One of the most eagerly anticipated auto launches in years isn’t about a million-dollar supercar or a mass-market bestseller.
Instead, an updated version of a boxy, no-frills favourite of farmers, explorers and royals – and and more recently, urban warriors – that dates back almost to World War II was unveiled overnight at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
The new Land Rover Defender is also the first re-creation of the Defender in 71 years. To the relief of fans worldwide, it remains focused on the same things that made the original so successful.
It can go seriously off-road to deliver the functionality that is synonymous with the Defender badge, yet has been modernised to include everything from 24/7 connectivity to five-star safety and giant infotainment screens.
“The new Defender had to be designed for a world that’s changed beyond recognition,” declares the chief designer at Land Rover, Gerry McGovern. “They are the toughest, most capable, Land Rovers ever made. We’ve come from the jungle and now we are ready for the urban jungle.”
The Defender will land in Australia in the middle of next year, firstly as the four-door Defender 110 and then later as a three-door Defender 90. Both are names which came from the wheelbase, measured in inches, of the originals. A plug-in hybrid version will eventually join the family.
The bulldog breed
Up close, the new Defender looks like a British Bulldog. It has short overhangs, an aggressive stance, and backs its modern bite with a historic bark.
It'll wade through water almost one metre deep and can be equipped with everything from a winch to a roof tent, yet will also be available with an urban accessory pack aimed straight at Toorak and Double Bay.
The story of the new Defender extends back 11 years, and development has included 1.2 million kilometres of testing in places where very few will take their cars.
“It defies gravity. If you can get the front wheels over an obstacle, it will go anywhere,” says Nick Rogers, the engineering director for the Defender.
Climbing into, over and under the Defender at Frankfurt, every single detail is impressive. Even the optional ladder for access to the roof has been tizzied by the design team.
The big question, as always for a British vehicle, is how the quality will be delivered to buyers. This time, the Land Rover crew says they got exactly what they wanted and they intend to deliver exactly what was previewed in Frankfurt.
More than one of the senior executive team confides to Executive Traveller: “No-one wants to be the person who stuffs this one up.”
A difficult mission
JLR has accumulated 1.5 million test kilometres for the Defender and recently completed what it called a “real-world” trial in Kenya that saw the SUV negotiate a variety of unlikely obstacles and pull heavily loaded trailers while tracking lions in the Borana game reserve.
The original Defender – so simple it was originally sketched in beach sand – attracted early customers including Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II, who drives the model on her country estates.
It has also shuttled soldiers in the Korean War, carried Red Cross volunteers to successive global crises and helped generations of U.K. sheep farmers rescue their flocks from snow drifts.
The model stayed remarkably unchanged over 70 years until tougher carbon-dioxide emission standards and pedestrian safety concerns eventually made an overhaul unavoidable. Of the more than 2 million built, around 70% are thought to survive today.
Built for rugged terrain, the 2020 Defender's most difficult mission might be to satisfy the die-hard enthusiasm of Land Rover purists, while addressing modern technical requirements that have found their way into rivals including the Mercedes-Benz G Wagon, albeit at a much higher price point.
Additional material by Bloomberg.