The new Land Rover Defender is unimaginably new. Stepping from an old Defender to the new version is like stepping from a farm cart to a moon buggy.
When Jaguar Land Rover issued the final curtain call on the old Defender in 2015, there was a wail of protests from enthusiasts in Malaysia and worldwide.
After a five-year wait for the new model, the L663, there was another cry of protest by fans who were outraged by scoop shots showing that their high-speed tractor had been replaced by a moonshot machine.
But now that it’s here and we’ve got a chance to test it, I think it’s everything that you never had before in your old Defender: comfort, safety, and technology. And of course, a stratospheric price tag.
What about off-roadability? Take that as a given. The new Defender comes standard with two stage air suspension. Even at full lift for off-road mode or wading, there is additional suspension travel available.
Rock-crawling on a fully extended suspension in “mud and rut” mode will usually mean a hard and jarring ride. Not in this new Defender though. When going to our campsite on a track passable only by 4×4 vehicles, there was no more of the thud and bump transmitted on rival air-suspended SUVs.
I wondered about the refined off-road ride and discovered a complex suspension system that redefines the term “multi link”.
In addition to the class-leading 900mm maximum wading height and 291mm ground clearance, the well-protected and flat undercarriage design allows this big vehicle to clear through a rut and rock section with a flair that proves its off-road credentials.
This is not a wannabe 4×4. It is a real 4×4 with low range and slow rock crawl speed. Note that Terrain Response 2 is available only as an option and this features an Auto mode that automatically selects the best of the 6 off-road modes.
For those who are not convinced with the reliability of air suspension, Jaguar Land Rover produces a hard-top version of the new Defender 110 with coil springs, but it is yet to be available in Malaysia.
Air-conditioning? No sweat
Let’s talk about comfort as in air-conditioning.
Series Land Rovers were hard to air-condition because air leaked in from everywhere including hot air from the engine. Heat wasn’t an issue in the English weather but it was a challenge for those in equatorial and tropical climes.
Because of the immutability of its 70+ years old design, it was difficult to find the space to install the air-conditioner blower. Some opted to install the blower in the front passenger seat and the result was a cold front passenger and a slightly cooked driver.
The new Defender has a monocoque construction which means it’s watertight and airtight and the engineers have, from the beginning, a clear direction to make this car as comfortable as possible in terms of heating and air-conditioning and elbow space for the driver. This brings it up to par with all the best SUVs in the world.
But is the world of motoring just about climate control? In the case of the old Defender, the seats were unforgivingly upright in the rear and a torture beyond two hours of occupation. The front seats were OK for short drivers.
In the new Defender, we have real seats for five passengers for all day riding comfort. We counted a variety of more than 3 power outlets including USB, USBc and lighter sockets.
A testing time in Melaka
We invited two female guests to join our team for a day drive to the historical city of Malacca for a highway and narrow-road town test.
Both drive a variety of cars – SUVs, sedans, and sports cars – but had never driven the old Defender. Not surprisingly, they were impressed by this new 4×4 on the highway, in city driving and off-road, where we encountered unexpected challenges.
The highway section from KL to Alor Gajah passed by pleasantly, riding high above the rest of the passenger car traffic. The 3.0 litre in-line 6-cylinder petrol engine developed by JLR is amongst the most modern internal combustion engines in the world, developing 400PS (394 hp) and 550Nm (at 2,000rpm-5000 rpm) and a mild hybrid system to regenerate power from deceleration forces.
In a commanding position
The driver’s seat of the Defender delivers the meaning of “command driving position”. You sit high above the rest of the traffic and the short bonnet – a feature of all the Land Rover models including the Range Rover – allows the driver a commanding view.
It’s a big car, but the dimensions are not intimidating. Driving, manoeuvering, and parking this boxy car is more intuitive than with other big SUVs that look like jelly moulds.
There’s a twin scroll turbocharger and the secret of the broad power band from 2,000 rpm to 5,000 rpm is an electric motor to spool up the turbochargers when engine speed is too low.
With that incredible engine power, highway driving is a breeze.
The new Defender passed with flying colours its test in the busy traffic of Malacca and through the narrow Jonker and Heeren streets.
The human dimension
Land Rover design has been about the honesty of the drive and the commanding driving position and these elements of human dimension are continued in the new Defender.
Finally, there’s the technology of 85 ECUs in the new Defender. Land Rover invented terrain-response and hill descent control and they haven’t stopped.
It all comes together in the new Defender as the magical view of what’s under the front tyres appears on the LCD screen as though the engine is transparent. This is what Land Rover calls the Clearsight Technology. Metaverse?
It was a bigger challenge than we thought driving the new Defender through the 4×4 only track.
While the rocks and ruts on the track had been well-travelled through by Land Rovers and other 4×4’s, the new Defender was wider and longer than the previous beasts. The rocks that we would normally have ridden over or squeezed through now were waiting to rip out the undersides and retracting side steps of the wider and longer new Defender.
Stuck on a rock with a puncture
If there hadn’t been all the hardware and software working at 500 times per second, the new Defender might not have been able to make it through so easily. Even so, we suffered a puncture when the car came down heavily while negotiating some nasty rocks and ruts and the sidewall of the low-profile AT tyre was clipped through between the rim and the rock.
There we were, with the RM980,000 all new Defender and a puncture, on an incline with rocks and sand for a working surface and beyond the reach of any regular back-up team.
This is where team-work started to happen. Reckoning that it could take hours, our video director organised a tarpaulin cover to keep off the drizzle while our camp chef served the Hainanese Chicken rice that he had pre-cooked.
Then with some judicious arrangement of rocks under the tyres and the adjustment of the Defender’s ride height, our chief driver and video director, who both happened to have helped in a tyre shop during their young schooling days, slowly and steadily jacked up the car and hooray … we got it changed just as the sun set and the shadows were getting longer.
During this time, we had to fetch things from the car. The doors were opened and closed several times and each time the side step would try to deploy against rocks that were obstructing. I was at first concerned that the auto side step would destroy itself, but as it turned out, it was a smart auto side step because if it sensed that there was an obstruction, it would simply not deploy at all.
Wading through the river
Crossing the river after that was another challenge because it had been drizzling the whole afternoon.
The river was murky and the current was fast flowing. This was not a time for Clearsight. It was back to the old basic technique of walking through the obstacle to know the depth and the terrain underfoot.
After judging that it was good to go, we crossed the river slowly using the new Wading Sensing programme. It was a cinch.
We had also been instructed to test the Thule roof-top tent and we were startled by an ominous message the following morning when we switched on the ignition: “Your car is low on battery” or words to that effect.
During the camping night, we must have opened and closed the doors of the Defender more than 100 times, fetching or storing things, and with the rooftop tent dweller also going up and down a few times.
The air pump must have tried to level the air suspension each time, leading to a low battery message the following morning. Fortunately, the Defender fired up at the first attempt. Perhaps the car should have its height levelling mechanism locked for the night once it’s been parked for more than 30 minutes.
JLR Malaysia imports only the petrol engine versions of the 2.0 litre and the 3.0 litre. While it also has a pre-owned selection of the new model imported from the UK to offset the worldwide shortage of new cars, these will only consist of petrol engine units.
Engine specifications (P400 test drive model):
The in-line six-cylinder Ingenium petrol, with mild hybrid (MHEV) technology, features both a conventional twin-scroll turbocharger and an advanced 48-volt electric supercharger, with a belt-integrated starter motor in place of the alternator to assist the petrol engine, and a 48-volt lithium-ion battery to store energy captured as the vehicle slows down.