The all-new Land Rover Defender looks soft, but is it? We take one on an epic adventure through Namibia to find out.
Words and Images by Matthew Scott, Additional Images by Land Rover: Twenty hours into my flight to Namibia, the anxiety started to creep in. What if the all-new Defender sucks? What if the internet keyboard warriors, who haven’t seen or much-less driven the vehicle, are right? What if I’m flying around the world to drive a re-bodied Discovery?
When a car manufacturer goes through the trouble of launching an all-new model in an exotic location, nine-times-out-of-ten, it’s going to be average at best. But after the pilot alerted us that we’d have to buzz the dirt airstrip to check the runway for goats and other wildlife I started to realise that things were going to be different with the all-new Defender, we were actually going on a legitimate adventure.
The Defender In The Room
Let’s be frank, the all-new Defender is drastically different than its predecessor, and shares almost nothing in common. While there are certainly some design queues that pay homage to the former, the all-new model is…as you might have guessed, entirely new. And that’s a good thing, except for the fake diamond plate steps on the hood—meant to be a throwback to a common modification often done to the original model—those are bad.
But there will be luddites and purists who fail to look beyond the fact that Land Rover called it the Defender, and there is certainly an argument to be made that it could have been called something different.
Where The All-New Defender Stands Out
When the terrain gets rough, the 2020 Land Rover Defender rides better than any other stock 4WD I’ve tested, over almost any surface. It’s better than segment competitors like the Jeep Wrangler with its softly-sprung solid axles, and it’s even better than the desert-bashing Ford Raptor and its three-inch diameter Fox internal-bypass shocks.
It is only when you get into the Wrangler Unlimited and Raptor’s respective party trick areas that you start to see them pull ahead. Obviously the Wrangler is more capable in technical rock crawling and the Raptor far-better prepared for high-speed desert driving. But after back-to-back full-on trail days, it is the Defender which has the largest spectrum of capability, and the greatest comfort.
I didn’t expect to write that sentence. I figured that Land Rover had merely jacked up the ride height of the Discovery, fitted a slightly taller tyre and called it a day. I didn’t expect massive, hydraulic control arm bushings, multi-stage airbag struts, and multi-link independent suspension. I expected it to ride like so many lifted independent suspension vehicles do—like they are on stilts. I didn’t expect class-leading ride quality regardless of the suspension height you selected through the Terrain Response System. It also benefits from being able to use that extra ride height up to 80km/h, an improvement over previous Land Rover models fitted with airbag suspension.
That impressive ride quality sets the rest of the tone for the all-new Defender—it’s perhaps the most-comfortable way to travel off-road in mildly technical terrain. Performance over undulating boulders and rocks is impressive, with the suspension reacting hundreds of times per second to the current conditions. The Defender is nothing less than surefooted and inspires confidence in everyone from the most-novice weekend warrior to the professional off-road driver; though those with more experience may find the driving experience a bit more “digital” than they’re used to. In addition, the Defender has a payload capacity of more than 900kg when properly equipped. That’s full-size truck territory.
Where We’re Concerned
Historically speaking, Land Rover doesn’t have the best reputation for reliability, but it is important to know that aside from a few pre-production issues I experienced, the Defenders I personally drove in Namibia gave me zero reason for concern. Reliability on the other hand is something that has to be earned with time, so I cannot comment on that. It is worth noting that as a brand Land Rover is much more reliable than it used to be, currently echoing the golden era of reliability for Toyota, according to America’s Consumer Reports.
There are a lot of unproven concepts on the Defender—it can tell you how deep the water is you’re about to wade into, and thanks to some tricky camera work, you can even see through the hood; which is a handy feature in technical terrain. But it’s the concept of a first-generation, mild-hybrid engine that’s also electrically-supercharged and turbocharged doesn’t strike confidence in the eyes of someone who would be using the all-new Defender for serious field work.
