Land Rover Defender (2020) International Launch Review

LR Defender5

Land Rover was brave enough to let motoring journalists loose in its all-new Defender on one of the world’s toughest 4x4 terrains: Namibia’s Kaokoland. Danie Botha put the eagerly-awaited off-roader through its paces to find out if it truly represents the successful rebirth of a 4x4 icon... 

There we were, in Land Rover’s new Defender. Like adventurers of yore, we were powering through mud, sand and water, clambering over rocks, tiptoeing past some desert elephants. This was a real 4x4 challenge – not a watered-down 4x4 media drive designed to showcase a vehicle’s specific features. In fact, of the nearly 800 km we covered, only about 3 km was on tarmac.

Just a week earlier, the Hourasib River, in Namibia’s Kaokoland, had been in flood. Before the rain, it had been a straightforward 4x4 sand drive in a dry riverbed. And now we were winching 110s out of the mud, forging through deep water, and changing off-road tyres that were destroyed on unseen rocks.

Unexpected flooding in Namibia made the usually straightforward river crossing a much tougher challenge.

Even from that early stage, it was clear that Land Rover’s goal – to endow the new Defender with authentic 4x4 abilities – had been realised. Designed for a global market, the Defender features Land Rover’s latest D7x light-weight aluminium monocoque construction – it is said to be the stiffest body structure Land Rover has ever created. The newcomer rides on an independent air suspension set-up (coil-sprung derivatives will only become available in 2021).

A low-range transfer case, hill descent control, up to 291 mm of ground clearance, excellent approach and departure angles and traction- and stability control systems are all standard. The Terrain Response 2 system is also part of the package and besides the normal choice between Auto, Mud & Ruts, Grass, Gravel & Snow, Sand and Rock Crawl modes, a new Wade function has been added specifically for traversing water crossings. The new Defender can cross water up to 900-mm deep, which is actually the same specification as the Discovery

Additionally, there are 4 custom settings with which the driver can set up the traction control, throttle response and other parameters to best suit their driving style and, of course, the prevailing conditions.

In the muddy, sandy river, we found that the Sand setting indeed worked best, the 8-speed automatic transmission felt better primed/in the ideal gear for those moments you need to punch through a particularly bad section. 

Impressive hybrid

Talking about punch: we got to sample 2 engine derivatives in Namibia. The first was the D240, a 2.0-litre 4-pot turbodiesel with 177 kW and 430 Nm that managed really well on the rocky terrain, and everywhere else too actually.

The D240 is certainly more powerful than the 2.2-litre turbodiesel motor in the last of the body-on-frame Defenders, but with all the extra weight the new Defender carries (it weighs 2.4 tonnes in its entirety), there were a handful of times we wished for "a few more horses under the bonnet". 

We spent the majority of our time in the P400 MHEV – a mild hybrid that delivers 294 kW and 550 Nm of torque. The numbers sound impressive, but the driving experience exceeds that by virtue of clever technology under the bonnet.

The engine is a 3.0-litre inline-6 turbopetrol, allied with an electric supercharger and Land Rover’s Belt-Integrated Starter Generator (BiSG), which is linked to a 48V system that charges fourteen 8Ah lithium-ion pouch cells. The generator harvests energy whenever you lift your foot off the accelerator and redeploys this energy by charging the supercharger (it can spool from 0 to 65 000 rpm in half-a-second) to massively bolster torque at engine speeds below 2 000 rpm.

The hybrid delivers instant power that makes it very responsive in deep sand.

The result is instantaneous punch, irrespective of how many revs the engine's pulling when you nail the accelerator pedal... the P400 emits a wail (through its snorkel), the straight-six howls and the Landy shoots forward like a sportscar. 

But the mild-hybrid derivative is not only very capable on sand, in mud and in water. The previous day we had conquered Van Zyl’s Pass with low-range engaged, the transmission in manual and the Terrain Response 2 system in Rock Crawling mode. The big P400 easily dispatched the daunting rock sections, the liberal ground clearance and 38-degree approach- and 40-degree departure angles really proved their worth. 

Thanks to the automatic locking centre- and rear differentials, it was simply a case of aiming true… the Defender sorted out the rest of the details, irrespective of whether any of its wheels were airborne – or not.

Interior tech upgrade

The new cabin is vastly more luxurious than the original.

The Defender's cabin features the latest Pivi Pro infotainment system; its touchscreen is located in the centre of the fascia and incorporates a number of 4x4 assistance displays, of which Land Rover’s All-Terrain Progress Control and ClearSight Ground View technologies are new. All-Terrain Progress Control allows you to select the "outside view" of your Defender – literally the outside view of your vehicle shown in the environment that you are driving.

