It’s A Crime To Relegate The Defender 130 To Mere School Run Status
Rounding out the Defender trilogy, we take the hefty newcomer (well) off-road in the desert.
There was an awful lot of hullabaloo when JLR first delivered announcements, insights and eventual visuals about what was to become Defender 2.0. It was during 2019 and the purists, as they do, were questioning things—too “soft”; too “plush”; too “Range Rover”.
It’s funny isn’t it… “carland”, especially those rusted on to a model and an idea, struggle with any sense of change. And yet as someone who’s just trampled vast patches of undulating, and at times steep, Middle Eastern sand in the all-new Defender 130, I’m glad that it’s all too plush and Range Rovery.
More than anything else, I’m happy to experience the impressive capability of this hefty newcomer; a car that makes up the new trilogy by adding to the 90 and 110 variants as the range’s largest. I’ve previously piloted the SWB V8 and I’ve faced fear (aka afternoon school pick-up) in a 110.
But I’ve never driven a Defender off-road—not real, intimidating off-roading. And so it was that I took one for the team and headed to the UAE. Leaving Dubai International Airport—having transferred en route to Europe close to 100 times—was another first (FYI: probably don’t need to go to back).
But we were here to get out of the city and experience some proper driving, putting a proper car to the test. We were soon snaking into a convey of fully loaded 130s—side storage boxes, ladders, roof racks, spare wheels, extra fuel, sand ladders, shovels, winches—across a swatch of Fuji White or Sedona Red exterior colours.
Heading away from the metropolis meant freeway driving and a chance to play with things up front—notably, the bigger, easy-to-navigate 11.4-inch PiVi Pro touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, 11-speaker Meridian stereo, wireless charging that actually worked. Then into even more intriguing tech, like the Cabin Purification Plus system, which claims to be capable of reducing odours, bacteria and allergens. Best of all, you can pre-purge the cabin via an app before entering.
Highway driving—always at the legal 160 km/h, of course—proved smooth, quiet and quite the doddle. The experience felt like a scene from the The Night Manager—this robust troupe ambling along, single file, surrounded by desert. There was more than enough oomph in the P400 petrol set-up we sampled—a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six mated to an eight-speed ZF transmission, which maxes out at 294 kW (395 horses) and can nail the 0-100km/h sprint in 6.6 seconds.
It’s responsive and ultimately easy in its driving—you never do feel the size of this car. Design-wise, too, it doesn’t seem too big; only when we get a chance to properly walk around the vehicle at our first sandy stop, do we come to understand its finely-balanced design, even in the lengthiest eight-seat (2+3+3) variant.
While the 130 gets an additional 340 mm over the 110, the wheelbases remain the same, the additional length sprouting entirely from behind the rear axle (side note: where once the numbers 90, 110 and 130 represented the models’ wheelbases in inches, this is no more).
What we’re getting at is that this doesn’t present as some big, bulky older brother packing a notable derriere. Far from it. The 130’s posture and shape look exactly right, and it’s as appealing as its smaller siblings (even though the rear reduces the departure angle against the 110—for those genuinely into their off-roading).
The day’s first stop also brought a chance to plunder some nursery slopes in convoy—armed with a few helpful reminders on how best to traverse incredibly fine desert sand—maintaining distances between cars and watching where we stopped. Of course, once we dumped some air from the tyres (to about to 25 psi) this all went to shit, thanks to one of our APAC friends who had a habit of stopping right on the crest of a dune. Being dug out wasn’t ideal, but it had the effect of stirring our senses to nail the rest of the drive and what were some rather impressive descents and climbs.
Set in “sand” mode to keep revs high and with the traction control off, the car was the one doing the heavy lifting—and doing it seamlessly. The Defender’s off-road driving smarts really are quite something, namely the Terrain Response programs, electronic air suspension (standard here) and cameras that cover more angles than a lengthy game of Tetris.
Still, there was one sharp descent and climb that required a little human input—and so, recalling the loud words of a stern German 4WD instructor I’d once toured Morocco with, I “MASHED” it across the flat and through the ascent until we came out airborne over the peak and into a park from where we sat and watched the remainder of the group struggle. Points to us.
The 130 is an impressive feat from JLR. The third row is actually roomy (it has to do with that design and this being a car crafted to accommodate), the feeling of space aided by an extended panoramic sunroof. There’s four individual climate zones, with air delivered through the rear via vents on the pillars at head height. And that third row can also be optioned with heated seats. If you’re into the numbers, know that luggage space is 389 litres with the seats up and 2,291 litres when all rows are folded down; there’s also 430 mm of articulation, a wading depth of 900 mm and a towing capacity of 3,000kg.
All Australian 130s are only offered in SE spec; we became particularly partial to the Windsor leather seats aligned to the smoked oak veneer—so too the Sedona Red exterior, exclusive to the 130. The action-packed day led to an overnight at Bab Al Shams resort—a literal oasis in the desert. Here, the collection of 130s stood proudly at the front of the property as if playing burly guards. And they looked like they belonged, just as they do meandering the streets of Paris’s Le Marais or ferrying the kids—all seven of them—to suburban school gates.
Though the Defender 130 is at its best—in terms of both design and engineering—when mapping out adventures new, be that a family bush-bash on the coast or claiming hang time off a rather large sand dune in the Middle East.
Available now from $124,150 (plus ORC) for the D300 diesel variant, P400 petrol from $131,650 (plus ORC); landrover.com.au
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