Preview: Land Rover Defender

Preview: Land Rover Defender

Story by Spencer Whitney, photos courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover

Jaguar Land Rover is, despite the off-road heritage it carries, stuck in the mud right now. The company has just posted a massive loss of $6 billion, due to sales shortfalls in Asia and high costs associated with production infrastructure. This is all despite reporting record sales in Canada and the USA, and a growing luxury product line in our continually luxury-focused world. However, it doesn’t help that JLR competes with the likes of BMW, Audi and even Lexus – whose parent company Toyota produces more vehicles in a month than JLR does in a whole year.

Thankfully, the marketing department at Land Rover has an unmatched 70-plus-year history of off-road prowess to tap in to when sales need a boost. Ever since their introduction in the late 1940s, Land Rover vehicles have carried with them an aura of unmatched technical performance thanks to simple but effective design. That same basic model (designated until 1989 simply by wheelbase length) carried on right through until 2016 when production of the Defender series ended amid increasing emission and safety standards (it was never offered with airbags or any kind of consideration for crash safety innovations like crumple zones or pedestrian collisions.)

Almost as soon as production ended, Land Rover purists immediately began asking “what next?” Indeed, there was a large gap left in the product line, especially for commercial customers who had come to rely on the versatility of a platform that offered more than competing brands despite the Defender’s utilitarian nature – toward the end of its life, they were offered in no fewer than 13 different body and chassis configurations. So what did Land Rover plan to do for the future of its most basic and most capable vehicle?

The new Defender has been in development for many years, and until recently had been kept completely under wraps. Official “spy” shots began to appear earlier this year, keeping in line with an old promise to fully reveal the new vehicle by the end of 2019. As the months have gone on we have seen more of this new 4×4’s camouflage disappear, and watched as it was tested in winter conditions, with off road equipment, and even on trails shared with built-up Jeeps in Moab. But can it continue the tradition set by the seven-decade-long life of its predecessor?

Indeed Land Rover’s future depends on this new model. The Defender has always sat firmly in the entry level of the product line, and was once only preferred by farmers, arborists and tradespeople before it was refined in the late ‘00s. Any replacement should, hopefully, reinstate that entry level position – especially if JLR wants to re-invigorate enthusiasm for the brand by offering something of a competitor to light utility vehicles sold by Toyota, Mitsubishi and others. In fact, Ford UK is capitalizing on the void left by the Defender, and on the success of its utility vehicles, by declaring its commercial product line the “Backbone of Britain” in a new ad campaign.

What might a new Defender offer? It’s likely to be offered with a choice of powerful and efficient gas and diesel engines from the manufacturer’s “Ingenium” design, and possibly even as a hybrid or full-on electric vehicle. It’s been spotted in both two-door “90” and four-door “110” configurations, with what appears to be independent adjustable air suspension similar to what comes in the Discovery series. The added fact that production is slated to take place in Slovakia alongside the Discovery all but confirms that the new model will be based heavily on the existing platform, and not a body-on-frame with solid axles. A small bit of irony, since the original Discovery (which turns 30 this year) used a drivetrain borrowed straight from the Defender 90 to save on design and production costs.

That original Discovery was wildly successful and has been credited with being the vehicle that saved Land Rover from extinction, since it provided a rugged but somewhat refined alternative to the Defender at a competitive price – and it wowed discerning North Americans, paving the way for newer models of the upmarket Range Rover, which is now ubiquitous in affluent parts of Canada and the USA.

But can the new Defender be the successful vehicle that JLR desperately needs it to be right now? Purists will disagree that it deserves the name, and will say it should have been presented more like a classic 4×4 – Mercedes and Suzuki seem to have been able to make older designs work in the G-class and Jimmy, respectively. Sales for both models have been very strong indeed. It is possible that the return of the Defender to North American showrooms after more than 20 years will be JLR’s saving grace, if they can price it as a real competitor to the top-trim models of the seemingly undefeatable Jeep Wrangler lineup (which today looks suspiciously similar to Defender models available in the last 30 years of its life.)

Ultimately, buyers will get to decide whether it becomes popular enough to be highly regarded in its own right. Currently, the full-size Discovery is the most capable Land Rover on offer, but a properly equipped model with two-speed transfer case will set you back over $70,000. That’s no small change for most buyers, and that kind of price will either deter buyers to a Wrangler Rubicon, or to the multitude of other vehicles in that price range. If Jaguar Land Rover can produce a real alternative that tops today’s off-road leaders, they just might be able to recoup some of those losses. We’re in an era where classic Defenders are more popular than ever, and SUV is considered a bad word. Now more than ever, Land Rover needs to carry on its off-road heritage with a truly capable “4×4 for everyone.”

Categories: Features, Off-Road Plus