Kaokoland, NAMIBIA – This is not the Defender you know. After three days testing the new Land Rover Defender 110 over strenuous Namibian terrain, we were left with nearly as many questions as answers...

Day 1: Opuwo to Van Zyl’s Camp

Glinting in the harsh Kaokoland sun, the fleet of Indus Silver (P400) and Pangea Green (D240) Defenders starkly contrasts with the dusty Opuwo airstrip as our charter plane performs a low flyover to warn the villagers and livestock of our arrival (the strip isn’t manned) before landing. This is day one of the Defender Kaokoland expedition. This afternoon, we’ll depart for Van Zyl’s Camp at the foot of the notorious Van Zyl’s Pass, which we’ll tackle tomorrow morning.

On the expedition, we’ll spend three days swapping between Defender D240 and P400 models, both in second-tier S grade and equipped with the optional Explorer Pack plus a few crucial pieces of equipment.

Safety and product briefing over, we – Paul Henderson from GQ UK and I – settle into a D240’s cabin before a crackle over the two-way radio announces it’s time to depart. This should be fun!

Referred to as “the land God made in anger”, Kaokoland is an unforgiving place. This is apparent as soon as we turn away from a short stretch of tar outside Opuwo and head northwest along rutted gravel roads. We pass the odd truck, bakkie and car but these will soon disappear into hours-long stretches where we see no other people aside from the occasional Himba settlement, one of 11 nomadic and traditional ethnic groups in Namibia. 

The Defender is in its element. Thanks to standard-fitment air suspension, an all-new D7x monocoque platform does an impressive job of ironing out the ruts, while the spacious cabin is quiet and the seats – trimmed in a combination of khaki leather and woven textile, a blend which suits the Defender perfectly – comfortable. This already feels like a very different Defender; gone is the old model’s cramped driving position with little space for your right elbow. The dust kicked up by the convoy means I don’t roll down the window and plop my right elbow on the window sill, a common practice in old Defenders.

Under the bonnet of our vehicle is another big change. The most powerful diesel option in the range, the D240 Ingenium engine produces a robust 177 kW and 430 N.m. Performance is middling because of the vehicle’s weight despite the aluminium shell – Land Rover claims 2,3 tonnes fully fuelled – but the Ingenium is more refined than in any other JLR product I’ve recently driven. It melds seamlessly with the eight-speed torque-converter transmission. Suspicions start creeping in that this new model feels closer in driving manners and refinement to a Discovery 4 than the beloved previous Defender...

It easily surpasses the Discovery 4 in terms of onboard technology, however. In the middle of the purposefully sparse dashboard sits a 10-inch touchscreen featuring Land Rover’s new Pivi Pro infotainment system – it’s much simpler and more responsive than the often-confusing, sometimes-laggy setup used in other JLR vehicles – supplemented with a 12,3-inch instrumentation screen offering 3D navigation, among other features. Thankfully, Land Rover has retained physical buttons for the dual-zone climate control system, as well as Terrain Response 2. There’s a nicely tactile gearlever, too.

I have many wonderful memories of sitting on the cubby lid in an old Defender 110 as a child. Between Paul and me is a third seat but this pew adheres to all safety regulations and transforms the Defender 110 into a six-seater. There’s a third row available, too, but that deletes the optional third front seat to turn the 110 into a seven-up vehicle. We have it folded down and our smartphones plugged into the USB ports. Not that we’ll need our phones for anything other than taking pictures and videos; we’re deep into Kaokoland now and cellphone reception has vanished.

Rutted gravel has made for hard-packed sand and we often cross a dry riverbed. Namibia experienced a drought for six straight years yet, a few days before our arrival, torrential rains saw these rivers in full flood. Our convoy leader is in constant contact with the towns to advise him whether more rain will soon halt our path.

Thankfully, we make our way unhindered to Van Zyl’s Camp, where we’re each shown to our tent with a warning to check for scorpions in shoes before closing the day with a wonderful braai under a ridiculously star-studded sky. Tomorrow morning, Van Zyl’s Pass awaits...

Day 2: Van Zyl’s Camp to Purros

Arguably Namibia’s most famous pass, the jagged, rocky track was built by Dutch explorer Ben van Zyl in the 1960s and is the only navigable route from Okangwati in the far northwest down into the Marienfluss valley. It stands 1 200 metres above sea level with a 600-metre drop into Marienfluss.

Paul and I will be tackling the pass in the mild-hybrid P400. Under this Defender’s blocky bonnet is a 3,0-litre inline-six engine boasting turbocharging plus a 48 V electric supercharger. The straight-six feels alien in a Defender but I appreciate the instant ramp-up in response over the D240 and it sounds heavenly. It’s also perfectly suited to slow off-roading with very little lag.

