The new hotness in off-roading delivers.
Dedicated off-road vehicles have always been a part of the automotive market. Right now, though, we are in somewhat of a renaissance for the art off-road vehicles. Off-road trims for trucks are currently big business, and even Jeep brought a new off-road truck to market recently in the Gladiator. In the SUV world, Ford is resurrecting the Bronco, Suzuki is taking the world outside the US by storm, and GM's electric Hummer promises excellent off-road prowess. Land Rover is also in the mix as it brings the Defender nameplate back to the roads and trails, and we're more than impressed with it. In fact, there's a solid argument for it being the best off-road vehicle you can buy right now. These are the motivations to that argument.
Dimensions are the key ingredients for an off-road vehicle, and Land Rover's engineers benchmarked the original Defender when it comes to angles. All the approach and departure angles either match or improve on the original. The approach angle is 38 degrees, it has a 31-degree break-over, and a 40-degree departure angle in SWB 90 configuration. The Jeep Wrangler does have a better approach angle by four degrees. However, when it comes to staying upright and getting past an obstacle, the Defender has a substantially better breakover and departure angle than the top of the line Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
The Defender has an entirely flat underside to avoid the snags that its maximum 11.5 inches of ground clearance can't avoid. It also boasts a more than respectable 35.4 inches of wading depth.
Just like the Range Rover and Discovery models, the Defender has a full-time four-wheel-drive system that can also act as an all-wheel-drive system on the road. The Terrain Response system is incredibly well-tuned and uses torque vectoring side to side and back to front to maintain traction off the road and improve efficiency and handling on the road. A transfer case allows the driver to shift into a low 2.91:1 gear ratio for control and improving torque over or through tricky obstacles. The system aids the Defender in having outstanding performance on any terrain, including thick mud, snow, and sand.
Even the base models come with automatic locking differentials that are quick to react to changing conditions. The center and rear units can act as either limited-slip or fully locking-diffs depending on speeds and conditions. There's no locking diff at the front, which relies on a system that uses the brakes on the spinning wheel to encourage power to wheel that has traction. Mixed with Land Rover's Terrain Response system, it keeps the Defender sure-footed on slippery tracks or across tricky rock sections.
That's right, the future is here, and a body-on-frame chassis and solid-axle suspension are no longer necessary for an off-road beast. For the Defender, Land Rover has developed a lightweight all-aluminum monocoque with a torsional rigidity that the company claims is three times more rigid than traditional body-on-frame designs. That keeps the weight down while providing enough structural rigidity. For those worrying about pulling out vehicles that have got themselves stuck, the Defender has a 6.5-ton snatch load through its recovery points. It also features a 370-pound roof load capacity on the long-wheelbase Defender 110.
As we've mentioned, the Defender features automatic locking differentials as standard as well as Land Rover's new iteration of its Terrain Response system. The Terrain Response system has modes for all terrains, including snow, sand, and rocks. In Auto mode, the system checks the Defender's conditions 500 times a second to appropriately choose its mode. It also comes standard with the two-speed transfer case, hill launch assist, and hill descent control. Surprisingly, the Defender also comes with Land Rover's 3D Surround Camera as standard to help navigate those tricky areas when you don't have a spotter.
The absolute base model also comes with steel wheels that owners won't be too mad about getting scratched up off-road, and the interior of the base model comes with hardwearing cloth upholstery and rubberized flooring.
Along with a monocoque chassis, the new Defender defies tradition by utilizing fully-independent suspension. It's a sophisticated system that uses double-wishbone front and integral link rear suspension. It gives the Defender plenty of suspension travel while keeping the ride smooth at speed or smoother over rough ground than more archaic setups. With the air suspension on the road, it's a cushioned ride that would make a more expensive Range Rover blush. On a dirt track, at speed, it feels no less comfortable to ride in than a Toyota Camry on a dimpled freeway.
The 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder with mild-hybrid tech is a peach of an engine as well. It's powerful and silky smooth to drive on the road and responsive and easy to control off-road.
The Defender, as either a 90 or 110 model, seats five as standard. The 110 can be optioned with a third row to seat seven. However, if you don't want to have a third row, you can also option a jump seat in the middle of the front row. It's an unusual feature outside of work trucks or vans, and a call back to the Defender's roots as well as a practical option for some. When not in use, the jump seat folds forward as an armrest and has cupholders to use. One thing you can't do, at least yet, is option both the third row and the jump seat to seat eight. Rumor has it that Land Rover is working on bringing an eight-seater option.
It's a strange thing to say about a Land Rover model these days, but the Defender isn't too expensive when you put it in perspective. When we compare it to a Jeep Wrangler, the Defender starts almost $8,000 more than the most costly Wrangler model. At $49,900, a base model Defender isn't cheap. However, the Defender isn't competing with base model Wranglers. A top of the range Rubicon trim model would likely edge out a Defender in extreme off-road conditions like rock crawling where axle articulation is stretched, but the Defender is a consummate all-rounder. Long drives on- and off-road are comfortable, whereas only the most hardcore of posers would daily-drive a Rubicon. It's also a better off-roader than a Range Rover that starts at $90,000 but still has comparable ride quality.
When you go to the top end of the Defender's trim level and options, you're in the same price range as a Toyota Land Cruiser. While the Land Cruiser is a more than capable icon, it's also getting old and is bogged down by an expensive-to-fuel V8 engine that delivers power numbers within single-digit figures of the Defender's 3.0-liter turbocharged six-pot with mild-hybrid tech.