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January 11 2020
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The all-new, less spartan Land Rover Defender 110 Off Road.

The term “authentic” is used either in the strong sense of being “of undisputed origin or authorship,” or in a weaker sense of being “faithful to an original” or a “reliable, accurate representation.” To say that something is authentic is to say that it is what it professes to be, or what it is reputed to be, in origin or authorship.

So says The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its entry on “authenticity.” To go with this definition, a suitable illustration might be a picture of an old Land Rover Defender, the legendary beast of burden that came out of production, after 67 years of noble sales service, only in 2016. Though modified and modernized through the years and given a new name in 1991, that last Defender, like each of its lineal predecessors, could honestly trace its roots back to the very first “Land Rover” of 1948. When it comes to cars, authenticity doesn’t get more authentic than that.

A caravan of 90s-era Land Rovers.

Designed with the austere industrial policies of World War II–ravaged Britain in mind, the first Land Rover was a cash-seeking, export-or-die product devised by the Rover Company of Solihull, near Birmingham, in England’s West Midlands. Rover’s rumbling as an automaker commenced in 1904, following decades’ toil in bicycle manufacture. Few will know today that the Rover Safety Bicycle described the shape of what became the modern bicycle frame in the 1880s, instantly displacing high-wheeled penny farthings and other more or less absurd pedaling devices.

Rover’s rumbling as an automaker commenced in 1904, following decades’ toil in bicycle manufacture. The Rover Safety Bicycle described the shape of what became the modern bicycle frame in the 1880s.

The company carried its creative streak into the automotive era, and the go-anywhere Land Rover, for all its apparent simplicity, was no less inspired than the bicycle. Along with its own role model, the American Jeep of World War II—another gold standard for venerable iconography—Land Rover rose to the top of the authenticity heap, helping over the course of decades, for better or worse, to cement the world’s fascination with S.U.V.’s.

But by the time the Defender steamed into the 21st century, it no longer made much sense. With its decidedly old-school technology and quaint methods of construction, it couldn’t be updated to meet contemporary standards for safety, emissions, and profitability. It could be bettered off-road, and, possibly more important, it was seriously out of step with the modern driver’s need for continuous comfort and endless opportunity for information, entertainment, and distraction as provided by phones and today’s de rigueur onboard telematics. Though its popularity as a status symbol continued to grow, the 2016 Defender was, like its forebears, cramped, slow, and rough-riding. As the ungrammatical Craigslist ad might have read, “Vehicle needs replace.”

A 1961 Series II Land Rover. Part of the Air Mail fleet.

In conjuring a 21st-century Land Rover, its maker, Jaguar Land Rover, or JLR, the U.K.-based subsidiary of Indian industrial heavyweight Tata Motors, had a task at once enviable and supremely easy not to envy. On the one hand, what better thing to bring to a design assignment than an internationally beloved nameplate with instantly recognizable lines and mega brand heritage? On the other hand, how to even come close to equaling, much less improving upon, an Über-classic? Massive change was a certainty. So, too, paradoxically, was the stark need to preserve authenticity, the marketer’s holy grail.

The 2016 Defender was, like its forebears, cramped, slow, and rough-riding. As the ungrammatical Craigslist ad might have read, “Vehicle needs replace.”

JLR had a choice. One approach was to do like Mercedes, which recently performed some seriously clever re-engineering on its blingy, all-road icon the Geländewagen. Though it dated back to only 1979, it looked retro to start with. So as Mercedes modernized the G-wagen’s innards and electrical architecture, it also worked hard to preserve the model’s traditional appearance—and accomplished its mission handily.

Land Rover’s keepers, who revealed the Defender to North America at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, have gone another way, venturing further into the design-and-technology future than Mercedes to build a car they say is the perfect modern expression of the car’s brand. Is it “faithful to an original” or a “reliable, accurate representation?” Time will tell, but the long-awaited result of their efforts was certainly one of the show’s top destinations.

Nods to Ruggedness and Durability

Opinion was largely favorable on the New Defender—the car looks better in the metal than in photos. Not perfect, mind—the floating, nonfunctional C-pillar, for instance, is a design element that looks disembodied and pointless, except perhaps for those very few who for some reason find rear visibility out of today’s high-riding S.U.V.’s too good.

The New Defender interior makes nods to ruggedness and durability, but it’s a much less spartan environment than that found in some of its predecessors. You probably can’t hose it out every night without destroying its satnav guidance system or its automatic transmission’s electronically controlled gearshift.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II—with Land Rover—watching competitors at the Badminton Horse Trials, in Gloucestershire, in 1968.

Will the model run for 67 years? One tends to doubt that. But the good news is the New Defender promises to be a superior off-road vehicle—one of the best—with tradition-shattering levels of comfort and safety. A structure made substantially of aluminum promises long life and
lower (if not low) weight.

Cast in No Time to Die!

Jaguar Land Rover has the marketing laid out, with the 2020 model hitting the big screen for the first time, in April, in the 25th official installment of the James Bond franchise, No Time to Die. An off-road chase sequence, according to the company, saw the 007 stunt team put the New Defender to the test, “demonstrating its unstoppable nature.”

Land Rover has always stood for Britishness, which lent political and marketing appeal inside and outside the Commonwealth. Despite Tata’s ownership, the company is today still very much run from England. With cost cutting and the looming Brexit, however, the New Defender will be the first Land Rover built at a newly erected plant in Slovakia.

We’ll know more when we drive it, but we do know that the New Defender will come as before in two-door (90) and four-door (110) versions. Used previously, these numbers once denoted in inches the wheelbases of the two Defenders; today they’re just a shout-out to the past. Indeed, these new cars have wheelbases up to nine inches longer than before but are not overlarge—the 90 has an overall length within inches of a Volkswagen Golf. Unlike previous Defenders, these will be sold all over the world, too, with a variety of engine choices, with plug-in hybrid option expected to follow.. U.S. customers will get a choice of gasoline and mild hybrid power, to start.

Options: Where It’s At

There is reason to expect ruggedness from the New Defender. Nonetheless, bad jokes about English reliability are in their silos, poised for launch should problems arise, while supertankers filled with comic insults for British electrical systems stand by patiently for when and if battery-powered Land Rovers start stranding owners. If Defender will hike sales by 400 percent, as JLR projects, they better get it right.

Since the show, it has been reported that a smaller, cheaper Land Rover will follow soon, along with even more luxurious, sportier, and expensive versions of the New Defender. (Expect prices for the New Defender to start at a gnat’s eyebrow beneath $50,000 and to run to $100,000 and more.)

For now, buyers of the new car can specify one of four standard accessory packs (Urban, Country, Adventure, and Explorer) and up to 170 separate stand-alone options, including roof-mounted tent, dog boxes, and myriad accoutrements for realizing your, ahem, lifestyle, including a portable rinsing system with which to clean off your muddy car and boots. Options are where it’s at, profit-wise. And there is, in the end, nothing more authentic than a car-maker trying to make as much money as possible.

Jamie Kitman is a car columnist for Air Mail

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