What dreams are made of: Land Rover Defender
There was an e-mail sitting in my inbox that I wasn’t particularly happy about. It read, and I quote, “Please do not take this vehicle for off-roading activities in and around the city.” A request from the PR team to not do with the Defender what it was built to do. Not driving it off-road was like bedding your celebrity crush and stopping at a handjob. Insanely fun, but you’d regret not getting the full experience. I’d had enough Defender-related regrets already — mainly the fact that everyone around me seemed to have driven one, ’cept me. I wasn’t letting no e-mail stop me. So I found a spot neither in, or around — nowhere close to the city. Fun little loophole, no?
My fascination for this Defender goes back to the very day it was unveiled. I remember seeing the SUV for the first time and gawking at what a phenomenal job was done to update it to the 21st century. It woke up the child in me — it was a simple boxy design, but with so many rounded off elements that made it approachable, proper 4x4 capability and an interior that screamed practical. It was a design you could doodle, but also had so much nuance and heritage to it. There were elements from the Defender's past that had been incorporated seamlessly. The skylight, the squircle taillights, the rings in the headlamps. Around the same time in 2019, we did a drive where we took the G 350d and the Wrangler to the Rann for an epic cover story. All legends in their own right. The only thing missing there was the Defender — but it hadn’t launched in India yet. It finally did launch, but our paths never crossed. It came to office for the first drive, I was out of town. We finally pulled off a G v Jeep v Defender story. I was out when that happened as well.
In the mean time, my Instagram explore was exploding with Defender reels. I had watched every first drive review I could from the global media, as they had done the drives in Africa (another dream!). My ex-girlfriend, sympathetic to my affliction, got me a Lego Technic Defender. Great gifter, she was. My camera roll is chock full of random Defenders I’ve seen on the street. I even wrote a whole column about cars on test that I wish I had driven, triggered by Defender itself. And yet it remained elusive. It once rocked up at office with a driver to pick up an I-Pace that we had on test. I asked the driver if I could get 10 minutes in it. He refused. I tried negotiating it down to five. Nope. Two. Still nothing. So I just took a few more pictures and convinced myself it was never going to happen.
Yet, here I was, with a stupid grin slapped onto my face. Earlier that morning, I had spent a good 15 minutes just staring at it. More details started offering themselves up in the golden morning light. The flared wheel arches are much more flared in the flesh. The bulge in the bonnet added so much muscle to its shape. It was running proper all-terrain tyres. It is tall too — you need to properly climb in to it. The insides were this combination of lavish and rugged. Hard plastics sat side by side with leather inserts. Massive storage spaces in the centre console. Not a fan of the semi-analogue / semi-digital cluster, I would have preferred if they’d just picked one and stuck to it. However, it had Defender written boldly across the steering wheel. That’s all I needed to fall in love with it.
It makes you feel like king of the road. Driving to that off-road location — which, I repeat, was nowhere close to a city — had me giddy. I was seeing over the roofs of Fortuners, traffic was respectfully parting for me and I was making quicker progress. Fun fact: SUVs are usually faster than sports cars in Indian conditions. There was a magnetic presence to it as it bombed down the road. People turned, pointed, gawked and eventually pulled out their phone cameras. I know the feeling, buddy. There’s something about the Defender that makes it universally appealing.
It's not some dynamic masterpiece. It may be a monocoque but it still feels like a traditional SUV. Which means handling was nothing to write home about but it wafted across the road, soaked up the biggest potholes like they weren’t there and didn’t slow down for anything short of a speed breaker. And the engine. The car on test was specced with a 2-litre turbo-petrol. It made some 296bhp which was plenty, but then the Defender was also heavy and it didn’t feel effortless. You want an SUV like this to feel effortless. A nice torquey diesel would have been nice. Or even better, the 5-litre V8. Fat chance they’d spec a presser with that though.
Road turned to trails, turned to ruts. 10 minutes in, the view out of my windscreen was just as I’d imagined it all these years. Sky. I’d already pinched myself 60,000 times but I did so once more. Yep, I was fully awake. The Defender was doing what it does best — scaling a rocky slope with a ridiculous incline, as if it was going to the shops. Suspension was raised to its max (up to 290mm fully raised), low ratio was engaged and it was crawling up nonchalantly. The most effort it was making was the AC at full blast to deal with the oddly hot day it was in the middle of the monsoons. I was sitting on the inside, marvelling at the clouds and wondering what good karma I racked up in my past life to be driving cars that are on my wishlist day in and day out. It demolished everything we threw its way — water crossings, rocks, slush, climbs, drops. Nothing fazed it. It just doubled down and moved forward.
Towards the end of the day, the PR team clarified that the disclaimer was just part of an e-mail template they send out to everyone — too many journalists had ambitions that outweighed their skills and returned damaged cars. We were free to do what we wanted with the Defender, they said. I can’t imagine how you’d damage a Defender though. It had enough ground clearance for a person to walk under it and 4x4 calibrated to take you to the ends of the Earth.
What I love most about the Defender is it has everything I need as an enthusiast. It is practical enough to work the daily grind. It is a couple of sizes too big for the city, sure, but it has the space, comfort, luxury, sound system, the whole hog. But, it also is a toy. You can have fun with it. It puts a smile on your face. Many cars are practical, many cars are fun, very few are both. The Defender is one of them. I can imagine it being a proper one-car garage. But since we’re playing fantasy, I’d like to imagine a 911 right beside it. Some days, it’s difficult to put that journalist’s hat on and stay objective. Today was one of those days.