Tackling Namibia in the 2020 Land Rover Defender
It’s the classic Land Rover image. A big bull elephant foraging for food in a sandy riverbed in Africa, Land Rover Defender not far away, its driver and passenger observing through binoculars and long camera lenses. We watched as it munched on the vegetation, nourished by the recent rain. Namibia is the driest country in southern Africa, but this was the wet season. Other parts of that long and meandering river system were flush with water, as we were later to discover. Then the elephant turned, trumpeted a warning, waited till we moved on, then disappeared into the bush beyond.
Land Rover forged its reputation in Africa, thanks to adventurers and explorers, bush farmers and game-park guides, as well as the 1966 movie Born Free that told the true story of Kenyan conservationists Joy and George Adamson. Old Land Rovers are still a common sight in Africa, giving loyal service in the more remote regions of the world’s wildest continent.
So, it made sense to host the first big off-road media drive of the new Defender there. We did a three-day, 420-mile adventure in Namibia, in one of the most remote regions of the most deserted country in Africa. Fewer than 10 of those miles were on paved roads. The rest was a mix of rocky mountain passes, sandy deserts, dunes, gravel, and dry (and sometimes wet) riverbeds.
The new Defender is well suited to Africa, but Land Rover needed to make sure it was also well suited to America. This is the first new Defender sold in the states since 1997. Like the old one, it prioritizes off-road prowess and toughness. It wears pleasingly familiar square styling and short overhangs, rides on tall profile tires, and has terrific ground clearance. We find auto-locking center and rear diffs, plus low range mode. Yet, it will be much more popular on the smoothly surfaced roads of North America’s affluent West than in Africa. The U.S., never a big market for old-school Land Rovers, is a key target. This Defender is aimed at well-heeled buyers who’ll value its practicality, go-anywhere capability, versatility, and adventurous heritage—even if they won’t be putting all of that potential to the test.
The old Defender was the world’s longest-lived 4×4. When production stopped in 2016, after 68 years of evolution, Land Rover was faced with the dilemma of how to replace it. Truly tough 4x4s are a dying breed. The world wants soft-roader SUVs, designed for families and for those whose idea of adventure is to ski, cycle, fish, or play sports. The ability to cross Africa is, for them, mostly irrelevant. Replacing a bruiser of an SUV, one never designed for a soft urban life, with such customers in mind was a difficult proposition.
The result is a tough and highly capable off-road SUV that also exhibits surprising refinement on the road. It’s spacious and comfortable enough for everyday use, and there are the usual trappings of modern Land Rover luxury, including rich leather and handsome wood furnishings. The cabin is classy and also functional. Note the grab handles for unexpected driving angles, the door and boot trim secured by exposed bolts, and the big magnesium bulkhead that’s part of both the dash and the car’s structure. The rubber flooring, too, is easy to wash and sweep clean. The gear shifter is mounted on the dashboard to free room for an optional center front seat. We also find a side-hinged tailgate to which an external spare wheel is fixed. Classic Land Rover touches, all.
Less familiar to traditionalists is a new state-of-the-art, dual-LTE-modem Pivi Pro infotainment system, a generation ahead of anything you’ll find on the poshest of new Range Rovers or Jaguars. (It will be rolled out to other Jaguar and Land Rover models soon, replacing the much-maligned InControl Touch Pro system.) There is a central touchscreen through which you access most functions, and surrounding cameras can act as remote off-road “spotters.” A particularly clever piece of tech allows you to seemingly look “through” the hood via the feed from a front-mounted camera, useful for tough off-roading (or parking).
To old Defender diehards these tech features may appear heretical, but they make this young gun easier to drive when the going gets tough. Over-the-air software updates can also automatically upgrade chassis, braking and engine settings, as well as infotainment.
Perhaps the biggest change is to the chassis and suspension. The old Defender endured for decades with a body-on-frame design and beam axles. The new one uses a tougher version of the sophisticated aluminum monocoque that underpins the latest Land Rover Discovery and big Range Rover. It also uses air springs and fully independent suspension. The former gives height adjustment, boosting go-anywhere prowess: It can wade deeper than the old Defender and, of course, extra ride height means more tough-terrain capability. The latter makes for a much calmer and more comfortable ride, especially at speed. It can act as a work vehicle too, if necessary; towing capacity is 8200 pounds.
