Sunday drive by Hormazd Sorabjee: A look at the Land Rover’s all-new Defender
In a world engulfed in the Coronavirus and an unprecedented lockdown not seen in many lifetimes, there’s no better place than Namibia for self-isolation. With a population of a mere 2.7 million spread over an area bigger than France, Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world and has a sense of emptiness that’s surreal. You can drive for days without seeing another person, let alone another car.
But it was not to practice social distancing that Land Rover chose this remote location to showcase its all-new Defender. Africa is the spiritual home of Land Rover, immortalised in movies like Born Free and The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was only fitting, then, to have the debut drive of the all-new Defender where it felt, well, at home. Besides, the new Defender has big shoes to fill and an illustrious legacy to live up to.
Since its origin as the Series 1 Land Rover over 70 years ago, the Defender has evoked a sense of adventure like no other 4x4. It’s been the vehicle of choice for cross-continent expeditions, military operations in conflict zones and anyone with a spirit to explore the most remote regions of the world.
And it doesn’t get more remote than Kaokoland, the outback of Namibia, which is an arid and inhospitable land with barely any habitation; it’s even more barren than the rest of the country, if that were actually possible. There are no roads in this region, just faint tracks through deserts and rocky trails in the hills. This is serious 4x4 country and just the environment the Defender thrives in.
In fact, this was more of an expedition than a test drive and the 860km route had only 4km of tarmac! But ironically those 4km were the most crucial because most Defender owners won’t stray far from paved roads. You expect the Defender to be brilliant off-road, but how good is it on-road? Yes, it feels a bit top heavy but that said, the Defender is remarkably sure-footed for regular highway driving. The brakes are a bit ‘grabby’ and need to be more progressive for smoother braking and the other grouse is a bit of wind noise at high speed.
The toughest test for the Defender was on the treacherous Van Zyl’s pass, which in parts is just rock and not even a path. With rocks jutting out to test every millimetre of the Defender’s massive 291 mm clearance, it took me one and half hours to cover just 10km! It was at Van Zyl’s that I was convinced that the Defender is truly the most capable off-roader in the world. Not only did it skip from one boulder to next, but it did so with ridiculous ease. The 3-litre mild hybrid has a nice broad spread of torque and enough low-down pull to yank the heavy Defender up a cliff.
On the flatter section in the heart of the Namibian desert, it was easy to hit speeds of 150 kph even in soft sand. It shimmies a bit when you suddenly hit a deep patch of sand but the overall sense of control you get on loose surfaces is incredible.
On the last day we drove to Namibia’s famed Skeleton coast and this was the most spectacular part of the drive. Pushing through the desolate landscape we didn’t see another car for 12 hours and, at one point, drove 20km up the Hoarusib River! The emptiness of this region and the tough terrain would make even the bravest off-roader think twice before venturing into some parts.
But by now, fully settled into the Defender and accustomed to its off-road prowess, bouts of panic when crossing a river or scrambling up a slippery dune were few and far between. I knew I wouldn’t get stuck, I knew the reserve the car had, and I knew it would sail through any terrain effortlessly. The king of off-roaders is back!
Hormazd Sorabjee is one of the most senior and much loved auto journalists in India, and is editor of Autocar India
Sunday Drive appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, April 5, 2020
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