The ClearSight Ground View technology is a little less gimmicky: it solves that age-old issue of not being able to see over your vehicle's bonnet when you're cresting a steep ascent (that's right, when the vehicle’s nose pointing at the heavens). ClearSight offers a surprisingly realistic and clear view of the route ahead.

The cabin is a near-perfect mix of retro-cool and modern functionality. The D240 gets analogue dials, the transmission lever lives in the dashboard next to the 4x4 controls, and various grab handles and stowage spaces are provided. The P400’s instrument panel is fancier, but it’s not nearly as high tech as you’d find in a new Range Rover Sport, for example. It’s all cool, modern and practical, but without being ostentatious.

All-Terrain Progress gives you an outside view from inside the car.

The 110 features a trio of seating configurations: you can have a 6-seater (with a jump seat between the front seats), a traditional 5-seater, or a 7-seater, with a pair of jump seats in the cargo area. 

There is plenty of room and space for the front occupants and the driver no longer needs to hang his right elbow out of the window just to fit in. Second-row passengers have it particularly good too, they're availed acres of legroom. A claimed 1 075 litres of cargo space is available (with the second row of seats in place), which is easily accessible through the side-hinged rear door, which also carries the spare wheel (in true Defender tradition). 

Another Defender tradition that has been incorporated is the Alpine windows in the roof in the back of the cabin...

Living up to the hype

Does the new Defender live up to the legend that the old one created?

The arrival of the new Defender is certainly one of the most anticipated motoring introductions of 2020. Does it live up to the expectations, however? 

Our pre-production units did a spectacular job in Namibia, considering the punches that they were dealt. We did get bogged down in the mud. We did lose a few tyres along the way. The heavily accessorised D240 did feel out of breath in some conditions. On its highest setting, the air suspension was no longer particularly comfortable on the rough stuff. 

At speeds higher than 80 kph, the air suspension automatically drops down to its normal height – which is not an absolute train smash in the new Defender (with its handy approach and departure angles), but not always ideal when you are attempting to crest big dunes at speed. Some punters may also rue the fact that there will be no manual gearbox option.

Steel wheels can still be specced, a classic nod to the original.

And there were some electronic glitches that the Land Rover technicians managed to sort out en-route by plugging in a laptop and clearing the errors.

Our trip formed part of Land Rover’s development programme, and the data accumulated from our units will be used to update the software on production models. That’s another Defender party trick: Software-over-the-air (Sota) technology, with up to 14 individual modules capable of receiving remote updates.  

That means that your Defender’s software can be updated while it is parked in your garage. And, if your Defender has a mechanical malady of sorts, it can send a report to your local Land Rover dealership before you even take it there, which ensures that technicians will have ample opportunity to order replacement parts (if necessary) ahead of time.

Local pricing

The new Defender 110 will be available in South Africa in June, while the slightly more affordable 90 will follow later in the year. 

The Defender 90 D240 AWD AT is expected to be the most affordable new Defender at R948 000 when it eventually arrives, but recent calamities across the world may still have some bearing on that asking price.

The Defender will initially only be available with the air suspension set-up – coil-sprung versions, which will probably be slightly easier on the pocket, will only follow in 2021.

The 110 will go on sale with 3 engine options: a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel mill with 177 kW and 430 Nm (D240), a twin-turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol with 221 kW and 400 Nm (P300) and the aforementioned clever mild hybrid that develops 294 kW and 550 Nm of torque (P400 MHEV). The top-of-the-range 110 is claimed to sprint from 0 to 100 kph in 6.1 seconds...

Steep base price may make the new Defender less attractive but could end up stealing sales from the New Discovery.


The new Land Rover Defender does indeed seem to be an icon reborn. It is as capable off-road as its body-on-frame predecessor, but it so much more accomplished in every other area, including comfort, safety, luxury, refinement, performance and looks. It’s the complete modern 4x4 package.

But, there is the matter of price, which may be the Defender’s biggest stumbling block. The 110 range, which goes on sale here, will start at R999 000 for the entry-level D240. The P400 MHEV tops the range at R1.5-million.

Those prices are for stock standard units, which aren't liberally specced on entry-level versions. Four accessory packs (Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban) and myriad optional accessories will further add to those asking prices.  

Unfortunately, the new Defender is no longer the quintessential 4x4 to discover the wonders of Africa or the world. Well, perhaps it is... if your name is Bill Gates. 

It remains a highly capable 4x4 and an extremely accomplished vehicle in its own right, but at the price you are more likely to spot it in the parking lot of a posh private school, or with a R200 000 mountain bike on a towbar-mounted carrier. You’d probably see some in game reserves and on established gravel tracks too.

Time will tell if the huge interest in the new Defender wanes or if the thousands of potential customers who expressed interest will actually put their (big wads of) money on the table. 

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