Tackling the ultimate off-road experience in a ‘real’ Defender

Devon & Plymouth Chamber CEO Stuart Elford gets to grips with the new Land Rover Defender at Land Rover Experience West Country.

When I met Paul Siely – centre manager at Land Rover Experience West Country – during a ‘Meet the Neighbours’ Chamber event in Exeter, I mentioned that I was lucky enough to have driven the new Land Rover Defender.

I told him it had been kindly lent to me by Roger Young Land Rover in Saltash for a Profile article and, while I had been very impressed, I sadly hadn’t been able to take it off road.  

“We can fix that,” said Paul – and so it was with great glee that I accepted his kind offer and drove to Honiton for the ultimate off-road experience. There, I met my good friend, Paul Fennessy, who had come along to take pictures for the magazine.

We were greeted at the centre by Paul Siely and introduced to our expert driver for the day, Will, who assessed our knowledge, understanding and experience before giving us a thorough briefing on what we would be doing. I couldn’t wait!

As we walked across the car park to the impressive Defender, Will said that at the end of the drive he would ask us if we thought the new vehicle was a ‘real’ Defender – capable of doing everything the old one could.

Will walked us around the outside of the vehicle, explaining that it was totally standard – including the tyres – so owners could see what their own cars were capable of. 

A true Land Rover enthusiast, Will talked about the design that harks back to Defenders of old – including the Alpine window and strength block below it. He showed us the removable rubber mats that mean you can practically hose the interior out, along with a host of other practical features.

But to be honest, I was too excited about going ‘off road’ to take much more in. After guiding us through all the controls in the car, Will gave us a two-way radio and jumped into a lead vehicle for us to follow. 

The first obstacle was a deep-water ditch. Selecting ‘Wade Mode’, which shows how deep the water is, I took the car through easily and with no drama. Will explained that the only restriction on how deep you can go is that the car is so well-sealed that the body will float and the wheels lose traction before the engine floods!

Next up was a slippery slope of wet grass. Will showed us that while the car and its millions of sensors will help gain traction in ‘Auto’ mode, by pre-selecting the terrain through the simple control and display system it gives the car a ‘head start’ and you have instant traction.  

It took a bit of persuading, but at one point I had both hands and feet off the controls while going backwards down the steep slippery hill.  You feel the clever car and its many systems coming alive to keep control.

Taking the Defender through some mud tracks, we came to a hill of deep rocky ruts. We set up the display that videos the terrain ahead and then shows you in real time the ground directly beneath you so you can perfectly position the wheels to maintain traction and protect the car. This was especially useful as we crested the hill as you could see nothing over the huge bonnet but blue sky!

Driving into the thick woods, we were now really confident with the car and its capabilities as we used all the cameras and mirrors to keep us clear of the trees, rocks, walls and water.  In fact, it was only when Will got out to scout the terrain ahead that you realised how incredibly large and steep some of the obstacles were.

But when Will literally climbed on all fours up a seemingly near-vertical mixture of mud and rock, Paul and I just looked at each other, open-mouthed… there is no way we are going up that!

But Will waved us on and the defiant Defender refused to be intimidated as it edged its way up the slope in supreme style.

The final obstacle was a mass of major boulders that Will guided us carefully over. Again, the sensors and cameras came into their own as we inched forwards. At one point the offside front wheel was six feet off the ground and then the scary moment came when we see-sawed on two diagonal wheels until we were nose down with the nearside rear wheel six feet off the ground. This was incredibly impressive.

The time came for us to swap over so that Paul could have a go. He is a very experienced driver and an engineering geek, so I thought he would be super critical and find fault.

But he couldn’t. He just said: “This is seriously impressive – it knows how to drive off road better than us!”

As Paul went over all the same obstacles, I felt so at ease that I got distracted by the emails on my phone and it then dawned on me how incredible this car is.

It can ascend, descend and traverse seemingly impossible slopes and obstacles while retaining 100% control and doing minimal damage to the environment in such comfort and safety that I can look at emails!

We retired back to the comfortable and stylish conference centre for a coffee and debrief. Will asked again if this was a ‘real’ Defender. It can certainly do everything the old one could, but you don’t have to bash your elbows on sharp metal, put your back out on hard bench seats or have weather that is the same inside the car as outside! If the old Defender was brute force and ignorance, this is brute force and intelligence.

Even if you don’t own a 4×4, or never intend to, I can thoroughly recommend going on one of the Land Rover experiences. They have everything from ‘Young Off Roader’ drives for 11- to 17-year-olds and short ‘Taster Experiences’ to ‘Heritage Drives’ for those who want to experience Land Rovers from every era, as well as full-day corporate and team-building events in the beautiful setting of Wessington Farm, whose fine conference facilities are also available to hire. 

My sincere thanks to Paul Siely for an enjoyable, exciting and safe day and to our instructor, Will, for sharing his incredible technical knowledge, driving skill and experience with us. It was a day I will never forget.

Book your next adventure at Land Rover Experience West Country here.

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