Does saying adios to the ladder frame mean that it’s the end of the road for an absolute legend? In Gaydon, they are convinced that it’s not – they insist that the off-road ability of their most iconic car remains uncorrupted.
It begins quietly – the criticism of the new Defender – usually with a compliment. ‘It’s beautiful, no doubt.’ And then comes the kill shot, ‘But it’s not really a Defender!’ It’s becoming increasingly common to come across such comments on social media and in automobile forums.
It’s been over a month since the official presentation of the most iconic of Land Rovers, and the discussion surrounding it doesn’t seem to cease. Gerry McGovern, the design head of the Land Rover, who fought really hard for new design innovation, jumped into this so-called controversy when he said, ‘those who were die-hard fans of the old Defender probably won’t buy the new one,’ revealing an important aspect of the strategic game of this Tata-owned English manufacturer – to go fishing in a bigger lake rather than the small (niche) one afforded to it by the original model.
However, despite the larger target audience, there is something that Land Rover can’t afford – and that’s jeopardizing the legendary off-road ability of its most iconic model. Moreover, it’s also a question of an image – if the word were to spread that their toughest and purest off-roader has now become a fashionable car, suitable only for the urban jungle, it would put an end to the reputation of the entire brand.
But we’ll reserve our judgment regarding its off-road abilities until such time that we get our hands on the new Defender. In the meantime, we can tell you all about the numbers at hand, what it’s made of, and everything that’s underneath its shell. After all, a bit of rationality in the discussion never hurts, does it?
Now, we know that it’s not easy to completely discount emotion when talking about a model that coincided with the very foundation of the brand. We all know the story. Born from the idea of Maurice Wilks, technical director of Rover, who, in 1947, thought that a vehicle, not unlike Jeep, rugged and economic, could meet the demands of the British rural class exhausted by the war. And the result was a basic vehicle, which was presented at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948 – and, of course, quickly went on to become a commercial phenomenon.
The reason behind its phenomenal success was simple – it could literally take you anywhere and get you out of any difficult situation on any terrain. A combination of its ladder frame chassis, two rigid axles with semi-elliptical leaf springs, a body with aluminium panels, a four-cylinder 1.6-litre engine, producing 50bhp, combined with a four-speed manual gearbox, and all-wheel drive, it was simply called the Series 1 – but it had all the foundations of the legend it went on to become after assuming its current name in the 1990s.
With the same name and essentially the same mechanical layout, although partially evolved, the Defender continued its journey until three years ago, when the regulations put a stop to its production, except for a special limited-edition series in 2018 – the Defender Works V8 – that was launched to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its birth.
However, the name remains today, even though a lot has changed. A new skin, but not without respecting its tradition, and underneath – something that, in the eyes of enthusiasts, was completely untouchable – the ladder-frame has now been replaced by a monocoque chassis.
The last old-fashioned English off-road vehicle couldn’t resist the modern influence and now belongs to a family of vehicles – the Discovery and Range Rover (except the Evoque) – that share the D7 aluminium monocoque architecture, called D7x – ‘x’ stands for ‘extreme,’ indicating the demanding and exacting tests that the machine has had to go through.
Well, according to Land Rover, this new platform has a torsional rigidity of 29kNm/degree, which makes it three times more rigid than a traditional ladder-frame chassis.
The new Defender has a maximum suspension articulation of 500mm (in the version with air suspension). However, it would be interesting to know the vehicle’s Ramp Travel Index or RTI, which is a measure of a vehicle’s ability to flex its suspension, or to put it simply, the extent to which a vehicle can advance with one wheel on a ramp before the other one breaks off the ground – a value that Land Rover hasn’t revealed yet.
What Land Rover, however, has revealed is that the Defender 2020 has the same maximum ascent/descent gradient of 45° as the old one. Meanwhile, the maximum side-slope gradient of the new Defender is 45° against the 30° of the older one. The Defender 2020 is 30mm wider (a total of 2,100mm) and a few millimetres lower, which also reduces the vehicle’s tendency to tip-over.
The repositioning of a few components, including the battery and cooling circuits, made it possible to keep the overhang short for the benefit of the characteristic angles. Here are the claimed numbers for the Defender – 38° approach angle, 40° departure angle, and 28° ramp breakover angle (31° in the Defender 90), which are on par with the Jeep Wrangler’s 44° approach angle, 37° departure angle, and 28° of ramp breakover angle. What’s worth noting here is that the new Defender loses out to the old Defender’s 49° approach, 35° departure (47° for the 90), and 30° ramp breakover angle.
To compensate for a few small physical limitations of the Defender 2020, the vehicle comes with the state-of-the-art Advanced Driver Assistance System or ADAS, which is a true innovation for an off-road vehicle. It also gets Terrain Response 2, which is the off-road gear management software package developed by Land Rover that now comes with new functions.
A touchscreen sits on the centre of the dashboard, which allows you to select various modes, depending on the surface (gravel, snow, rock, sand, etc.). The touchscreen also offers three settings to adjust throttle and transmission response, steering and traction control, and to manage the locking of the central and rear differentials.
Of course, the Defender 2020 comes with an Auto setting, suitable for novice off-road drivers, which allows the Terrain Response System to recognize the surface of the ground, using cameras and sensors, and automatically choose the most suitable off-road mode, without any input from the driver. In short, it democratises off-road driving.
The Defender also comes with ClearSight Ground View, which offers a clear view of the ground in front of the car on the screen, using front cameras – as if the hood is transparent – allowing you to see exactly where the wheels are positioned on the ground surface.
A new record
The new Defender even has a Wade mode – it can be selected from the Terrain Response menu – which assists the driver in crossing a fjord by locking the differential and increasing the ground clearance, while the Wade sensing shows the depth of water.
The maximum depth it can tackle, and rest assured it’s the last number that we’ll cite, is 900mm, a record in itself, which the Defender shares with the Discovery. To put things in perspective, the Jeep Wrangler has a maximum wading depth of 750mm.
So, in the end, despite all the changes, will the new Defender do the same things the old one did? At Gaydon, they claim, ‘it will do even more.’ But the kicker is that it’ll be a lot more civilized on the surface in which it’ll spend most of its time – the tarmac!
The new Defender kicks up the dirt on a muddy track in Kazakhstan. Built on a monocoque for the first time ever, the new Land Rover has been subjected to very intense and exacting off-road tests in various parts of the world, including Moab – a paradise for off-roaders – in the Utah Desert of the USA.
The spartan rawness of the old Defender is just a memory, kept alive by details such as visible screws and an exposed magnesium crossbeam in the cabin. For the most part, though, the cabin, dominated by a 10-inch touch screen, is refined and hi-tech.
ANATOMY OF AN OFF-ROAD VEHICLE
Unlike the path chosen by its high-profile competition – the Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz G-Class – the Defender abandons the ladder-frame chassis and adopts a modern self-supporting aluminium body, with independent suspension – double-wishbones at the front and a multi-link at the rear, with coil springs in the standard version (air springs are optional). The latter offers greater travel and increases the off-road ride height by 75mm, but the adaptive dynamics system also improves handling on the asphalt, monitoring and analysing the movements of the body 500 times per second. Land Rover claims that the D7x platform offers a very high degree of robustness – 6.5 tonnes of breakout load on the anchor points, 7 tonnes of vertical load on the suspension, 300kgs of static maximum load on the roof, and 168kgs of dynamic load. The new Defender is built, in the classic 90 and 110 versions (three and five doors, respectively), on a dedicated line in the Slovak factory in Nitra, where the Discovery is also assembled.
The Defender democratises off-road driving. Terrain Response 2 allows even rookie adventurers to experience real off-road driving. Above, the screens of the ClearSight Ground View (left) and the Wade sensing (right). What’s curious, however, are the choice of wheels – the smallest is 255/70R18. But we think that the 255/75R17 could have been better suited to certain off-road conditions.
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