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7 Aug, 2019 (All day) John McIlroy
Our first experience of the new Land Rover Defender shows that it’s ready for off-road action – and plenty more besides
The all-new Land Rover Defender isn’t just one of 2019’s most eagerly awaited cars; it’s one that enthusiasts have been dying to see for nearly a decade.
It’s expected to be revealed at next month’s Frankfurt Motor Show – but Auto Express has been allowed behind the scenes at JLR’s Gaydon test base to sit alongside engineers in a late prototype.
Of course, the Warwickshire facility isn’t the only place where Defender testing has taken place. Indeed, the engineers present – whose focus is on the durability side of the project – inform us that development mules have racked up a combined total of more than 750,000 miles of testing, from the frozen Arctic to dusty South African plains.
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Our car for the day is what’s known as an Extreme Events Sign-off Vehicle. This could mean lots of things for a Defender, but in this case encompasses the sort of prangs that occur when you’re taking avoiding action in suburban rat-runs, or thudding along rough country tracks. Our prototype has been based at Gaydon and driven into kerbstones at all sorts of angles, and thrown, at speed, across bigger gaps than any of the world’s widest bridge expansion joints.
“It’s basically impacts that are just below the threshold of the airbag cutting in,” Andy Deeks, the Defender’s Durability and Robustness Team Leader, tells us. “At least, they’re at that point in a Defender; some of its rivals don’t react in the same way.”
Do they put competitors’ cars through the same test, then? The engineers chuckle. “Oh yes. If you looked hard enough in the bushes here you’d probably find the remains of a Lexus that didn’t like it.”
We choose instead to have a quick look around our Defender for the morning. It’s not possible to discern the finer design details – they’re still masked by bits of cladding and eye-fooling patterns – but several key points do become clear. It’s sitting on 20-inch alloys but the tyres are 255/60s, allowing usefully tall sidewalls.
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The spy pics so far have shown a car that looks perhaps slimmer than the classic Defender shape. But up close, this is a chunky vehicle. The bonnet is reassuringly high, the suspension clearance in the arches clearly visible and the blunt rear end unmistakably Land Rover. It feels safe to say that, while this car will not be a pastiche of the old model, it will display clear lineage.
We make a final note as we climb into the car, which sits idling in the Gaydon test track car park: it’s clearly powered by a petrol engine. And a sticker in the window points out that it has hybrid technology on board.
We can’t discount the possibility that there’s a plug-in charging flap hidden under the disguise somewhere, but our gut feeling is that this five-door example is a 110 with 48-volt electrification. Quite a technological leap from the old model, then.
You climb up into the Defender, just as in its predecessors, but even amid the yards of fabric disguising the dashboard, and the extra buttons of this prototype, it’s immediately evident that once you’re aboard, this will be a much more civilised environment than in the original.
Time is tight, so the Land Rover team make a beeline for the area of Gaydon’s off-road course known as ‘Developing World’. We’re told it’s not the harshest environment, but a section of road where you can get up to the sorts of speeds where potholes, dust, mud and water can present immediate threats.
The route to get there along the access roads reveals more about our car. The engine is a four-cylinder, so based on information that has already leaked, it must be a P300 Ingenium turbocharged petrol, producing 296bhp and 400Nm.
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As with every new Defender, the gearbox is an automatic, accessed by a stubby, short lever in the lower centre of the dash. Even five minutes along some of Gaydon’s broken tarmac is enough for us to tell you that this Defender is a world away from the car it replaces. It’s comfortable, compliant and easily on a par with many a family SUV. And the Ingenium engine is remarkably refined by any car’s standards, let alone those of a Defender.
On the gravel, the Defender feels even more at home. We’re doing north of 40mph on a rutted road and yet the air suspension is soaking up the high-frequency stuff, keeping all but the worst judders away from the cabin occupants. It’s deeply impressive – especially when this is the area where the Defender probably faces the biggest crossover with ‘conventional’ capable SUVs.
We ask how the new car compares with previous Land Rovers in the really boggy stuff. “Well, look at it this way,” Deeks tells us. “We’ve had to reprofile the off-road development route at Eastnor (Land Rover’s UK facility) because it wasn’t enough of a challenge for it.”
Air suspension seems like a potential weak point on this most analogue of automotive badges; has it given any problems during development, we ask? “Not really,” Deeks tells us. “The system had already been developed strongly for use in Range Rover and Discovery, so we knew its fundamental strengths. The chassis has required modifications – different bushes and ball joints, and we made the lower front control arms thicker and changed the material, too.”
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We increase our pace and dive into a water hazard, slapping this prototype into the murky liquid at an awkward angle. Water pours down through the upper door seal, soaking my notepad – the engineers aren’t amused. They pause for a brief conflab, then someone jumps out to inspect the passenger door. It turns out that the aerial lead for our temporary radio set was fouling the seal.
With the set-up tweaked, I’m told to expect a repeat run through the water, with even greater commitment. This time we build up speed long before the water, and stay dry long after the sort of splash that would stop many proper 4x4s, let alone a soft-roader.
If this is the sort of abuse that our car has received, then I’m inclined to feel a pang of sympathy for it. But on-road action is only part of the story. Land Rover also has a jig that tortures a car in half a dozen directions, 24 hours a day and seven days a week, for up to eight weeks at a time.
All too soon, though, it’s time to return to Gaydon’s control tower. We’d expected the Defender to be able to plunge through water and soothe out the pock-marked gravel road, but what impressed us more during this brief flirtation was how rounded a car it is – how much extra breadth there is to its abilities.
The new Land Rover Defender has the potential to be the general family do-it-all that the Discovery 4 used to be, not just an agricultural workhorse. That could make it even more significant than first anticipated.
- Model: Land Rover Defender 110
- Price: TBC
- Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
- Power/torque: 296bhp/400Nm
- Transmission: Eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive
- 0-60mph: 8.5 seconds (est)
- Top speed: 120mph (est)
- Economy/CO2: 30mpg (est)/225g/km (est)
- On sale: Early 2020