Nothing is moving in the parched valley bowl below except for the whirling dust blown this way and that by the hot summer wind. What water there is is slowly evaporating, leaving behind it only cracking mud, baked hard underfoot. Sandblasted, desiccated vegetation provides the only shade, and there’s very little of it. The temperature is 31deg C and climbing. This, believe it or not, is rural Leicestershire, and never has it looked quite so inhospitable.
There isn’t a scrap of asphalt to be seen. Instead, the landscape offers only steep tracks, rocky crawls and craggy descents much too perilous to be negotiated in anything less than the most capable four-wheel-drive passenger vehicles on the planet. As it happens, however, that’s just what we’ve got – and we’re here to find out which tops the pile.
There’s no tougher pair of four-wheeled opponents for the all-new Land Rover Defender than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and Mercedes-Benz G-Class. As you’ll probably already have read, these are rivals that both offer precisely what the new-generation, monocoque-underbodied Land Rover has just given up in its rush towards well-mannered modernity: a ladder-frame chassis, solid articulating axles and a degree of compactness that has fallen well out of fashion with the makers of today’s luxury SUVs. What difference will that make, I wonder? We’ll find out in a while.
But before my colleague Matt Prior takes over to tell you all about how these cars compare off road, I’m to fill you in on what driving and using them in daily life might be like. And if Gaydon’s decision to move its off-roading icon from a traditional separate-chassis construction to a unitary one and replace articulating axles with independent suspension is to pay off, it ought to be on ring roads and motorways rather than on rough tracks and mudslides. As we’ll find out, it does that – loudly and clearly, in fact. But that’s not all that would make the new Defender more usable, driveable and pleasant than either the Mercedes or the Jeep in everyday use.
We’ll start in an obvious but nonetheless important place. Driving anything the size of cars such as these means first getting in. It’s the G-Class that makes you climb highest, stepping first on that chunky chromed running board on your way in. It’s really not unlike getting up into the cab of a lorry.
Both the Defender and Wrangler can just about be entered directly from the ground, the Land Rover by virtue of the lowered ‘access’ height of its standard air suspension (which disguises its size quite cleverly in the process), and the Jeep just because it’s a slightly lower-riding, leaner vehicle than either of the others. The Jeep would, in fact, probably be the easiest car to get in and out of full stop, if not for its chunky door sill. You have to hitch your left leg right up and out straight to negotiate it, as if hurdling a low fence – and then once you’re in, the driver’s footwell feels narrower and more confined than you might be expecting.