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Land Rover Defender: is the new model fit for a Queen?

There is a delicious yarn that's almost too good to check concerning a senior Land Rover executive. Sitting down with his personal PR team one Monday morning a few years ago, he announced that he'd like them to get him "a gong".

"A gong, sir?" they parroted.

"Yes a gong; Queen's Birthday Honours list and all that," he replied.

"Well, sir," said a particularly bold minion. "Until you supply Her Majesty The Queen with a worthy replacement for her Defender, I don't think you've a wax cat's chance in hell of a gong."

The Queen driving a Defender during the 1999 Royal Windsor Horse Show Credit: ian jones

So is the new Defender worthy of a 'gong'? It's on sale now at prices ranging from about £35,000 plus VAT for the commercial version, £45,250 for the long-wheelbase 110, which is the first model on sale, and about £40,000 for the short-wheelbase 90, although the top-of-the-range X version will be £78,800, which is more expensive than a base-model Range Rover.

First deliveries of the new workhorse will take place next spring although as one dealer pointed out, "work for these vehicles will be more about surfboards on the roof than spring lambs in the back; farmers these days have tractors which can do 60mph and six-wheel-drive gators to get on to the high hilltops".

A suitable perch for Her Majesty? This is the top-of-the-range Defender X, which is priced from £78,800

Despite the secrecy surrounding the Frankfurt show launch, details were leaked yesterday with photos and details splattered across the web. Replacing the old body-on-ladder-frame construction of the previous Defender is an all-aluminium unitary body similar to that underpinning the Range Rover Sport.

Land Rover says it is three times stiffer than the old Defender  and insiders say that like the Range Rover Sport, the new Defender is pretty good on the road and staggeringly adept off it. The 90 is slightly shorter than a Ford Focus and will seat up to six and the 110 model seats up to seven.

The 2.0-litre turbodiesel option is available with two power outputs, 200PS and 240PS but both delivering 317lb ft of torque, 37.7mpg and 199g/km of CO2. In the short-wheelbase 90 the D200 engine is capable of 0-62mph in 10.2sec and 109mph, with equivalent figures for the 240bhp version of 9sec and 117mph.

There are two petrol models starting with a 300bhp/295lb ft, 2.0-litre turbo, four-cylinder capable of 119mph, 0-62mph in 8sec, 25mpg and 277g/km. The top model P400 is a 400bhp/406lb ft 3.0-litre straight-six turbo engine with a 48-volt mild hybrid system, capable of 129mph (on 22-inch wheels), 0-62mph in 6.3sec, 25.5mpg and 272g/km.

Land Rover says that the new Defender will be much more accomplished on Tarmac than its forebear - which shouldn't be difficult - and just adept in the rough

All the vehicles have an eight-speed ZF torque converter automatic transmission, with permanent four-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer box to give a set of crawler gears. They weigh between 2.14 and 2.29 tonnes in short-wheelbase 90 form and all models will tow a 3.5-tonne braked trailer.

So what do you think? From a personal point of view it's great news that Land Rover has finally got round to replacing the Defender, even if the result is a cross between a Skoda Yeti, a Toyota FJ and a Kia Soul. And while they used to put a plate with Solihull, Warwickshire, England on the back of Land Rovers, this new Defender will be built alongside the Jaguar i-Pace at the company's plant in Slovakia - 'Nitra, Slovakia' doesn't quite have the same ring, so will that be a deal-breaker for this very British institution? Land Rover says no, although others are more cautious.

"There are a lot of advantages in building vehicles with the European Union," says Professor Peter Wells of the Cardiff Business School, "but the new Defender is going to be trading heavily on its Britishness, so they'll need to be careful."

The last Land Rover Defender comes off the production line at Solihull on January 29, 2016. More than two million of the 4x4s were produced over the previous 68 years Credit: PA

"We all had a heavy heart when we ended production of the original Defender four years ago," said Richard Agnew, Land Rover's chief spin doctor, "so we are delighted to be introducing a new one."

The original car, drawn with a stick in the sand of Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey in 1947 by Spencer and Maurice Wilkes (respectively managing director and chief engineer of Rover), wasn't the original go-anywhere design, but it combined features of the Second World War Willys Jeep and its rivals to be practical, economical and highly effective; the fact the public loved it was purely incidental - these days original Series 1 Land Rover models fetch upwards of £40,000.

Service with the British Army as well as other armed forces, the police, coastguard, ambulance and breakdown services kept the Land Rover (subsequently named Defender to differentiate from other Land Rover models) in the public eye. Since then Land Rovers have pushed and clambered, traversed and forded their way into our hearts. With a cabin smelling of wet dog and baler twine, and an anti-tank missile, a sheep or a defibrillator in the back, roasting your passenger’s knees with its all-or-nothing heater, jamming the driver into the door frame and trapping fingers in its impossibly stiff door catches, and often breaking down at the worst possible moment.     

The new Defender has a wading depth of 900mm - as well as a large towing capacity - making it a fitting follow-up to the original

By May 2015, Land Rover built its two millionth Defender which was still selling more than 17,000 a year, but in truth Land Rover had been under-investing in its old warhorse for years, living off its reputation, watching fleet orders from armed forces and utilities dwindle and rivals taking over African, Middle Eastern and Antipodian markets. There's an  Aussie saying which sums up what customers thought of the Defender: "If you want to go into the outback, take a Land Rover. If you want to come out again, take a Toyota." And while you might be able to mend an old Defender with not much more than a hammer, you frequently had to as they were legendarily unreliable.  

By the time production ended in 2016, the Defender passed diddly squat in terms of crash legislation and Land Rover showed little interest in re-engineering the vehicle to meet modern driving requirements and legislation as Mercedes-Benz has recently done with its G-wagen - another iconic off-roader.

When the going gets tough...

As a result replacing the Defender became one of the toughest jobs in the motor industry. Witness the clamour from owners and fans when Land Rover unveiled the controversial DC100 concept, which posited a modern take on the Defender, in November 2011.

And now we have the all-new Defender, a modern vehicle packed with technology including Land Rover's transparent bonnet technology for picking your way across tough terrain. The interior is light years ahead of its antediluvian predecessor's, with a 10-inch touchscreen including an updated terrain response chassis control system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as modern camera- and radar-based adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning and monitoring and emergency automatic braking. Oh, a key fob as a wearable watch.

This is a very different sort of Defender and while it undoubtedly could, it isn't perhaps the sort of vehicle you'd drive up a snowy fell to rescue a sick lamb, but is it fit for a queen? Now there really is a question...  

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