What’s an SUV? That isn’t always an easy question to answer these days. Buyers across segments don’t seem to want cars anymore; everyone wants an SUV. So, of course, every car wants to be an SUV, which is why you have softroaders, crossovers, compact SUVs, SUV-inspired hatchbacks and more.
Marketing types everywhere know a good idea when they see one; take a regular hatchback, jack it up a bit for slightly increased ride height, slap on a bigger set of wheels, bolt-on some plastic cladding on the sides and the wheel arches, add an extra dollop or two of chrome, give it a fancy new paint job and a cool sounding name, and there you have it, a brand-new SUV for the unsuspecting masses.
We aren’t saying all-new SUVs are mere pretenders. No, of course not. There are some genuinely good sports utility vehicles out there, which are at least reasonably good to drive on tarmac and, with 4WD, have a fair bit of off-road capabilities as well. But on the other hand, many are only styled to look like an SUV and don’t have the all-around go-anywhere capability that defines the real thing.
To clear the confusion about what is and isn’t the real deal, all one has to do is take a look at the new Land Rover Defender because it doesn’t get more ‘real’ than this. The Land Rover Defender is an SUV in the way Pope Francis is a Catholic, or like Jeff Bezos is wealthy, or like Warren Buffett is a stock market investor. For the most part, there isn’t any better.
For the Defender, being an SUV isn’t about being fashionable. Land Rover launched the original Defender 110 back in 1983 (its shorter wheelbase brother, the Defender 90, came out in ‘84). The vehicle quickly made a name for itself for being a tough-as-nails 4×4 that could take you anywhere and get you back in one piece. The ‘Defender’ nameplate was born in 1990, at the same time when Land Rover started the journey towards added refinement for more widespread appeal. With many updates over the years, the Defender had a long and successful run until 2016, when Land Rover stopped producing the vehicle. The company was already laying the groundwork for its next-generation Defender, which was unveiled in late-2019.
The new Defender made its way to India towards the end of last year; it’s available as the five-door 110 and the three-door 90. We drove the seven-seater Defender 110 and came away deeply impressed. The first thing about the Defender that makes a big impression is its styling; the 110 is a massive hunk of metal and glass that looks as big an imposing as a Challenger 2 battle tank.
In the parking lot, standing tall on its big 20-inch alloy wheels, the Defender looks like seven-time Mr Olympia, Phil Heath, standing among a group of horse racing jockeys. The boxy, rectangular design is beautifully executed; it’s all hard muscle, taut and tight, not an ounce of flab anywhere. ‘Purposeful’ is the one word that defines it best. One look at it, and you know the Defender has been built to go wherever it damn well pleases, and woe betide anyone or anything that comes in its way.
If the Defender looks like it’s been putting in long, hard hours in the gym, it also has a heart that’s just as robust as its bodywork. Under the hood, the India-spec Defender 110 gets Land Rover’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder P300 twin-turbo petrol engine, which produces 296 horsepower and 400Nm of torque. The engine sounds nice and growly when revved at a standstill and can push the Defender from zero to 100kph in 7.4 seconds and on to a top speed of 191kph; no mean feat for a seven-seater that weighs a bit more than 2,200 kilos.
With its all-wheel-drive (AWD) setup, power goes to all four wheels via an 8-speed automatic transmission, which is swift and smooth. The ZF-sourced automatic perfectly matched the Defender’s petrol inline-four, providing quick and timely shifts for relentless forward momentum. The twin-speed transfer box offers an additional set of lower gears for serious off-road use and towing duties.
Unlike its predecessors from previous decades, which featured body-on-frame construction optimised for hardcore off-road use, the new Defender is based on Land Rover’s D7x architecture that makes use of aluminium monocoque construction. It is not just lighter but also much stiffer than the ladder frame used on earlier Defenders and makes no compromises in off-road driving ability. The 110’s steering feels well-weighted and nicely responsive, while its height-adjustable electronic air suspension provides terrific ride quality; its plush and comfortable on the highway while remaining entirely impervious to the broken tarmac, potholes, speed bumps and jagged, hard-edged craters that are easily found everywhere in our country.
With the air suspension, ride height can be lowered to 40mm below normal (for easier access to the cabin). It can be raised by up to 75mm for everyday road use and a further 70mm for extreme off-road use. We’ll not go into specific numbers for approach and departure angles but be assured that the Defender can handle the steepest inclines that you can throw at it. For the vast majority of drivers, the Defender’s off-road capabilities will outstrip their driving ability.
The Defender 110 is built to climb mountains, ford rivers and cross continents (though it won’t complain if you choose to use it for the local supermarket run and drop the kids to school). It’s built to do that while keeping its occupants cocooned in utter luxury. The Defender’s cabin is a delightful place to spend time in; generously proportioned and amply cushioned seats, lavish use of leather and wood trim, high-grade plastics, a sliding panoramic sunroof and hefty doors that wouldn’t be out of place in a bank vault. Everything looks and feels appropriately expensive and is soft to the touch; it makes you feel special. The front seats are power-adjustable and are very comfortable, while the middle row is equally plush.
The third row (the Defender is a 7-seater) is meant to accommodate two persons, and it certainly can. Still, those two persons should ideally not be Mr Olympia contenders. If nothing else, the last row of seats might inspire its occupants to eat healthily and do more cardio every once in a while, which can only be a good thing. On a more serious note, we believe the Defender 110 has one of the best interiors among SUVs in its price range; we loved it. For those concerned about luggage carrying capacity, the 110 has ample boot space; 231 litres if all three rows of seats are being used, 916 litres with the third row of seats folded down and 2,233 litres with the second row of seats folded down. With that last option, there’s probably enough space to accommodate a full Tata Nano. Okay, maybe not, but you do get the drift, right?
The dashboard has a simple layout; an engine start/stop button, physical controls for the climate control system, an on/off and volume switch for the sound system, and controls for some of the electronic driver assistance systems. For everything else, there’s a centrally mounted 10-inch touchscreen, with intuitive and easy to use menus for controlling a wide range of functions, including the terrain response system (which has settings for general driving and for driving on grass, gravel, snow, mud and sand), throttle response, ride height adjustment, traction control settings, navigation and more.
There’s full smartphone compatibility, of course, with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The fully digital instrument panel is also configurable and is quite useful once you figure out how to use it; it’s all very modern and high-tech, though we have to admit that drivers who aren’t very tech-savvy might struggle a bit when getting started with the Defender. Still, touchscreens are multiple-layered menus are the future, so prospective owners had better get used to it.
In December last year, the Defender 110 got a full five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP. And as you’d expect, it comes with a full complement of safety equipment, including an advanced ABS, traction control, an autonomous emergency braking system and multiple airbags. Along with its impeccable driving dynamics and high-tech electronic driver assistance systems, these features make the Defender one of the safest SUVs on the planet.
On the road, the 110 is an absolute pleasure to drive; the high driving position provides an excellent all-around view of your surroundings, the engine provides immediate response to throttle inputs, the slick automatic transmission does its job very efficiently, and the whole thing, as a package, feels sublime. Once you’ve driven the Defender 110, you might find it difficult to go back to anything else, regardless of price and segment. Yes, it is that good.
Depending on the variant, the Defender 110 carries an ex-showroom price tag of Rs 80-90 lakh, which means an on-road price of more than Rs one crore. Yes, that’s a lot of money and, yes, the Defender is worth every single penny that you’d spent on acquiring one.