Based in Newcastle (North East England), Vera is a gritty UK crime drama that has Vera Stanhope, a cynical middle-aged female detective dressed in a shabby overcoat, methodically solving murders and frustrating fellow officers (think Columbo in female form). It’s an exceptionally well-written series with an added bonus that Vera drives a rather battered 1996 Land-Rover Defender 90 Tdi. 12,000 miles away, here in New Zealand, I found myself in the latest Land Rover Defender, no murders to solve but plenty to investigate.
The Defender can trace its roots back over seven decades to the 1948 Series 1 Landie and subsequent Series 2 and 3 (‘58 & ‘71 respectively), but it began coming into its own in 1983 with the 90 and 110 (numbers that referenced its 90 and 110-inch wheelbase). With its ‘go anywhere’ and ‘do anything’ robustness, the Landie has rightfully earnt its place as an off-road icon and deservedly been a place marker in the JLR (Jaguar Land Rover) line-up so it came as a bit of a shock to many when in 2016 it took a breather from the production line. Anyway, now it’s back and according to Land Rover ‘better than ever’.
Rather than sitting idle waiting to be re-discovered, the team at Land Rover made the new Defender work its way back. It clocked up over 1.2 million kms across all manner of terrains and covered most of our big blue planet. The engineers and boffins gave it over 62,000 tasks to complete all with one purpose in mind, a much better Defender – and in my opinion, succeeded.
Sure with its ‘softer’ appearance and extra 300+ kg of weight (over the 2016 110), it’s not going to have too many of the Landie purists jumping for joy but as an off-roader, it’ll stretch up to 291mm ride height to step over obstacles, climb up 45-degree angles, approach and depart hills at 38 and 40-degrees respectively and roll up its trousers to wade in water up to 900mm deep. What’s more, with the ‘Terrain Response 2’ system on board, most of it is handled automatically, although you may have to push a few buttons when it really gets rough.
Having been on the NZ launch a month or so ago I can attest to its off-road prowess, but Land Rover NZ decided that I should see how it handled the suburban jungle (let’s face it, that’s where it will spend most of its life) and gave me an Eiger Grey 110 SE with Explorer pack as an added extra.
Modern face, LED lights, 20-inch feet and plenty of character, this is not the battered up Defender seen driving around Newcastle, in fact it’s good looking enough to happily reside in posh neighbourhoods now. The interior is a much nicer place to be now too, more SOHO loft than Brixton slum. Overall it still has a minimalistic, functional appearance with rubber mats and some easy wipedown materials (especially in the luggage area) but the seats are softer, the dash is cleaner, the layout is modern and the PIVI Pro (and other) tech is outstanding.
The digital instrument cluster and infotainment systems offer up virtually every slip of information you’ll ever need both on and off-road and there are cameras and sensors everywhere. From the comfort of the driver’s seat you can take a virtual (cartoon-like) tour of your Defender from every angle, even underneath more or less should you so wish, and it has just the right amount of warnings – it’s not terrified of its own shadow. Cruise control is adaptive, lane keep is assisted and blind spot is erased.
Cubby holes and cup holders are plentiful and visibility is great, it even comes with clearview in the rearview mirror which displays a rear camera image should your Defender be full of people or gear. I feel like that there should be an A-pillar mounted grab handle thought to let vertically challenged people like me get in easier.
My review model came with a 5+2 seating arrangement, essentially offering the ability to take two extra (limited leg length) passengers in a third row. Yes it’s cramped back there (not in the headspace though) but even way back there, just as in the 2nd row, there are cup holders, heated seats, AC control and USB ports.
On my town and country drive, I included the B-roads and motorway, in truth, at speed there was a lot of wind noise from the roofrack but the Defender itself cruised along at 100km/h effortlessly (I hardly noticed it was diesel). While around the country corners I experienced very little body roll, admittedly I wasn’t really attacking the bends.
One of its 62,000 tests set by the JLR engineers was to slam the Landie into the kerb hundreds or thousands of times as kerb mounting is the new mountain climbing – I tested it out too, the Defender remained unfazed. And this is the point, the new Defender takes everything in its stride.
What Land Rover has done is taken Vera’s ultra-capable Defender and revamped it. It’s still ultra-capable (arguably even moreso) but now it doesn’t look out of place in the car park of a 5-star hotel. It’s smart and well-connected, safe and oh so comfortable. Quite frankly, the more I drive this new Defender, the more I like it. Yes the likes of Vera’s Landie holds a huge sense of nostalgia in our hearts, but it would be a crime not to take this new Land Rover NZ Defender out and see just how improved it really is.