We tested two versions on our Namibian journey, both 110 models (there’s also a shorter-wheelbase 90 model exclusively offered as a two-door). We tried the 237-hp, 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder (not coming to the U.S.) and the top-of-the-range 110 X that uses the new 395-hp, 3.0-liter straight-six gas engine equipped with both a turbocharger and a mild-hybrid system. Both are mated to smooth-shifting eight-speed auto ’boxes. The 110 X will start at $81,925 in the U.S. including destination fees, but without key packs like Towing ($895), Comfort and Convenience ($300), and Cold Climate ($700). Short answer: It’s not cheap. The U.S. entry-level 110 model costs $50,925 and uses a 296-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged gas four-cylinder. It’s $900 for the optional front jump seat and $1200 for the two-seat third row. Land Rover will kick off sales for the two-door Defender 90 with a First Edition model that starts at $66,125, but standard 90s will follow with a starting price very close to that of the entry-level 110.
Our trip began in Opuwo, a frontier town of about 7000 people in the far north-west of Namibia. It’s full of Himba tribespeople; The women are half naked, wear goatskin skirts, braided hair, and a sea of necklaces and bracelets. They contrast with the Herero tribeswomen, who wear Victorian-style crinoline full-length dresses, petticoats, bodices, long sleeves and shawls, elaborate hats, and carry parasols. This incongruous dress is a vestige of German colonialism. The missionaries and settlers gave the Herero women work in their homes and on their land, but only if they covered up like their masters. These women have maintained their Victorian dress code ever since.
Our route took us northwest out of Opuwo. On day one we drove along gravel roads and hard-packed sandy tracks, and across dry riverbeds and crossings surging with recent rainwater. Semi-nomadic Himba were leading their cattle and goats. That night we slept in the Himba-run Van Zyl’s camp and ate under an African sky effervescent with stars. We slept in tents, the world outside alive with bush sounds.
Day two saw us descend the nearby Van Zyl’s pass, named after a former local commissioner who built this track in the 1960s as a shortcut to move cattle. This was the toughest off-roading we encountered, a precipitously steep descent (at an angle up to 35 degrees) over rocks and loose gravel. Described as “the wildest 4×4 trip in Namibia,” the hill is so steep that it’s only possible to drive in one direction—down. It took two and a half hours to travel four miles.
At the bottom lay a mangled Toyota Hilux pick-up, which had clearly slipped over the edge and rolled into the valley below. The caved-in roof and twisted cabin suggested a grim end, with no sign of driver or passenger.
We then sped through the sandy Marienfluss Valley, sandwiched by tall mountains. That night we slept at a lodge in the small Himba town of Purros and watched giraffe browse in the neighboring dry riverbed as we breakfasted.
Our final day took us into the Skeleton Coast Park, off limits to off-roaders. (Land Rover had a permit.) Here, we clambered over sand dunes and through dry and wet river beds, thankful that the new Defender can wade through water almost three feet deep. Once, we got literally bogged down as the chunky Goodyear Wrangler tires got stuck in the sludge. The remote electric winch pulled us clear, and that’s when we sighted the big bull elephant in the riverbed, enjoying the waterholes and lush vegetation of the recent rain.
Occasionally we glimpsed the beaches and surf of the Atlantic. More than 1000 shipwrecks, deceived by the wind and currents and rocks, line this coast. Then we sped on a decent gravel road north back to Opuwo.
Land Rover engineering boss Nick Rogers, who joined us on the adventure, says this is the best off-road vehicle that Land Rover has ever built. It’s hard to disagree. Accessories such as “expedition” roof racks, a roof tent and waterproof inflatable side awning also make it perfect for African adventures or, at least, for camping in the woods.
That Land Rover can build such a ferocious off-roader is one thing, but what’s more surprising is how the Defender does not sacrifice on-road performance despite its rugged capabilities. The ride is not as smooth or as refined as a new Range Rover or Discovery, but it’s commendably close. The Defender is more alive and involving. Sharper handling, too. The new six-cylinder engine is smooth, powerful, and provides brisk performance for such a large vehicle: 0–60 mph in just 5.7 seconds.
Most significant of all, the new Defender signals Land Rover’s return to making a tough off-road 4×4. The grand dame of Europe’s SUV makers is getting its tires dirty again. After years of urban drift and premium positioning, here is a Land Rover ready to conquer the world.