Premium

There's only one car the Land Rover Defender has to live up to – and that's the G-Wagen 

Mercedes G-Wagen vs Land Rover Defender 
The Mercedes G350d is one of Ed Wiseman's favourite cars, largely because it stays so true to the original. Will JLR's modernised Defender pull off the same feat – and does it need to? Credit: Andrew Crowley 

The Land Rover Defender wasn’t particularly good. By the time the ‘Defender’ name actually appeared at the start of the 1990s, it referred to a slightly outdated, slightly awkward relic of a car that couldn’t quite hold its own against the cheap, reliable, comfortable and fast models being imported from Japan. In comparison to say, the Toyota Hilux, the Defender felt a little bit old-fashioned. And compared to anything built after around 1998, Land Rover’s “best 4x4xfar” felt positively antediluvian. 

Why, then, did it continue to be built until 2016? What possible use could customers have for a machine that was demonstrably worse than its rivals? Given that the Defender was slower, less practical and more expensive than anything else an actual farmer might consider, why was JLR still churning them out in quite reasonable quantities until well past the model’s sell-by date?

Let’s start by looking at its strengths. For starters, the body-on-frame construction meant that it was easy to turn it into an ambulance, or a gun bus, or some obscure apparatus for laying broadband connections in the Highlands. And its off-road ability really was good, even when pitched against more sophisticated modern 4x4s. What’s more, it could be fixed incredibly easily; while a Land Rover tended to go wrong more often than a Toyota, it could at least be fixed at the roadside with a mole wrench and some baler twine. 

But this doesn’t add up to a compelling business case. Utility companies, emergency workers and hill farmers are important parts of our nation’s fabric but don’t buy anywhere near enough cars to justify a whole model line. The Defender was indeed good off-road, but you could get basically the same ability from a cheaper, more comfortable, more versatile all-round car. And hardly anybody does their own spannering anymore, so even the most mechanically-minded farmer would rather have a car that doesn’t break down in the first place. 

That leaves the fourth reason behind Land Rover’s success: people just wanted them

The Defender is a true automotive icon Credit: PA/Angie Pearce

With a couple of exceptions, we buy cars with our hearts rather than our heads, and there’s no better example of this phenomenon than the ongoing popularity of the old Defender. I say that as the former owner of a 90 (which remains the best car I’ve ever owned despite being terrible in every measurable way) and as a longstanding Land Rover fan. It isn’t a very good car, but the fact that people love it means that perhaps cars don’t need to be good in order to be cool.

That’s a charming notion, and one that makes the old Defender a tough act to follow. It had a certain swagger that made people overlook its shortcomings, and a specific cachet that few cars ever develop. Is JLR able to keep this legend alive?

Mercedes-Benz did. The G-Class, formerly and informally known as the G-Wagen, could be described as Germany’s answer to the Defender, though that would be doing both a disservice. Like the Defender, the ‘old’ G-Wagen was a no-nonsense off-roader that went out of production long after it became obsolete. And like the Defender it was adored by a small number of farmers and acolytes happy to overlook its serious shortcomings. But unlike the Defender, which will be unveiled tomorrow at the Frankfurt Motor Show, we’ve had the new G-Wagen for a while. Which means we know exactly what the new Defender has to live up to. 

The G350d is one of my favourite cars, and that’s not something I would have expected to write three weeks ago, before Mercedes lent me one. I first drove the new G-Wagen at the launch in Carcassonne a year or so ago (which is about as unbearable a sentence as you’re ever likely to read, even in the Telegraph) where all the cars were all G63s – the powerful V8 version that you sometimes hear snorting its way up the Kings Road of an evening. It’s all very fun, and to some extent I feel it’s the most interesting application for that amazing engine),but it's not really my scene. 

But the diesel G-Class – a car that I have recently, reluctantly given back – is different. It has all the character of the G-Wagen, the same swagger and that cool, cuboid shape. It has the frosted indicators on top of the wings, the go-anywhere off-road performance, and the heft of an old-school ladder chassis 4x4. People stop to take photographs of it if you park it in Soho; Post Malone mentions it in a song. And it achieves all this while being practical, pleasant to drive, and even somewhat fuel efficient. 

Put simply, it’s cool. The G350d is the perfect sequel to the old G-Wagen, in that its a huge improvement in every respect, and just as desirable, if not more so. 

Will this ever happen to the new Defender? Will it be similar enough to the old car to please the true Land Rover die-hards, and will it be capable enough to deal with high expectations both on- and off-road? Will people stop to take photographs of it in central London? Perhaps most importantly, will anybody ever rap about it?

The old Defender's dwindling user base was sad to see it go. Will the new one fill its tyre tracks, or has it already been replaced? Credit: Sean Dempsey /PA

My hunch is yes to all. And I say that having seen the embargoed photographs (and the vast number of leaked and “leaked” images that have filled my news feed for the past few weeks), which show JLR’s most well-sorted design for around a decade, apart from the F-Type. Yes it looks like a facelift Skoda Yeti if you squint, but that’s no bad thing. And yes it's palpably less jagged than the old car, which is an understandable concession to aerodynamics and pedestrian safety. The world in which the old Defender made sense no longer exists – the new car looks just right for 2019.

It's late, and it's the Frankfurt Motor Show tomorrow, so I won't beat around the bush for too much longer. As a long-time Land Rover fan, I've been left cold by practically everything the company has built for the past decade, and I wish that the Discovery 5 (for example) had been more like the G-Wagen (also for example). But I'm cautiously optimistic about the Defender, and if early reports are anything to go by, Land Rover might be about to do something very, very cool. 

Do you remember the old Defender? What do you think of the new one? Let us know in the comments below, or weigh in on our Facebook group – the Telegraph Motoring Club