Media Land Rover

First drive review: Land Rover Defender 110

The all-new Land Rover Defender launched globally late last year to much excitement. Now it's here in New Zealand, and we finally get a chance to spend some all-too-brief time behind the wheel.

Make me an instant expert: what do I need to know?

Any time you try to replace an icon you are bound to run into controversy and that is something Land Rover was well aware of when it killed off the ancient Defender back in 2016, after announcing it would be reviving the name on an all-new, actually modern vehicle.

* New Land Rover Defender revealed - and it's coming here
* Land Rover details new plug-in hybrids
* Road test review: Land Rover Discovery Sport
* Land Rover Defender pricing announced for NZ

Cue the expected wailing and gnashing of teeth as purists everywhere rose up and howled with one reedy, yet gratingly know-it-all voice “that’s not real Defender...” with every design study and concept gently teased.

And you know what? Land Rover didn’t care. The company knew exactly the path it wanted the new Defender to go down and that was made glaringly obvious when the all-new Discovery was launched a bit later an almost identical shrill, whiny cry arose...

“That’s not a real Discovery...”

But JLR knew all along that the new not-a-proper-Defender would happily slot into the range right into the Discovery’s sweet spot, leaving the now not-a-proper-Disco space to make its move upmarket edging into Range Rover territory.

So now we have a new Defender and, yeah, it pretty much lands right in the space the Discovery vacated.

But what of that rugged workhorse utilitarianism of the old Defender? Is that long gone now? Well, surprisingly, not entirely.

The Defender lands in New Zealand initially only in long-wheelbase four-door 110 guise, with the short wheelbase two-door 90 following before year’s end.

The surprisingly basic standard 110 kicks off the range at $89,990, which then takes a noticeable jump to the 110 S at $107,900, which adds a lot of the stuff you would expect to be standard on a $90k car. But still, the entry 110 is there to be the most basic workhorse far – more workhorse-y versions are slated.

The entry 110 sits on 18-inch white steel wheels (that are also being optioned on a lot of early orders on high-spec models, because they are so awesome), fabric upholstery and is the only model in the current 110 range powered by the D200 147kW/430Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel engine.

The 110 S gets things like 19-inch alloy wheels, metallic paint, LED headlights, keyless entry, adaptive cruise control and other driver assists, and is powered by an upgraded D240 version of the 2.0-litre diesel engine that produces 177kW of power and 430Nm of torque.

The 110 SE comes next at $114,900 and further adds 20-inch alloy wheels, premium LED headlights and DRLs, front fog lights, an upgraded Meridian audio system and is powered by a choice of the D240 powertrain, the P300 221kW/400Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo engine or the P400 294kW/550Nm 3.0-litre inline six-cyinder petrol engine that is also combined with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system.

Then there is the big daddy of the launch range – the 110 X that only comes with the six-cylinder P400 powertrain and retails for $164,900, bringing a bucket-load of extra equipment like Matrix LED headlights, an X exterior styling pack, a full leather interior, a 700W audio system and a configurable Terrain Response system.

Land Rover is also offering a special ‘Launch Edition’ 110 loaded with options and specific “First Edition” badging for $125,900 with the D240 powertrain and $137,900 with the P400 option.

Where did you drive it?

Our first experience in the new Defender was an admittedly brief one, and only the D240 and P300 powertrains were on offer, but what we experienced was impressive.

The launch was out at Kauri Bay Boomrock on the Clevedon coast south of Auckland, with an emphasis more on some mildly challenging off-roading more than on-road driving, although there was a small amount of on-road stuff.

While there wasn’t really enough time behind the wheel to form a definitive opinion either way, the initial experience was a deeply positive one in both settings.

First up, the Defender looks sensational and up close in the metal a plethora of small design details that you don’t see in pictures become apparent, adding to its quite special visual appeal.

Much like the exterior, the Defender’s interior is an extremely distinctive and individual thing, with some fantastic design details – normally it is an immediate deduction of points from me if fake screws and bolts are present, but the Defender blows that away by having real bolt heads exposed. Weirdly, that gets extra points from me...

The interior is also a remarkable blend of rugged utilitarianism and luxury, with plastic flooring and easy wipe-down surfaces that are also made out of high-quality materials, which sound weird, but works brilliantly well.

As for on and off-road performance? Well, it will probably come as no surprise that the Defender makes off-roading sublimely easy, with its effortless approach to obstacles springing from a blend of clever electronics and good, old-fashioned mechanical ability.

Slipping it into and out of 4WD is an effortless push of a button, while the various Terrain Response modes are selected via the touchscreen.

On-road, it is simply light years beyond the elderly Defender, with a supple, controlled ride reminiscent of the Discovery. Yeah, it’s that good.

What’s the pick of the range?

While the P300 inline-six is a wonderfully smooth and brawny thing, I personally came away from my time with the Defender leaning towards the D240 powertrain, particularly off-road, where its broad torque spread and smoother power delivery gave it an easy advantage over the sixes more on/off power delivery.

While it is impossible to be definitive at this stage, I would say a 110 SE with the D240 powertrain (and, of course, the 18-inch steel wheels) would be my personal pick.

Until the 90 arrives that is, then one of those in the same format would do nicely.

Why would I buy it?

Because you had a Discovery 4 and hated the Discovery 5. Because you want a sublimely effortless off-roader that offers enough creature comforts to push it up into luxury status as well. And because you just love the brilliant blend of retro and modern, both inside and out.

Why wouldn’t I buy it?

Because it's not a real Defender... whatever that means.