But that is going off-of the assumption that new technology isn’t reliable—the latest cell phones rarely have quality issues, so let’s hope the swan-song of the internal combustion engine, and its ancillaries are up to the job. Let’s be clear here—the ball is well-and-truly in Land Rover’s court. They’ve made a fantastic, durable machine but how well it will withstand the test of time rests on their shoulders alone.
Proving Its Mettle (Dirt Road Performance)
After ensuring there weren’t any goats, or springbok, or giraffe on the runway, we touched down to a surprisingly smooth landing on the dirt strip in Opuwo. Just outside of the plane sat five pre-production Defenders outfitted with the latest in proper exploration gear—recovery boards, extra fuel cans, shovels and communications equipment—all attached to the factory roof rack. The new machine certainly looks the part with available side ladders, storage cases, and even a factory raised air intake that we’d end up putting to legitimate use.
After the pilot killed the engines and the dust stopped flying, I grabbed my duffel and walked over to my Defender. It sounds like a tiny detail, but I’m so happy they kept the one-piece side-opening rear door, just like the classic models have always had. Not only does it provide a purposeful place for mounting your spare tire, it also makes the back of the Defender easy to access with a single hand, no matter if you’re carrying expedition equipment, or the groceries.
The route ahead pitted the Defenders against what might be the world’s most grueling test—a combination of automotive journalists with license to use-and-abuse and remote Northwestern Namibia’s rugged terrain—including one of Africa’s most-iconic trails—Van Zyl’s Pass.
Our campsite for the night was over a hundred miles away as the crow flies, and we had Sundowner drinks waiting for us—so progress was essential. But I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked down. On a closed course section of Namibia’s finest corrugated gravel, we were cruising near triple-digit speeds while having a casual conversation about our jet lag; at which point we decided it was best to slow down as neither of us could tell an Oryx from a Kudu, and when they say road hazards are real in Africa—they mean it.
The speed and comfort in which you’re able to cover ground in the all-new Defender is unprecedented. Modern day explorers who find themselves on rugged dirt roads in the middle of nowhere more than they do the Rubicon Trail need to take note of the Defender. Hands-down, it’s the most comfortable way of getting from A to B in the backcountry.
Van Zyl’s Pass (Technical Terrain Performance)
If there is a road in Africa, there’s a reason. Van Zyl’s Pass was constructed in 1965 by the former Commissioner for Kaokoland, Namibia’s most-remote province. Shortly after its construction finished, Namibia found itself at war and the route was never fully developed, leaving it as a technical challenge for those looking to prove their skills in the most-remote environment imaginable.
While Van Zyl’s Pass may not be as technical as the gold-standard Rubicon Trail, it is also a two-day drive from the nearest first-world hospital in Windhoek, the nation’s capital, bringing with it an entirely different set of risks and challenges.
We were camped just a stone’s throw from the trailhead that night and were thrown straight into the thick of it with a nasty obstacle that saw the right front of the Defender drop into a massive hole while already at a steep angle. In my rearview mirror I could see the back tire lifting up in the air, but from inside the cab I was fairly well-isolated from how much work the vehicle’s systems were doing on my behalf—this is a machine that inspires confidence, though at the cost of driver feedback.
A variably-locking rear differential is fitted as standard to the all-new Defender, along with a center differential lock, but some internet warriors have complained that the Defender isn’t equipped with a front locking differential like the Wrangler Rubicon or Mercedes G-Class. None of this actually matters to anyone actually out exploring and seeing the world’s remote places.
The Defender’s traction control is class-leading, minimally intrusive, and quick to react, thanks to the the now customisable Terrain Response system that allows you adjust everything from steering feel to throttle sensitivity. Sure, you can’t go and tell the system to completely lock your differentials, but in my opinion, that binary school of thought is out-dated. What if I don’t want my differential completely locked because I want to be able wiggle my way through obstacles and actually be able to turn?
