The Sport has all the ground clearance of an extreme off-roader needs, yet it's lower
The suspension feels supple on sand that varies between bone-jarring ruts and scary softness
You sit high in the vehicle, but in it, not on it
The designers have preserved almost nothing of the current Defender model
The metal trim parts make it clear than the DC100 Sport is tough
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On its last day in production, we remember the time (back in 2011) when we drove Land Rover's Defender concept, a car that could preview what's to come when the moniker returns to production.
What is it?
Now they're getting serious. At this week's Los Angeles motor show, Land Rover is showing a third iteration of the Defender concept (dubbed Land Rover Defender DC100 Sport) it first revealed a couple of months ago in Frankfurt - and has backed this up by allowing Autocar an exclusive beach drive of the DC100 V8 Sport, second of its design proposals and the one most obviously aimed at a life in the Californian sun.
More than three years before production, Land Rover people understandably keep insisting that these concepts are "merely a toe in the water" and a "place to start as we work towards replacing the icon for 2015". But the more the world sees of its honest, all-modern face, the more clear it becomes that certain fundamentals of the machine earmarked to replace Land Rover's 54-year old rag-topped icon have been laid down already. Sure, there's an enormous amount still to do, but hasn't Land Rover just finished teaching us - via the hugely successful Evoque project - that these days it doesn't build concepts just to throw them away?
What’s it like?
Drive the Sport, and you soon get the message. Stand beside the impressively compact, low-screen, speedster-style Sport and you're instantly aware of a few things that won't make production: the Metalflake yellow paint job and the 22-inch wheels with hand-cut tread, for instance. But if the central plan is to match the current Defender's extreme off-road capability and better its performance of softer, more conventional duties, then this DC100 Sport is the perfect demonstrator. Very similar in length and wheelbase to a current Defender 90, with a very short front overhang and an almost non-existent rear, the Sport has all the ground clearance of an extreme off-roader needs, yet it's lower, it has bigger doors and much easier access, and its twin bucket seats are much more inviting.
Slip behind the wheel, and you'll notice no similarities to the original beyond a general feeling of simplicity and durability in the controls/instrument layout. The designers have preserved almost nothing, but the many negatives are gone. You sit high in the vehicle, but in it, not on it. There is room for your elbow inside the driver's door. It is possible to move away from the wheel. The fascia is a panorama, not a cliff-face. The metal trim parts, especially the elegant twin pedals, make it clear the car is tough. But elegant tough, not industrial tough. Even the hose-out floor covering has colour and an interesting texture.
Someone has already told me that this V8 Sport concept has a slightly modified Range Rover Sport chassis, the admired Solihull-built T5 assembly thst has reliably combined low tech (a separate, twin-rail design) and high tech (a high-articulation, all independent air suspension) in the RR Sport and Discovery for years. Another LR person has told me it is "one of the solutions" for the next Defender, though others are being considered.
Land Rover bosses insist they are still making up their mind about this - some even claim monocoque construction is possible - but everything points to the likelihood that the new Defender will have a simpler, lighter, tougher T5 that can deliver the many configurations a Defender needs. So there's a T5 underneath. It's relevant so I'm happy.
Luckily, I've recently been driving a Range Rover Sport, and notice again its roomy footwell, with plenty of room for two meaty "designer" pedals. There is, however, no tall dividing console - the Defender's auto transmission selector sprouts from a PRND quadrant pegged to the dashboard. The seats are close to the floor, so your legs reach out rather than down. Press the starter button and there's an instant V8 throb, more prominent than any production Land Rover because it curls up over the elegant rear deck, with its integral roll-over protection and fairings behind the occupant's heads. Blip the throttle and you're rewarded with a kind of rom-pah rumble. Think hot Range Rover, with a tiny dash of NASCAR V8 on top.
We take a drive and under my tentative right foot the V8 rumbles rather than roars - I've already watched another 4x4 bog itself in the sand through too sudden an application of torque, and we have even more of it beneath our shapely yellow bonnet. Once we're rolling it's possible to feed the power, which soon shows that although this show car - bound in a couple of days for the Los Angeles show stand - has some parts actually made from clay, it is light and compact among its peers. Visibility is good in all directions, and you sight down the elegant bonnet. The wraparound screen works brilliantly - just tall enough to deflect wind while looking racy. Shame there are no wipers and no plan for a folding roof.
The suspension feels supple on sand that varies between bone-jarring ruts and scary softness. On both the steering is light and quite responsive for a concept, in which such things are never optimised. The combination of low seating in a wide-tracked vehicle that is higher than most, but has tiny overhangs makes a vehicle that mixes sportiness and luxury in a new way, a roadster for 2015 and beyond. Hard to think that it can be so closely related to a snorkel-equipped expedition vehicle with slogging four-cylinder diesel, a manual gearbox, a snorkel, roof lights and roof-rack for fuel drums and spare wheels. Or a farm pick-up with a fabric canopy and a couple of sheepdogs in the back. Yet this is what the Defender will continue to be.
Should I buy one?
One phrase in Land Rover's promotional blurb stands out: the DC100 concepts aims to match the original Land Rover Defender's "spirit of freedom". If that means offering equal configurability and improving breadth of capability of the 54-year old original, while building a character as much loved and as globally recognisable, then it looks an enormous task. But on the evidence of looking, talking and some driving on a Californian beach, I'd say Ralf Speth, Gerry McGovern and their henchmen are off to a very decent start.