True Defender taps tradition and modernity

·5-min read

Nostalgia is one thing. Authenticity is quite another.

And Land Rover has used generous helpings of both to boldly reimagine its legendary, long-serving workhorse, the Defender.

It's no easy task to successfully modernise such a beloved, iconic model, let alone one that first hit the market in 1948, without losing its very essence in the process.

It's a recipe that has met with mixed success over the years.

Volkswagen's "new" Beetle, for instance, was a purely cosmetic exercise. They took the cute, bug-eyed looks of the original VW and plonked a body onto the underpinnings of its volume-selling stablemate, the Golf hatchback. After some early success, the Beetle was retired, for a second time - another bug on the windscreen of time.

BMW also reprised Britain's beloved Mini, and made a much better fist of it.

The new Mini worked, and continues to thrive, because it captured not just the cuteness of the original British "brick", but the very essence of it. And it's the dynamics, rather than the optics, that continue to drive its success.

Truth is, car buyers, even those who fall for gimmicky cars, aren't silly.

Land Rover has been smart enough to treat this all-new Defender as an evolution, rather than a tribute, and create a thoroughly modern machine in the process.

Of course, it will be another five decades or so until the new Defender can be deemed to have matched its predecessor in terms of longevity, timelessness or indestructibility.

But so far so good.

Like the original, the new Defender comes in two iterations: the bigger five-door wagon, called the 110 (so named because of its 110-inch wheelbase); and the shorter, three-door Defender 90, tested for this article.

The 110 was first to arrive in Australia earlier in 2021 - with the 90 following recently to complete the set.

The difference between the two is obvious by stepping inside. There's the jump seat squeezed between the two front buckets, making it perhaps the only car on market with three doors and six seats.

Fold that seat down and the two front-row pews enjoy an almost cocoon-like space, with the jump seat creating a deep arm-rest, complete with cup-holders and USB ports.

The styling is overtly rugged - tough plastics and synthetics cover the soft surfaces, the doors expose areas of painted surfaces and there are the same oblong skylights in the roof as in models past. The checker plate on the bonnet, the chunky grab handles and four-spoke steering wheel further emphasise the macho, retro vibe.

Yet the cockpit, for all its throwback appearance, is also modern, with a sea of USB plugs and power outlets (not very Defender), plus a dozen or so random storage spots.

There's a smart digital instrument display as well as the company's very good PiviPro infotainment set-up.

Perhaps the ultimate nod to nostalgia is the white-painted, unadorned steel wheels, with nary an alloy spoke or even a hubcap to be found - in a look straight out of the 1950s and '60s (very Defender). That's right, a $90,000 vehicle with painted steel wheels.

So what about the dynamics?

Before having even rounded the first corner this car starts to win hearts.

Once a rugged, stiff and rough experience, the 2021 Defender sits atop a car-like, alloy chassis, delivering a forgiving, civilised ride.

Beneath the bonnet is a punchy 3-litre, inline twin-turbo diesel (the D250 offered a gutsy 183kW and 570Nm) coupled with smooth eight-speed automatic and Land Rover's sophisticated Terrain Response off-road system (a $2210 option). Performance is willing (0-100km/h in eight seconds) yet it sips just 7.9K/100km. It will tow 3500kg unbraked.

The Defender 90's short wheelbase means it enjoys a tighter turning circle than many small sedans.

But its shortened gait also means the ride can occasionally feel a little choppy, pitching from front to back. It's hardly a game-changer as the Defender's ride is otherwise impeccable.

That's largely because of the air suspension that allows the driver not only to adjust the ride to be firmer or softer, but also the ability to jack the car up and down according to the conditions.

The Defender barely fits a regular underground car park with a clearance of 1.9m, unless the ride height is dropped to its lowest level.

At the same time its shortened size makes it less of a handful in city traffic, or when trying to squeeze it into a tight parking spot.

What hasn't been lost is the sense that this vehicle can also hold its own with the most rugged of bush bashers. Few Defenders have ever been slowed down by knee-deep mud or sand and this one is no exception.

Niggles? Well, the back seats don't fold fully flat. Not even close, which means as a cargo carrier the car's not ideal. It has a sunroof, but it's made of canvas, so can only be seen through when the roof's open. No biggie, though.

The bottom line is that in this all-new Defender, money buys not just some cliched memory, but more than 50 years of constant evolution.

This is still a Defender to its bootstraps and it's hard to imagine it won't win over even the most rusted-on fans of the boxy, hairy-armed model that built its reputation.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER 90 D250 S

* HOW BIG? Surprisingly, with decent room in each of the six seats. But cargo space is limited.

* HOW FAST? With the latest version of the company's Ingenium twin-turbo diesel, it's a responsive and engaging drive.

* HOW THIRSTY. It sips a frugal 7.9L/100km. Very good.

* HOW MUCH? Base price for the Defender 90 is $90,326. The test car, with options including fabric sunroof ($4810), jump seat ($1853) and air suspension ($1309) pushed the vehicle's price to $108,388.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting