My last international drive before Covid-19 upended our world featured a starkly beautiful country, Namibia, and a hugely capable car, the new Land Rover Defender. Memories of that singular adventure nourished me during the long, dark days of the lockdown. Eight months later, I found myself once again behind the wheel of the Defender, right here in the heart of Mumbai. Those three days I spent in the desolation of Namibia had convinced me that the Defender is the world’s best off-roader. But would the five-metre-long Land Rover be able to tackle the unique challenges Mumbai poses and, at the same time, live up to its credentials as a luxury SUV?
The Defender is the Mount Everest of SUVs. It looms over other cars, especially when standing on its toes with the air suspension fully raised. If you are looking for a massive, luxury SUV merely to get noticed, the step up into the Defender could be a deal breaker. Ingress and egress, particularly when you’re togged up, can be an awkward affair.
Recompense, though, is quick in arriving, once you’ve clambered into the driver’s seat, where you are treated to a fabulous balcony view. The generous glass area, a low window line, and upright A-pillars afford outstanding all-round visibility, and since you can see the extremities of the car easily, it dials down the stress of wiggling the Defender through traffic.
The cabin alloys ruggedness (exposed screw heads on door panels, rubberised surfaces) with luxury (double-stitched leather trim and tasteful bits of aluminium and wood). There’s more storage space than you’d care for, and owners who prefer to be driven around would be glad to know that the middle-row is supremely comfortable. The same, though, cannot be said about the third row, which is a punishment even to children, and you’d do better than to consider the Defender as a seater-seater.
The engine is a bit lazy, but the linear power delivery makes for an astonishingly smooth drive
Prospective owners, especially the tech-savvy kind, will love all the gizmos that can be accessed from the SUV’s new Pivi Pro infotainment system. You get all the de rigeur stuff, and, among others, all kinds of stats and data, especially when you are off-roading; all-digital instruments with multiple modes and view options, and the ClearSight camera, with multiple lenses the car is studded with. Land Rover purists might frown at the technological overkill in an SUV that draws its heritage from the mechanically simple and robust Series 1 Land Rover, but it could very well find favour with a new generation of buyers.
Light on its wheels
In India, the 2.3-tonne Defender is only available at the moment with a 300hp 2.0-litre turbo-petrol, and my scepticism regarding its power-to-weight ratio was quickly dispelled with the first jab at the throttle pedal. While the Defender doesn’t exactly rocket off the line, it feels surprisingly light on its feet for something so heavy. Sure, the engine is a bit lazy – I’d have liked a sharper response – but the linear power delivery makes for an astonishingly smooth drive. While the Defender is respectably quick, it really comes into its own as a relaxed highway cruiser, an attribute that is fortified by its precise 8-speed ZF auto box.
I was as impressed with its on-road ride and handling as well as with its well-weighted, delightfully direct steering, both of which impart a lot of confidence at speed. Credit for the Defender’s good dynamics goes to the air suspension, and then there’s Land Rover’s D7X monocoque that is not only robust enough to withstand a high degree of off-road abuse, but also imparts the SUV with supreme on-road poise.
The moral of the story is that the Defender goes way beyond its brief. It’s equally at home doing 150kph on the highway as it is doing 15kph in bumper-to-bumper city traffic, or slinking down a muddy cliff at 5kph. And the 900-mm, water-wading depth could come handy during next year’s monsoon.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, December 13, 2020
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