A few caveats: we’re largely on rough roads – a brief stretch on asphalt suggests the Defender is an engaging road drive too. The steering gains weight and response as forces build, the ride’s composed, pliant, but with tight body control and well-contained roll. And we’re on knobbly tyres rather than more road-biased ones. Also, there’s a roof rack and ladder and a bunch of kit on top of the car, which probably doesn’t help dynamics, so I’m impressed that the Defender feels so sure-footed.
The reason for the tyres and the kit, of course, is the terrain. Namibia has all of it. In places, it’s rocky, with oodles of small loose stones or big solid ones, but all able to snag a tyre sidewall. And at times, it’s sandy, dune-like or more solid or in a riverbed, which when we drive through is flooded with sufficient water to make for a tough wading test, with thick mud beneath. Bar slippery grass, which will be the standard UK test, Namibia has got everything. What I do like about the Defender’s design is how it interacts with its surroundings. The drag coefficient is a reasonable Cd 0.38 but there’s still been the chance to leave little shelves around the lights that attract and trap dirt and dust; an old Defender does the same and it’s something that would be annoying on a BMW 3 Series but works nicely here.
How well the Defender’s appearance will otherwise mature I don’t know, but following one today, it’s novel and largely avoids caricature. In essence, Land Rover admits it gives Discovery 4 owners a car to move on to, but in design terms, there are also shades of first-generation Freelander about its stance when you see it moving.
The Defender is equal to whatever terrain we put its way. It’s hard to say how much better or worse than the key rivals it is (even when we do conduct back-to-back testing in the UK, we’ll find muddy ground can change as we drive over it, making exact replication hard). But the raw numbers are strong, particularly with the suspension on its highest setting. And with the gearbox in low ratio, both the diesel but more so the petrol have decent urge. The diesel can get a little bogged as you try to keep momentum along soft riverbeds (it is a 2248kg car) and, with no separate chassis, there are no slide rails at the back, but the rear overhang is short, the floor flat, and the front bumper and skid plate the lowest part of the car – so if you clear objects with those, it should clear all the way along.
What’s striking, though, and unusual, is how easy the Defender tries to make all of this crawling and wading. In a Wrangler, it feels like off-roading is how you challenge yourself, as you choose to lock the differentials and disconnect the anti-roll bars via cabin switches. Wranglers are incredibly capable, and I love them for it, partly because they make off-roading feel like a hobby.
The Defender tries not to make it a chore. As standard on the models you can spec at the moment is the Terrain Response system that manipulates suspension, differentials, brakes, traction control and more on the go. It also has 360deg cameras, including a through-bonnet one showing the front wheels, and even a wade sensor that tells you when you’re approaching its 900mm depth limit – in case water approaching the windows doesn’t let you know.
That means you have to get out of the car less, fiddle with buttons less, poke a stick into a stream less, and stay comfortable and at the right temperature more. Tick a couple of boxes and fit the right towbar and it’ll even tell you how much weight is on the towball and run a trailer tail-light check without you having to leave your seat.