First, you notice the sheer size of the thing. It’s only when you’re standing right alongside the Land Rover Defender that you realise how big it really is. You swing open the door and feel its weight, then step deliberately up into the cabin.
The wheels are huge, and the tyres too, and the spare that hangs off the back of the side-hinged rear door looks and feels so enormous you wonder at the strength of those hinges. What exotic new alloy are they made of? The lightest Defender weighs 2261kg and when you see one in person, you’ll believe every kilogram of it.
But it’s curious – for all this car’s size, there’s actually very little room inside. The boot of the short wheelbase 90 model, for instance, is laughably small. Forget a pair of Labradors; you’ll get one mid-sized cockapoo in there at best, and the poor thing won’t be terribly pleased about it. The 110 variant is more practical with five doors and a bigger boot, but even then its stowage compartment isn’t exactly cavernous. Little wonder Land Rover has recently revealed the even longer 130 model.
Reverse-Tardis interior space aside, the Defender’s cabin really is expertly judged. There is just enough of the rugged flavour of an original Defender in the grab handles and exposed bolt heads to remind you that this isn’t one of Land Rover’s well-to-do luxury models, but a real off-roader. And yet, the fit and finish is excellent, the materials durable and the infotainment system far and away Land Rover’s best yet. You had to be almost masochistic to use a previous-shape Defender everyday or for very long journeys. This new version, meanwhile, is a pleasure to live with.
Although just how enjoyable the Defender turns out to be depends rather a lot on the engine fitted to it. You can no longer specify the 300bhp four-cylinder petrol turbo engine that was available at launch. That’s just as well, because it wasn’t really up to the task – against so much mass and such a vast frontal area, that modest little motor had to work its socks off to get the car moving along with any real purpose. It was a noisy business and if you averaged any more than 20mpg, you were clearly driving with the patience of a saint.
There’s a six-cylinder petrol powertrain producing 400bhp that will seem like the sweet spot to many, plus a thumping supercharged V8 with more than 500bhp. It’s rather a lot of fun, but few and far between are the Defender buyers for whom that roaring engine is the best option. Diesel has become about as fashionable as the Nokia 3210 in recent years, but the fact is a strong, torquey six-cylinder turbodiesel still suits this machine quite brilliantly. Lusty performance combined with reasonable fuel economy – and not the worst soundtrack you’ve ever heard, either.
There is a level of refinement, ride comfort and effortlessness here that original Defender owners would sneer at. But in their weaker moments, they would secretly crave some of that ease of use from their own cars. There are few places you would rather sit for a long motorway trudge in the winter months with the wind blowing and rain lashing against the windows. The Defender is like a port in a storm.
What’s perhaps most surprising about this car is how brilliantly it steers – you position it on the road not merely with confidence, but without even thinking about it. With alarmingly good body control given the size and weight of the thing, that pin-sharp steering means you can barrel along between the hedgerows like you’re driving something half the size.
This is, of course, Land Rover’s most capable off-roader, particularly with a set of very knobbly tyres fitted. It is so competent in mud, sand and gravel that the most enthusiastic off-road hobbyists would probably find it a touch dull.
It’s like a stripped-out track day machine that steers for you, hitting every apex lap after lap, but denying you the fun of doing that for yourself. The Defender finds its way along the most challenging terrain so effortlessly that you work and think no harder at its wheel than you do when driving around a supermarket car park.
The cheapest Defender is the Hard Top commercial model, which starts at £51,365. It’s rather limited in its utility for family buyers by only having two seats – if you’d like to take your kids along for the ride with you, you will need to fork out another £10,000 for a non-commercial model. Land Rover has never been in the business of underestimating how much its most affluent customers are prepared to spend, and so it proves here. If you were so inclined, you could drop £120,000 on a new Defender…
At its very best, Land Rover is very capable of building genuinely world-class 4x4s, and the Defender demonstrates that as well as any other. Although for your dog’s sake, please do consider the 110.
Dan Prosser is a renowned British automotive journalist and founder of www.the-intercooler.com