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New Defender: The Namibia Road Tests

  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Apr 2, 2020

New Land Rover Defender In Namibia

 

In February, Land Rover hosted some major automotive journalists on an expedition across Kaokoland, in the northwestern corner of Namibia. Visiting iconic locations like Van Zyl's Pass and the Skeleton Coast, it was the first time a large number of journalists got their hands on Defenders off-road for a proper off-road adventure. On March 25th, the embargo on sharing driving impressions lifted, and media around the globe dropped their stories.

Though some people had driven the Defender under controlled conditions at the 4xFAR Festival in California in January, and several journalists have done some on-road and light off-road driving in the UK, this was the first time they had taken one on an expedition. So, in the grand style of Land Rover vehicle launches, large sums of money were spent, special things were arranged, and the Defenders took to Kaokoland.

The expedition began in the town of Opuwo, several hundred miles north of the Namibian capital of Windhoek. It then proceeded through nomadic villages to Van Zyl's Pass, a narrow rocky descent named after Ben van Zyl, a government official who built the track in the 1960s. Van Zyl's is one of the most iconic and difficult off-road tracks in Namibia and is known worldwide. They then transited the flatlands at Marienfluss, where the drivers got to see just how well the Defender performs on washboard.

Next up was the Skeleton Coast, a rugged and harsh land on the Atlantic Coast on the north end of Namibia. Before motorized boats came around, it was easy to wash up on the beach here in the surf, but not so easy to beat the pounding waves to get back to sea. A grounding meant walking hundreds of miles overland to safety. Though it's named after the remains of whales that washed up as a byproduct of the whaling industry in the 19th century, it also is the final resting spot of many rusting hulks of grounded ships. Finally, the expedition wound their way back to Opuwo.

So, what did the press think after taking the new Defender on this long and arduous trip? Well, they seemed mightily impressed, from reading the articles.

 

New Land Rover Defender Interior

 

The one thing that can really make a difference on an overland expedition is storage, and when it comes to the interior of the Defender, everyone gave it high marks. The dashboard is a large tray, similar to a Series truck or earlier classic Defender, and even the central display screen has space behind it to tuck things. The edge is a padded grab handle, too, to make it easier to hang on in the tough bits. The center console (where equipped -- you can go without if you want for a pass-through to the back of the truck, or you can get a flip-up third front seat) has space to store various radio equipment for trail use.

As for how the truck behaves off-road...it was best put by Andrew Collins from Jalopnik, who said "[I]ts defining characteristic in [the off-road behavior] department is being unremarkable. When you’re wheeling 10,000 miles from home and 1,000 from a hospital, unremarkable is exactly what you want."

Indeed, the new Defender doesn't have the rattles and creaks of the old one. Though this is a dent to its character and quirkiness, it's also created what Expedition Portal considers one of the best stock trucks ever for long-haul rough-road trips. "[D]irt roads is where the Defender 110 shines, easily presenting best-in-class ride comfort and low driver fatigue. It was not only comfortable, but it handled properly too...rotating the vehicle through corners, or holding a line at considerable speed through a gravel-strewed apex."

Although the traditional solid axles are now gone, the capability is not -- after all, Land Rover has been building air suspensions since the 1993 Range Rover and off-road-tuned heavy-duty independent suspensions since the 2003 Range Rover. Expedition Portal, which may be the media source that would have the most well-informed opinion on such things, also had high remarks for the Defender's air-spring independent suspension, operating with multiple bellows on each spring.

"The new long-travel, multi-stage, and cross-linked independent airbag system is certainly the best IFS/IRS we have tested. With the airbags being multi-diaphragm, they can increase running ground clearance by only inflating one bellow of the bag, which keeps the ride quality similar to the normal settings, but at a higher ride height. This greatly improved compliance and ride quality for the occupants. Being long-travel, even the off-road height still has enough droop travel to limit hard topping and head toss. There is also a cross-link valve that opens at low speeds, allowing pressure from the bag being compressed to transfer to the bag in the opposite wheel. This results in forced articulation, helping to keep wheels on the ground and the hood level, both contributing to driver confidence."

While the original Defender was derived by placing a Series-style body on top of a Range Rover Classic chassis, giving the relative comfort of that platform in 1983, the new one derives from the current Range Rover, one of the best-riding SUVs in history.

 

Land Rover Defender In Namibia

 

The new design also gives the Defender incredible off-road architecture. Although its approach angle is only 38 degrees, the break-over and departure angle (40 degrees and class-leading), and the 11.5-inch ground clearance in raised suspension mode beats all other stock suspensions in the 4x4 sphere, including the Wrangler Rubicon. The break-over angle, 28 degrees on the 110 and 31 degrees on the 90, are also best-in-class...oh yeah, so is the wading depth of 35.4 inches, which is over 5 inches more than the Wrangler can handle out of the box and 15 more than the old Defender, although it's on par with the modern Range Rover and Discovery 5 with which it shares architecture.

As for the styling, critics seem to agree that it's much better in person, and while it's clearly new, its lineage is instantly recognizable. Expedition Portal pointed out that it might be difficult to affix an aftermarket front bumper, considering the way that the intercoolers are set up on the vehicle, and while the rear recovery points -- closed-loop units mounted to the unibody on each corner -- are unparalleled, the front recovery point is a single central unit, more difficult to reach. The rear of the Defender, with its slab profile and more distinct tributes to the past model, seems to universally gather more acclaim than the front.

There were some comments on the Defender's performance, but quite frankly, in the scale of the whole package, not many, and they were somewhat conflicting. Car and Driver reserved some criticism for the sensitive brake pedal, laggy electric mild-hybrid torque boost on the inline-six top-tier motor, and the amount to which traction control could be defeated off-road. (Notably, Expedition Portal did not find the latter quite as problematic.)

As for electrical issues -- certainly a traditional hallmark of Land Rovers -- they were present, but may also be attributed to these vehicles being pre-production models. Car and Driver reported a few explosions of dash warning lights, cleared with a restart, and a draining fountain of washer fluid on one descent, which prompted Land Rover to redesign the reservoir cap.

Overall, the reaction to the Kaokoland Expedition was overwhelmingly positive, and considering all the changes, in both structure and style, the new Defender still passed the first media test with flying colors. Now, it just has to make its way to consumers, whenever that's possible in the current global condition.

Review Wrapup:

Expedition Portal

Jalopnik

Car and Driver

CNET

Automobile

Motor1

Motor Trend

Kelley Blue Book

Top Gear

Pistonheads

All photos courtesy of Land Rover, by Nick Dimbleby and Damian Blakemore.


  • Written By
  • Greg Fitzgerald
  • Adventure addict. '90s Land Rover daily driver. Historic preservationist. Personal vehicles: 1994 Discovery I, 1994 Range Rover Classic, 1961 Series II.
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