Land Rover Defender finally drives electric with new plug-in hybrid
Land Rover Defender Hybrid, the first plug-in electric version, is equal parts luxury urban car and mud-wrangling hero
Two years after the new Land Rover Defender finally launched, the brand has taken the wraps off the Land Rover Defender Hybrid, the first plug-in electric model in the vehicle’s history. The road to the renewed Defender was unexpectedly bumpy, as we explained in our review of the 2019 model. At the heart of the Defender’s journey to production was the debate as to what this car actually is and who it is for.
Although Land Rover bakes in more off-road ability than almost any other car maker, it is arguably building elegant, upmarket machines for customers who are usually several acres short of being landed gentry. The original Land Rover, launched in 1948, was certainly no aristocratic plaything or symbol of upward mobility. Instead, it was a noble attempt to parley wartime shortages and surpluses (in this case a surfeit of aluminium) into a utilitarian machine that could just as easily pull a plough across a field as it could scramble across urban bombsites.
Up until its demise, due to failing emissions and crash-test legislation for key markets like the US, the original Defender remained a stoic beast of burden, used commercially around the world for everything from firefighting to search and rescue. Towards the end of this long, long life, the model started to acquire some urban cachet, representing the authentic and fashionable connection between functionalism and design purity. And so it remained until the bitter end, leaving a legacy that Land Rover has been strangely reluctant to continue.
In 2011, the company showed the DC100 concept, a chunky, almost parodic take on the chamfered edges and blunt ends of the original. Ultimately, it was deemed too small and not appealing enough to sate the bitter mix of hardcore fans and potential new customers. The market has moved on and today’s utility vehicle owner is markedly more unlikely to use their cars for actual utility; the selling point is the ability.
So instead of a smaller, cheaper Land Rover, the machinations of global economics and evolving consumer demand meant the company had little choice but to take Defender upmarket and aim high.
This was what led to the new Defender, a much, much larger and more authoritative machine than the DC100 ever was, let alone the original. There are some clear aesthetic alliances between the new and the old, but although the new car makes concessions to function (an open oddments tray on the dashboard, the barn door-style tailgate bearing the spare tyre, and a host of racks, rails and storage options available as accessory packs), it is very, very far from being basic.
Some elements, like the roof-mounted glass panels at the rear, are in the spirit of the original but barely share their functionality, the panels in question being so deep they resemble gothic vaults, not rooflights. Stylistically, this car owes more to the LR3 and LR4 generations of the Land Rover Discovery, a cultishy blocky design that ran from 2004 to 2016, and was much missed by enthusiasts when it was swapped out for the third generation L462 Discovery in 2017.
As a plug-in hybrid, the Defender loses none of its capability, whether mud-wrangling or wading. Available in long wheelbase 110 format only, it seats five and can be operated in pure electric mode, with a fast-charging mode allowing you to dodge the fuel pump for as long as possible. It’s reasonably fast and agile, given its size, and far more refined than any car bearing the Defender name has ever been before.
Land Rover has made peace with the idea of losing its status as a maker of go-anywhere cars for anyone. The new Defender is not a humble utility vehicle, but a luxury car that’s been pared back to very comfortable ‘basics’. Throw in the availability of electric drive, and you have a car that ticks all the boxes of the modern buyer. §