Feb. 19th, 2021
It was only noon, but it was as dark as dusk. The sky offered a momentary relief from the torrential rain, and I lined up the Defender fifty yards from a puddle the size of a pond. It was an obstacle that on any other day, in any other car, I would’ve done everything to avoid.
But not today, and not in a Defender.
I was with my family at Hunting Island State Park, a wooded wonderland on a promontory north of Hilton Head. We were traversing a strip of mud and sand formerly resembling a parking lot, but devastated by a recent succession of named hurricanes. To our left were depleted dunes and ocean; to our right, wind-mangled palms and battered maritime forest.
I put a heavy foot on the gas and the Defender roared through the oyster-shell gravel and mud towards this Great Lake of potholes. The hood dipped––it was deeper than expected––water shot up and covered every window; we were passengers in a car wash as we plowed through the water like the prow of a ship…
I felt the Defender regain its grip and the front-end raise––we were through it. I put a heavy foot on the brake pedal and we skidded to a stop. There was silence in the cockpit. Was I in trouble? I waited for the verdict.
And then, from the back seat, a little voice yelled, “Do it again, papa!”
I smiled at my wife, she nodded, and I swung the Defender around for another run.
To fully appreciate the new Land Rover Defender 110, you have to look at it on its own terms. In other words, don’t go in expecting Harry to be just like Charles.
I am as much of a sucker for nostalgia as anyone. And my first impression of the new Land Rover Defender, from afar, was that it didn’t rouse the same emotions as the original. I guess what I wanted was for nothing at all to change other than a few safety features and electronics. But after spending time with it up close, I’ve come to respect the choice of reinvention over pure homage.
In Tasman Blue, it recalls my favorite Range Rover Classic color, Derwent Blue. And it’s stunning with the contrasting white roof. It’s a vehicle that gets attention. People stopped me getting out of it to ask questions and offer opinions that ranged from, “How much is that because I want one,” to “It’s just not the same as the old one.”
Facing it head on, the silhouette is commanding; flat down the sides, then sloping out around the wheels like a neckline to shoulders. The round headlights, the black tread plates on the hood, and the heavy, side-hinged back door were among my favorite design details.
My neighbor imports vintage Defenders and he regularly has a Camel Trophy 110 parked outside. Seeing these two Defender generations parked right next to one another, it can be hard to recognize the father in the son. But to me, what you give up in boxy utilitarian lines, you do make up for in ease and comfort.
Everything about the Defender feels deliberately rugged. It finds a million ways to say, “I’m the rough, outdoorsy type.” The interior door paneling is trimmed with hex-nut bolts, and nearly every surface is rubberized. It’s enough to make you wonder where the line is between stone-washed jeans and actual vintage jeans; between contrivance and authenticity. I don’t think Land Rover crossed it here, but they came close.
To me, if the overall affect is enjoyable, then I don’t mind being visually nudged into a certain frame of mind. I loved the tough fabric and leather seats, the rubber mats on the dashboard, the rubber-lined shelves and storage nooks everywhere. And the fact that it looks like you could just hose it out if it got muddy. I appreciated the high ceiling, the roomy interior, and the large rear cargo area with its nubby, military-grade rubber and plastic.
The flatscreen instrument cluster has an analog look that’s a bit like looking at a vintage-inspired face on an Apple Watch. The touchscreen and all of the media features were intuitive and very easy to get into without dipping into a manual. The extra-large steering wheel makes you feel like you’re driving a serious truck, even if it is leather-wrapped and heated. The long, narrow skylights along the roofline are a nice hat tip to the classic Defenders. But the real star of the interior, to me, is the refrigerator under the front elbow rest. I found it by accident when I nudged a button inside while stowing a camera, and ended up with a frosty lens. I pulled over and bought a bottle of bubbly to keep there until we stopped for the night. Because I could.
Every car with a sense of identity makes an unspoken demand of its driver. Something you sense as soon as you get behind the wheel. Some ask for a track, some for a winding road, an endless flat, or in the case of the Defender, it begs you to take it off road. So, we loaded up the kids and headed to the heart of the coastal South Carolina Low Country, where we knew mud could be found.
Highway driving in the Defender is perfectly fine, but on an emotional level, it’s a little like running on a treadmill in combat boots. Land Rover’s air suspension is always comfortable, even if the seats are a bit firm on the Defender, and the 395-horsepower six-cylinder engine has a “Mild Hybrid” technology that harvests energy when you brake, stores it in a battery, and uses it later as extra torque for faster acceleration. What this feels like in practice is more liveliness than you’d expect from six-cylinders in a vehicle this large.
But take the Defender 110 off road, and everything comes together. It is as giddy on dirt as a Ferrari is on an empty runway, and I sought out every dirt road I could find; the rougher the better. The weight of the steering wheel, the travel of the suspension, the size of the tires, the feel of the gearbox––it makes you believe that you could take it anywhere. I felt like a little kid again, driving the Tonka truck of my childhood daydreams.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
For some, the Defender may not scratch the same itch as the original. But to me, I was reminded of some simple joys I’ve forgotten along the way. Playing in the mud, splashing in puddles, exploring in the woods; those things that thrilled you once, are still right there waiting for you, if you know how to find them.
And I found them in the Defender.