We finally get our hands on the new generation Land Rover Defender in short-wheelbase 90 D240 S guise

It must be extremely difficult to reinvent an icon and to do so properly. Just ask VW about the ‘second generation’ Beetle, which failed to capture the hearts of the masses in the same way the original did. These were probably the challenges faced by Land Rover when it decided to completely redesign the world’s most famous off-roader for the new millennium.

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Retro but modern

At first glance, Land Rover’s stylists have nailed the brief. The new car is thoroughly modern, but somehow retro at the same time. One can immediately see nods to the original Defender. The headlamps are an immediate giveaway. As is the availability of the model in two different wheelbase options. The upright, boxy appearance has been left virtually untouched, apart from slightly softer edges. Design cues from the older version such as the side-hinged tailgate with mounted spare wheel have also been retained. Everyone who sees it knows exactly what they are looking at.

Land Rover SA kitted this car out with an Explorer Pack. This optional pack includes black decals, added wheel arch protection, mudflaps, a raised air intake, spare wheel cover and gear carrier. We found the carrier, mounted on the driver’s side rear window, impedes rearward vision down the flank. The Explorer Pack costs the better part of R63 000. A roof rack is also part of the package and the test unit also has a folding fabric roof (more in these two in a bit), which is also optional.

The Land Rover Defender 90 D240 S we had in our care was finished in a usually unflattering shade of ‘Kelvinator’ white. However, in this case, the colour, along with matching steel alloys, made it look like the most Defender-spec Defender of all. The lack of a fancy metallic hue or massive alloys was met with approval by all those we spoke to.

High-tech inside

A retro-modern feel and appearance continue inside. The cabin feels minimalist without a surfeit of buttons or dials. Two screens, one ahead of the driver and another on the facia, provide all vital info. They boast crisp graphics and, in the case of the infotainment touchscreen is fast-acting and easy to navigate. There are chunky dials for the air con and large buttons, spaced widely apart for the drive modes. This means you can operate all these vital controls with gloves on… neat.

The cabin feels utilitarian, industrial if you will, with exposed bolt heads and chunky grab handles. However, it must be noted that it feels premium thanks to soft-touch materials on key touchpoints. Adding to the air of modernity are no fewer than five types of charge points, of which we counted 12 outlets.

Roomy cabin

The Land Rover Defender 90 may have just three doors, but the large dimensions and general shape of the exterior means that there is plenty of space for occupants. A high ride height means that one really needs to hike yourself into the cabin but once inside it is extremely comfortable.

Even rear occupants have plenty of head and legroom. The trade-off, of course, is a rather small boot. Land Rover quotes 297 litres of luggage space. That number speaks of a tall, rather than deep, space. We had to fold down one of the rear chairs to accommodate our luggage for a night away over the recent long weekend.

On the move

From the captain’s chair, you have an elevated view that few other vehicles provide. The Land Rover Defender 90 takes a little getting used to in terms of manoeuvring as it has a long nose but a stubby rear. Thankfully the rear-view mirror doubles as a screen for a high-definition view of what’s taking place behind, and there’s a reversing camera.

Under the decorated bonnet, with a matt-black decal and checker plate, is a 2,0-litre turbodiesel motor. It produces 177 kW and 430 N.m of torque. The engine is smooth and well-exercised by the eight-speed automatic transmission. Acceleration from standstill is leisurely rather than brisk. However, the healthy torque output provides plenty of oomph for overtaking. 

Cushy ride

As befitting a car with off-road credentials the Defender 90 has a supple ride quality that bests just about anything else of this type. Large sidewall tyres and long-travel suspension travel make the 90 gentle in its reactions, absorbing just about every road imperfection. In fact, during our review period, we also subjected the car to some gravel tracks and the comfort levels hardly changed. 

We didn’t get to tackle any real off-roading, but we did take the Land Rover Defender 90 through gravel roads and a section of extremely deep sand. A die-hard Toyota fan happened to be seated alongside during the sandy section. He could hardly believe how easily the Defender ploughed through. He was convinced that we were going to get stuck as I didn’t bother to deflate the tyres at all.

There was one area that really grated us from a driving perspective: the was noise created by the roof rack. We think that the soft roof and roof rack are a bad combination. At times the noise was unbearable above 100 km/h. The sensation was amplified by a few particularly blustery days in the Cape. Even the booming good Meridian audio system could not overcome the cacophony above.

Summary

As far as preserving the hallmarks of the original Defender, we think Land Rover has done a great job. It has thoroughly modernised the nameplate while still retaining the hallmarks that built its reputation. In fact, it has significantly improved the recipe. 

There are those, and probably quite a few in SA, who will turn up their noses at the new-gen Defender. We imagine them saying “it’s gone all soft, has too many electronics and is no longer a ‘real’ off-roader that they can take across Africa”. They just need to look around in the traffic on a daily basis to realise how many people prefer their cars without the jiggly ride and with a full suite of connectivity.

The only real problem, for us, is the pricing. Don’t bother looking at the Land Rover Defender range unless your budget starts at a million rand. But that is an unfortunate aspect of the entire new-car market, high prices, which is a pity as we’d rather enjoy owning one of these.

Land Rover Defender 90 Fast facts

Model: Land Rover Defender 90 D240 S

Price: R1 095 600 (as tested R1 359 631)

Engine: 2,0-litre inline four, turbodiesel

Transmission: eight-speed automatic, AWD

Max power: 177 kW

Max torque: 430 N.m

0-100 km/h: 9,0 sec

Top speed: 188 km/h

Fuel consumption: 7,6 L/100 km