The Defender allows you to approach technical terrain like a grand master in a chess match, unlocking moves that would otherwise be impossible to all but those with professional experience. If you had traditional locking differentials, you’d have to wait (and hope) that they instantly lock and unlock at your command, something they do not often do.
Within less than a hundredth of a single wheel rotation, the Defender’s traction control system was able to apply brake pressure to prevent wheel spin and enable traction on the more challenging sections of Van Zyl’s Pass. Terrain Response communicates with the suspension which is capable of both cross-linking the airbags to allow it to function as if it had a solid beam axle—another reason the Defender is so sure-footed.
Overall, the Defender exceeded my expectations on technical terrain, but let’s be realistic, if you’re buying a new vehicle for the sole purpose of turning it into a rock crawler, you’re going to, and should, buy a Jeep Wrangler. If you’re an explorer who doesn’t want to turn back when the going gets rough, then the Defender is all aces.
Skeleton Coast (Mud, Water, Sand)
My time in the Skeleton Coast is one of juxtaposition. It is of drought and deluge—feast and famine. Dotted with thousands of shipwrecks and the haunted stories of those who didn’t survive the harsh environment, it is one of the least-accessible places on earth—with entry permission for our adventure granted solely due to Land Rover’s ongoing charitable and conservation work in the region.
Just like the shipwrecked sailors of the 1800s, the consequences of failure here would be immense, but the Defenders didn’t have any major issues, carrying us in the upmost of comfort from our overnight stop to where our route entered the dunes heading east towards the ocean. It would be hard to imagine a more barren landscape—sand for miles, covered in traces of lichen with the occasional animal carcass to be found—undoubtably a victim of the lions that have recently moved into the park in hopes of finding nutrition during Namibia’s 100-year drought.
The rains had just begun further inland, with the local Himba tribes who mostly live traditionally off the land, awash with the excitement that meant easier times ahead. But for us, it meant an unpredictable drive up the treacherous Hoarusib River Canyon, a roughly fifty mile long dry river wash that we’d heard might not be so dry. And it wasn’t—but that’s all part of the adventure.
You couldn’t imagine a worse environment for a pre-production vehicle, especially a Land Rover Defender. Dust. Mud. Sand. Water over the hood. Repeat. We would be wearing all of them in triplicate had we been in a classic Defender. We must have had over a hundred water crossings that day, and let me tell you that the Defender didn’t have a single issue. Sure, we had to pull out the winch, we had multiple tire failures, and we lodged a rock in the brake caliper. But it was real four-wheel driving—this is the kind of stuff that is supposed to happen.
In the dunes, the P400 inline six cylinder engine was brilliant, and being a mild-hybrid there’s no lack of instant torque to get the ball rolling. And since it is simultaneously turbocharged and electrically supercharged it had this weird combination of lag-free high-RPM power that was needed to get through the kind of hellish mud that can only happen after it hasn’t rained in a decade. If the engine proves to be reliable, Land Rover has a winner on their hands.
The class-leading departure angle of 38-degrees meant that we could drop-off freshly washed out ledges into streams without worry about slamming the back end, and the adjustable suspension meant that we could crank up the ride height for those extra-scary muddy water crossings. Frankly, I’m surprised we made it through them all, the Defender really has the capability of putting power down in a controlled way that few other vehicles can match.
Somewhere in the Hoarusib River Canyon, a place I never thought I’d be, driving a vehicle I never thought I’d see, the all-new Defender finally made sense to me. It isn’t supposed to be a replacement for its former self. It’s supposed to be an all-new vehicle for an all new world—for an all-new buyer.
The only thing that remains the same? There’s no finer way to travel the world than behind the wheel of a Land Rover Defender.
Should You Buy It?
If it turns out to be reliable, I can’t think of a vehicle I’d rather take on a legitimate expedition. It is powerful, comfortable, and depending on the engine selected, economical. While there are more time-tested vehicles available, none would be able to get the job done with a better balance of efficiency, safety, and comfort, while carrying more than anything else in its segment.