Can and will Land Rover replace the Defender?

August 23, 2011

It’s got a radio but no-one ever switches it on because the cabin noise levels make it useless. That same cabin is cramped, there’s nowhere for the driver’s right elbow to go, the heating and ventilation is rudimentary, the ride is dubious, the performance is pathetic, its economy is nothing to write home about and its turning circle is laughable.

INP Media's mighty Defender 90 Pickup

It is, of course, the Land Rover Defender, of which INP Media’s pick-up is a less than shining example.  By any and all independent and unbiased views, the Defender is a dreadful dinosaur. Objectively it’s the worst in class by a long chalk.

And yet it’s one of the most likeable vehicles on the road. It’s fun to drive precisely because it’s so slow, so ponderous and so clunky. And strangely, it does reward precise – i.e. good – driving.

You have to anticipate not just traffic conditions but also road conditions – with the Defender’s cartspring suspension, a bump in the road taken at speed can easily result in a bump on the head as skull meets cabin roof.

You also need to change gear at the right time to get the best from the coarse diesel engine. And double declutching works wonders on downchanges. Get the input and output speeds accurately matched and, once on the move, there’s no need to use the clutch at all on either up or down changes. I recently left Effingham in Surrey and didn’t touch the clutch pedal again until I had reached Itchenor in West Sussex – all of 56 miles up and down hills and with many, many gearchanges in between. It’s not the same as walking on the moon, scoring a century before lunch at Lords or putting on a Green Jacket at the Masters, but it was a small triumph nonetheless.

For 2012, the absurdly Photoshopped Defender get a new, cleaner engine

But in its present form the Defender can’t go on forever. The latest model has just been fitted with a new EU5 2.2-litre diesel engine. This brings greater claimed levels of performance and refinement to the 2012 Defender. Apparently the smaller capacity engine delivers the same power, torque and economy as the 2.4-litre unit it replaces but makes this the cleanest Land Rover Defender yet produced.

The newer Defenders also have an interior much improved from the basic layout in our 2004 INP Media truck. But it still doesn’t offer airbags and ultimately, in just the same way that you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, you can’t make a modern vehicle from one whose design harks all the way back to the 1948 Land Rover original.

At Frankfurt next month, it’s reported a new Defender concept will be shown, but however well it is received, Land Rover’s bosses have a massive decision on their hands. In short, will it be possible to replace the Defender with a new model which not only pleases Land Rover enthusiasts (of which I plead guilty m’Lud) but which also offers serious competition to newcomers in the utility field, while at the same time can be sold at a price that will make its parent company any money?

Just how high the bar has been set by those newcomers is revealed by the Argentinean-built VW Amarok which offers a full-sized 5-seat cabin, all-wheel drive, advanced electronics, the largest loadspace in class (it will take a Euro pallet sideways), car-like refinement and features, buckets of power and torque, and UK prices that start at under £17K.

Built in Argentina, the VW Amarok shows the way forward

It’s an extraordinary machine, not least in one of its electronic tricks. It can be driven downhill off-road in neutral, with the driver leaving all the work to the Hill Descent Control, Electronic diff-locks, Anti-Slip and ESP. And if, despite all this electronic aid the car does start to slide a little, the driver can blip the throttle to get the wheels turning a little faster and therefore regain grip.

But hang on. The Amarok is in neutral so how can blipping the throttle provide more power to the driven wheels? The answer lies in the drive-by-wire design and in fact, the Amarok’s electronic brain is not actually providing more power to the driven wheels when the driver presses the throttle to ask it to go faster. It’s actually providing a little less braking power.

You won’t find any mention of this capability in the Amarok’s Driver Handbook, for obvious reasons, but it is an indication of just how competent, safe and effective it is in all conditions off-road.

Unlike the Defender, it's got a car-like interior

Land Rover’s heritage is of the Best 4×4 by Far and its reputation crucially depends upon its continued excellence on and off-road. If the Defender is replaced it will have to be by an extraordinarily good machine.

The good news is that the Range Rover, the Discovery4 and the new Evoque are all extraordinarily good machines in their own way. So let’s hope that Land Rover can and will replace the Defender as soon as possible.

Perhaps then, we at INP Media can enjoy a refined and comfortable workhorse, perhaps even with an automatic transmission so there’s no longer any need to test ourselves to see how far we can go without using the clutch.

 

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