Land Rover has launched the latest version of its iconic Defender, equipped with a new engine, gearbox and interior.
It has been nearly 60 years since the original Series 1 Land Rover rolled off the production line, and with an alleged 70% of all Land Rovers Series l, ll, lll and Defenders still running, it is one of the most iconic vehicles ever bolted together - literally.
The legendary reputation of the Land Rover was galvanised by pictures of emergency services bouncing through muddy jungles in Series IIs and British military forces blazing through disputed territories in Series IIIs.
Unfortunately, of late, reliability and build quality has been less than stellar; especially as a more sophisticated 4X4 market started enveloping the Land Rover Defender's once unique domain.
Reacting to market forces, Land Rover decided to eliminate the source of much of the Defender's reliability foibles - the TD5 engine - and replaced it with a new motor.
The Ford Transit panel van's powerplant was seen as the most sensible transplant, having proven its powertrain reliability by driving high mileages under full-load at the mercy of delivery drivers.
Displacing 2.4-litres, the inline four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine produces 90kW and 360Nm. Compared with the 2.5-litre five cylinder engine it replaces, power remains unchanged but there is an improvement in torque output of 60Nm.
American turbocharging specialists Honeywell-Garrett provided a nozzle-turbine device that spools up seamlessly at low speeds to virtually eliminate turbo lag, the bane of many fixed geometry turbochargers.
Subsequently 315Nm of torque abounds in a low rev threshold of between 1500- and 2700r/min and towing capacity is 3500kg.
Ensuring the new Defender can operate in 50-degree heat under high engine load conditions is an 11-blade fan, which has been fitted to ensure optimum cooling.
In conjunction with the new engine is a six-speed manual transmission, produced at the Getrag-Ford facility in Halewood. Staying true to the tested permanent four-wheel drive configuration of previous Defenders, the new transmission retains the H-gate transfer case shifter for engaging high- or low-range and the differential lock.
Importantly the new gearbox has a first gear ratio 32% lower than the previous one, whilst sixth gear is 32% higher, which translates into virtually unstoppable low-speed climbing power and more refined motorway cruising.
The transfer case is a Discovery ll carry-over, and driving new propshafts with improved geometry and a larger diameter clutch plate should yield better durability and a lighter shift action.
Although the new drivetrain changes are radical and welcome, the classic ladder-frame chassis and coil-suspension set-up has thankfully remained largely unchanged. With new springs and redesigned dampers, aided by revised castor-geometry, Defender retains its class leading approach- and departure angles whilst axle-articulation remains copious too.
Newish interior, really?
Overall cabin aesthetics are an improvement over the TD5 version. And with a new facia and Discovery-III sourced instrumentation, new Defender even has some flashes of modernity in its interior architecture.
A new ventilation system manages to increase cabin airflow by 50%. Only two of the six models come with a sound system as standard (90- and 110 Station Wagons). You will have to make do with the very audible windscreen wiper motors for in-car entertainment one the other five models. You still don't get roof-mounted grab handles though.
But the sum total of the newfangled drivetrain and suspension refinement is a vehicle that looks almost exactly like its forebear, but is more comfortable to drive, although "comfort" is a relative statement in the Defender.
The gearbox is much better, but will still shock almost anyone who has not driven a tractor, whilst the handbrake is still inexplicably mounted practically behind your left leg and there is still no room for your right arm when driving.
The driving position is terrible, and although Land-Rover is at pains to point out its proximity visibility advantages, the idea of traversing 2 000 km of harsh terrain bundled up in the driver's side door trim does not appeal to me.
And if you are taller than 1.8m it is impossible to get comfortable in the front passenger seat. Also, rear passengers will continuously stub their toes on the modular construction cross beam that the front seat runners are mounted on.
Fortunately all seats now face in the same direction, avoiding embarrassing stare down contests which were the bane of being stuck in the load bay area of the 90 or 110 station wagons on the old opposite facing fold-out seats.
Some comfort, mostly off-road
On road performance is ponderous, though one could argue that the competition is hardly any better. Having a sixth gear has made Defender appreciably quieter at cruising speeds in comparison with the TD5 though.
Dynamically, bar the 130 extended wheelbase models, it employs ABS and electronic traction control across the range,
Defender is still redoubtable off road. In first gear low-range with the differential lock engaged and constant throttle application to aid the operation of the traction control system it simply walks up and over any obstacle.
Awe-inspiring axle articulation ensures you always keep as much tyre surface (and traction) on the obstacle as possible. Vast approach (47- to 48.9 degrees) and departure (35.2- to 47.1 degrees) angles give supreme confidence in mounting obstacles.
The vehicle was very impressive on a water-drenched off-road course outside Krugersdorp, especially when demonstrating the electronically modulated anti-stall capability that allows one to really concentrate on steering inputs when negotiating very technical off-road obstacles.
The only shortcoming on the off-road driving portion of the launch was the windscreen wipers that made the most annoying noise imaginable when called into action to combat the many vicious rainsqualls experienced. Oh, and the doorknob broke out of its moulding when I got out at one point along the drive.
And this is the key issue with the new Defender: have the quality issues been addressed with the move to a more sophisticated drivetrain?
Defender still has many endearing features and apart from its bonnet power bulge, Land Rover nose insignia and the absence (mercifully) of those drop down air vents, looks identical to its predecessor.
It also has one of the most recognisable silhouettes within the entire off-road market place and a styling and proportional correctness that make the Japanese alternatives appear contrived in comparison.
Having been around for as long as it has also enables a new Defender owner to delve into a veritable treasure trove of aftermarket bolt-on accessories. And the off-road ability and interior hose-off cleaning practically is still as admirable as always.
Ford power should greatly enhance reliability, yet the absence of a front differential lock - which the Land-Cruiser 70 has - in favour of an electronic traction control balancing act with the rear differential lock goes very much against the utilitarian Land Rover design philosophy.
Loyal Land Rover customers will be thrilled at the upgraded interior and improved drivetrain of the new Defender since it is a noticeably better, slightly more refined package than the TD5 was. But why rational, brand-blind buyers will be wooed away from purchasing a Land-Cruiser 70 station wagon instead though, is hard to see.
90 Station Wagon R306 096
110 Station Wagon R349 056
110 Hardtop R302 940
110 Bakkie R295 920
110 High capacity Bakkie R304 020
130 Crew Cab R343 656
130 Chassis Cab R307 800