Before the pass reaches its apex, we spot an abandoned off-road trailer. Soon after, we notice a rolled Toyota Hilux next to the track, then other discarded and damaged vehicles. Yet, thanks to 291 mm of ground clearance, low range and a locking centre differential, the Defender 110 negotiates every axle-twisting obstacle. It’s slow going and takes us more than an hour to drive a few kilometres but there are no punctures nor damage to glossy bodywork. We reach the end of the pass and all sign our names on a rock – as is the custom when you negotiate Van Zyl’s successfully – pose for a convoy picture and descend into the Marienfluss.

This vast valley between the Otjihipa and Hartmann mountains allows us to increase speed to compensate for our slow crawl over the pass and we’re soon into three figures as the P400 remains notably stable on the loose sand. Once again, the cockpit impresses with its refinement, as does the steering system. It’s typically JLR light and direct, and makes placing the five-metre-long, 2,1-metre-wide Defender easy. There are those hints of Discovery 4 again...

We have lunch in a dry riverbed and depart for Purros and the comforts of Okahirongo Elephant Lodge, where we’re joined by Tusk, a global NGO that’s partnered with Land Rover to amplify conservation initiatives. It’s been a full day of exhausting driving but the gin tastes good and the Defender has proven itself a mighty capable off-roader.

Day 3: Purros to Opuwo

Day three is announced with a beautiful sunrise and strong coffee as we load our luggage into the vast 916-litre boot and ready ourselves for the last stretch back to Opuwo via Skeleton Coast National Park. The folks from Land Rover have managed to arrange access to the area, accompanied by a ranger and the park manager (very few people are allowed into this 500 km strip of protected land fringed by the Atlantic). You may know that more than a thousand shipwrecks line the Skeleton Coast’s shores but there’ll be no such bad luck for us today as we exploit the P400’s 298 kW to overcome deep, soft sand and muddy, gelatinous riverbeds. Once again, the Defender negotiates the challenging terrain without putting a foot wrong.

After lunch back in Purros outside the Manchester United bar, we kick off our last stretch to Opuwo in a D240, this one without the jump seat. In its place, there is enough space to walk through to the roomy second row (as standard, the Defender boasts a massive centre console lined with USB ports, cupholders and the like). This last section takes in mainly graded gravel roads, punctuated by the odd rocky section and we revel in the Defender’s excellent body control, air-suspended ride and quiet cabin. A full day after departing Okahirongo, we pull into Opuwo Country Lodge and say cheers with ice-cold beers to a spectacular 800 km, three-day expedition.

So, what’s the consensus?

First, a caveat: we drove the new Defender on tar for all of a few kilometres. I’m therefore unable to reach a definitive verdict on how it will cope with the demands of daily life. However, judging by its poise and control on both smooth and rutted gravel, I’d wager it’ll be a deeply satisfying vehicle to pilot every day.

What of the pricing, then? Well, you’ll have to decide whether you consider it good value or not. While hugely impressive, the P400 offers surplus performance and lacks that characteristic diesel rumble that feels so at home in a proper SUV such as the Defender; and it’s quite a lot more expensive with the top-spec models nudging R1,5 million.

The D240 is undoubtedly the one to have. I’d opt for S-grade because it comes with all the standard features you want without superfluous items such as upgraded LED headlamps, keyless entry, bigger alloys and a Meridian sound system. Even with conservative speccing, the price will soon hike into Discovery 5 and Range Rover Sport territory and that’s problematic for the Defender.

In all other respects, it’s as spacious as you’d want; vastly more talented than before across a variety of terrains; beautifully finished, while appealingly robust and simple; boasts a full suite of modern safety features; and looks utterly fantastic caked in a layer of dust and mud. If you deem the price of admission acceptable and – as many people do – you pine for the squared-off Discovery 3 and 4 instead of the swoopy 5, I’ve little doubt the Defender would make every journey, not just those into the furthest reaches of northwest Namibia, feel immensely special.



FAST FACTS

Model: Land Rover Defender 110 D240 AWD S/P400 MHEV AWD S
Price: R1 042 800 (D240)/R1 164 800 (P400)
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, turbodiesel/3,0-litre, 6-cyl, turbopetrol plus electric supercharger
Power: 177 kW @ 4 000 r/min/294 kW @ 5 500 r/min
Torque: 430 N.m @ 1 400 r/min/550 N.m @ 2 000-5 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 9,1/6,1 seconds
Top Speed: 188/208 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 7,8/9,8 L/100 km
CO2: 205/227 g/km
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5 years/100 000 km