What is it?
I don’t know if it’s bold or reckless to launch a Land Rover in Namibia.
Not because of the barrenness, what with it being the second least densely populated country on earth, having a land mass three and a half times the UK’s but only 2.5 million inhabitants. Not because the terrain is challenging and so vast that there’s a national park the size of Belgium.
No, it’s because the default car of choice is a Toyota.
It’s not that you don’t see Land Rovers. Walk around the capital, Windhoek, and you’ll find Range Rovers as you will everywhere money lives, but out in the wilds – and Namibia is second only to Mongolia when it comes to wilds – the Hilux is king. Namibia is a country where four in 10 brand-new cars are Toyotas, where it used to be a much higher percentage than that, and where the Hilux’s capability and longevity mean that, in the places you’d really want to test a Defender, the cars that aren’t Hiluxes are other beaten-up Japanese pick-ups. There are a few old series Land Rovers going on adventures, but the working or adventuring truck market is one, you have to conclude, the Defender left some time ago.
What does it want to be now? Well, this is it, the new Defender, the most difficult vehicle to replace since Volkswagen tried to reinvent the Beetle. The old car had a separate chassis because that’s how you did things in 1948 and, although updated during its life, true modernisation had probably faltered by the 1980s and the Land Rover hasn’t been a ubiquitous, everyman’s vehicle for most of this century.
And so, as with the modern Mini, the new Beetle and the Fiat 500, the reinvention comes. Not an easy task. “All of our marketing blah-blah about reinventing an icon is true, I think,” says Felix Bräutigam, Jaguar Land Rover’s chief commercial officer, who has joined us for the drive and, having worked at Porsche (and with a 911 GT3 RS 4.0 and the last-ever manual Jaguar F-Type in his garage), I think you’d like him a lot.
“The 60-second elevator pitch for the Defender is ‘capability’,” he says. “This is not a sport utility vehicle. It’s a 4x4.”
Interesting distinction, and not one I often make. What else is a 4x4, not an SUV? Search Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes G-Class and Toyota Land Cruiser and you’ll find their makers all file them under ‘SUV’, but Bräutigam has stripped out the term in Defender literature. Land Rover would like you to think this is the real deal, a Land Rover like no other. “Land Rover is a three-legged stool again,” he says.
Is it like the old one? If you imagine Land Rover development had continued in, say, Porsche 911 or Honda Civic style, with regular updates and model cycles and some technology step during each one, is this where you’d end up?
I don’t think so: the new Defender, one of the most capable vehicles on earth though it may be, is pitched where the previous Defender left off, as a premium want-vehicle, not as the need-vehicle that is how the original series Land Rover began its life.