nothing too radically different given the current trend towards electrification.

The twist is the engine also works with an electric supercharger. It’s designed to do away with the turbo lag most blown engines display in the early part of the powerband. In this case, when a heavy right foot and the gas pedal collide, the electric supercharger spins up to 65,000 rpm in half a second — rev the engine and you can actually hear the chargers high-pitched whine under the engine’s guttural tones. When blowing full gale, it feeds the need for boost until the turbocharger comes online and builds through the mid-range. The upshot is 395 hp, 406 lb-ft of torque, and a run from zero to 100 km/h in 6.1 seconds.

It fires this lot through an eight-speed automatic transmission that works with an advanced all-wheel-drive system and Land Rover’s Terrain Response 2 system. Most will likely leave it in Auto mode, as it has the ability to configure things without driver input. Along with numerous other drive modes comes Custom, allowing for a more experienced off-roader to tailor the engine, transmission, steering, and traction control in three stages, so there really is a drive mode for almost everything.

The permanent all-wheel-drive system controls the torque distribution on an as-needed basis and features a two-speed transfer case — when low-range is selected, the torque multiplication gives it the grunt to pull the skin off a rice pudding without breaking a sweat. On truly challenging surfaces, the torque transfer is balanced between the axles to maximize traction; adding the optional Electronic Active Differential brings real-time torque vectoring, controlling the flow of power between the left- and right-rear wheels.

All of this makes the Defender an extremely good plodder. Head off-road and it just keeps plodding along almost without regard for the severity of the terrain — the Defender 110 has an off-road ground clearance of 291 millimetres, along with 38-degree approach, 29-degree breakover, and 40-degree departure angles. It also has the ability to climb a 45-degree incline and wade through 900 millimetres of water. New to the Defender is a mode optimized for wading; as well as setting up the drivetrain, it ensures sensitive bits don’t get water-logged.

The true test came in the form of an off-road jaunt that saw the Defender climb, clamber over, and otherwise make light work of the muck along a gnarly drive route. Yes, the wheels slip and slide as they scramble up steep grades and across muddy ruts, but everything is very much in control. It was more of the same through moguls and a side-slope that tilted the Defender to an unnerving degree. These obstacles proved to be little more than minor hindrances to forward progress.

One big off-road plus is Defender’s camera system. Edging up to a precipitous drop while looking at nothing but an up-close view of the hood always leads to an unnerving pucker-factor, but the camera allows you to see “through” the hood and at the terrain — knowing what’s there, even though it’s hidden by the body, certainly inspires confidence. It can also shows 3D exterior views of the Defender that can be rotated. It’s all heady stuff, but the lone nits proved to be the brake pedal — a little too grabby for my liking — and a shifter that needs a push-button to switch between drive and reverse, and vise-versa.

Yes, I did wonder who might actually use this off-road craziness, but anyone shopping the Defender needs to know its abilities are real and not just marketing hype. Think of it as not having to blow off every car on the road just because you’re behind the wheel of a Porsche Taycan Turbo S.

Normally, this sort of off-road ability comes at the expense of on-road civility — think Jeep Wrangler. That’s simply not the case with the Defender. First, the lightweight aluminum monocoque framework gives the long-travel air suspension and adaptive dampers a solid base of operations. Second, said suspension has the ability to raise the ride height when off-road or lower the body by 40 millimeters to ease ingress and egress. Beyond this, the computer-controlled suspenders monitor wheel and body movements hundreds of times a second, meaning the setup is doing the right thing at the right time.

The resulting on-road ride gives the Defender the sort of compliance and quietness that would not be out of place in a Range Rover. On the flip side, body roll is limited to a handful of degrees, even when pretty serious liberties are taken. Throw in a connected steering feel and a series of corners actually becomes something to look forward to — unlike the original, which left the driver with white knuckles.

The original Defender was so off-road focused, it was a drudge to drive on-road. While the latest model has lost none of Land Rover’s heritage, nostalgia, and famed off-road ability, it has gained excellent on-road driving dynamics thanks to the judicious use of 21st-century tech. Bronco-schmonco, the Defender is the king of the off-road SUV castle.



Article Credit: Graeme Fletcher
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