Car Review: The Land Rover Defender goes wild


We turned to face the road and there it was standing in the middle of the dirt track, panting deeply and purposefully, perfectly oblivious to its own majesty. 

We saw the cheetah through the windscreen of a Land Rover Defender 90, the variant of the iconic series that recently landed in the country. We had taken it to the Bothongo Rhino & Lion Nature Reserve on the outskirts of Krugersdorp.

The gimmick of the park is that throughout its route it has detours that only 4x4s can take. It’s a neat feature that preserves the inclusivity of the experience while offering a dare to those who feel off-road capable. When one is in a Defender it doesn’t feel like it should be much of a choice.

Eventually we made it to the predator’s den. Cordoned off from the rest of the park, the area had its own quadrants for each animal. There were lions that slept lazily in the middle of their favoured patch of grass. The wild dogs were equally lethargic having been fed recently, while the vultures still greedily picked away at their own lunch.

The cheetah territory was not as conspicuous. There were two cats that had been separated into a small enclosure for whatever reason, but the broader area had no sign of movement. The remains of the carcass from feeding time lay unattended in the opening.

It was in the moment of scanning the surroundings that the cheetah appeared in front of the vehicle, slinking out of the tall grass before pausing.

Eventually it sauntered past. Its spindly shoulder blades cycled up and down like a pair of hydraulics. It walked slowly forward, allowing us to slowly idle behind it.

The Defender 90 feels made for these outdoor excursions. Sure, the previous 110 generally received positive reviews, but this feels like a refined trim of the little excess there was.

What defines the 90 is its shorter wheel-base. In non-motoring speak this means the two tyres have been pressed closer together … or, simply, it’s now a two-door.

For many first impressions the outside body looks deceptively small. Given the sheer size of the original, boxy design, this comes across as more diminutive than it is. One observer even levelled the accusation that it looks “cute”.

It’s important to understand that it’s anything but. 

What the 90 does is package the capabilities of the four-door in a lighter frame. And one that still manages to maintain the cavernous sense of the interior. The sheer sense of space the cabin offers from front to back is quite remarkable. It feels like the magical tent from Harry Potter in which the characters lean into a tiny opening only to find a yawning marquee inside.

Also of note on the aesthetics side is the gloss-white 18” steel wheels that come as standard on the baser versions. To some this might come across as cheap but it probably won’t be long until they grow on you. Not to mention it will be exponentially cheaper to fix any dings than on fancier, spoked rims. These are not unique to the two-door but they feel perfectly in place here. 

Driving it properly will undoubtedly be a factor. This Defender is fun to let loose — both on and off the road. Its trimmed frame connects to the wheels in a more meaningful way; there is a greater sense of the ground below as you swing the steering wheel into a corner or over a crevice.

Do you remember those James Bond-tie in trailers, where the Defender rolls and just keeps on driving? The 90 feels closer than ever to that; a vehicle you can swing around in the mud and not fret if you slide into a hidden tree stump.

(Also, let’s take a moment of silence to spare a thought for the Land Rover marketing team. They probably invested heavily to have the release of the Defender coincide roughly with its appearance in a blockbuster, only for said movie to remain delayed thanks to the pandemic.)

As much as the minimalist design suits the shortened body, prospective customers can opt for a bevy of trim-level and engine combinations. For speed you’ll pick up the 3.0-litre engines — both diesel and petrol, with mild hybrid technology — which have 0-100km/h times of under seven seconds. It’s worth emphasising that the 2.0-litre options are perfectly serviceable, especially when it comes to those off-road detours. Beginning at just over R1.2-million, you can pay anywhere upwards of R500 000 to get the fusion you desire (not forgetting the multiple add-on packs you can tack on too). Or at least R1-million extra if you’re thinking of getting the anticipated V8, but that’s a whole other story.

Worrying too much about things like options seems to go against the point of this iteration. It’s not exactly what you might call a budget car but if you want the Defender experience distilled into its purest form then look no further.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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