The new Land Rover Defender is a heavy SUV, thanks to all the protective steel plates under its chassis. Officially, the four-door weighs close to 2,200 kg before you put any fuel in it, and it’s rated for carrying almost another tonne of fluids and passengers and luggage and snacks. That’s a lot.
I thought about this as I leaned on my shovel and urged my two team-mates to winch more quickly. We had to pull the non-running Defender backwards up a steep hill, cranking on a manual ratchet jack to move the SUV perhaps a centimetre with each heave. It was hard work and they were sweating with the jack; I yelled at them once more – “Looking good! Feeling strong!” – and then sat in the driver’s seat to cover the brake, so the Defender wouldn’t roll back down when they switched around the chains. It helps to know the proper technique.
In fact, the Defender was working just fine and could reverse up this slope easily, but that wasn’t the challenge. We were working for points here on the annual Land Rover Trek event, just because we could.
In the off-road universe, the Defender has a reputation as a round-the-world traveller. Jeep Rubicons and Ford Broncos are all very well for scaling rock walls and chewing their way through peat bogs, but if you want to mount an expedition that’s as capable in Mongolia and Patagonia as Paris and Sydney, then the Defender is your vehicle. The Trek event is one way for the staff at Land Rover dealerships to find out what it can do.
Some 70 North American retailers cover their own costs to each enter a three-person team on the six-hour event. They also buy the optioned-up Defender that they drive, to ship back and display at the dealership before selling it, probably for a premium.
“Trek was originally designed to foster teamwork at the dealership level between the various departments: sales, service and parts,” says Joe Eberhardt, President of Jaguar Land Rover North America. “Getting them to work as a team was one objective, and the other was to really showcase the capabilities of the Land Rover brand and products in its natural setting.”
So I’ve been working as a team with two other Canadians to find out more about what this Defender is capable of, and at the same time, what we’re capable of. There are five other media teams on this challenge and, unlike us, there’s barely an ounce of body fat among them.
“Slow and steady wins the day,” I lectured my much younger teammates. We should pace ourselves carefully, I reasoned as I leaned on the shovel.
As it turned out, most of the challenges were more about driving skill and effective teamwork than the proficiency of the Defender. One of them involved building a bridge with planks that would only fit together a certain way; another needed the SUV to have its winch attached to a tree and be pulled a sufficient distance (not like this, fortunately).
The whole point was that there’s always a way to get through. Always. You just have to figure it out. The Defender might get stuck in the worst of it when it relies on its tires to pull itself clear, but there are alternatives: the winch at the front, the ratchet jack at the rear, the friction boards underneath. When there’s a river in the way, then build a bridge.
That’s really what off-roading comes down to, and I hadn’t quite realized this until now. It’s not about going for a nice drive in the country, but all about making it past physical obstacles to the other side. Take it a step further, I thought as I watched my teammates sweat, and it becomes an allegory for life itself: if there’s an obstacle in the way, then figure out what’s needed to get beyond it, and make it happen.
Fortunately, the Defender does this better than most. It has tall ground clearance and capable articulation, so it’s not going to get hung up in the deep holes on the trail. It has very steep approach and departure angles, so it’s not going to dig its bumper into the ground when it tackles a sharp slope, nor tip over on the side of a hill. It has clever differentials, so it knows which wheels to turn for best traction and above all, it’s strong enough with all that steel that when it does take a hit, it shrugs it off.
We drove from challenge to challenge here on the vast Biltmore estate, where Land Rover maintains an Experience Centre for regular owners to discover the capabilities of their vehicles. The trails were sometimes well marked but often barely existent, dropping off into the unknown. It helped that the Defender has cameras that can show the terrain in front and to each side, to avoid those mud holes that might force us to use the winch or the boards.
I could have driven the Jeep Rubicon or Ford’s new Bronco around the same course and I doubt I’d have got stuck. The Defender, though, has a certain comfort and panache that comes with being a premium vehicle. All the bells and whistles on our Trek edition would surely push its MSRP past $100,000.
It’s too bad the Defender probably won’t be driven any farther than the mall, but that’s not the point. It’s about being able to take on whatever challenges life throws at you, and making it through to the other side.