The best selling car so far in 2021 is… a van. The Ford Transit Custom is currently beating the Vauxhall Corsa in the SMMT sales rankings – and by a clear margin of several thousand, too. ‘Building back better’ clearly means a focus on vehicles driven by people who build or make stuff – and now Land Rover is getting in on the act with a load-lugging new model of its own: the Defender Hard Top.
The Defender SUV is already going down a storm. A brilliant reinvention of the 1948 original Series Land Rover, it has cleaned up on the motoring awards circuit, including being named World Car Design of the Year 2021. How could it go to anything else? Only the semiconductor shortage is restricting the number of cars leaving retailers; Land Rover can instantly sell every one it builds.
A Defender Hard Top commercial version broadens the range, and arguably sticks even more faithfully to its post-war roots as a working hack to, literally, rebuild Britain. With prices starting from around £36,500 excluding VAT for the 90 (the longer 110 costs from £43,000), it’s also the closest thing to a bargain new Defender you’ll get.
Show me a sign
What’s the difference to a normal Defender? At first glance, very little. It’s no less of a head-turner, and the rear side panels – optionally sign-writable and a creative’s blank-canvas dream – look even more purist than the car version’s odd windows.
Inside, it’s a two-seater: those in the back make way for the extended load bay. Pleasingly, though, you can have a third middle-seat option (for £815), should you want the full three-up-builder effect (the apprentice naturally sits in the middle).
The square-shaped bay in the back is a commodious 1,355 litres in the 90, and a huge 2,059 litres in the 110 (which has the added convenience of access via two rear doors). There is a robust bulkhead behind the front seats, to protect occupants from flying tool boxes or cans of paint, and the tough rubber floor has integrated lashing points and a secret underfloor stowage area.
Hose it down
The 110 Hard Top has a load bay big enough – and a huge side-hinged, spare-wheel-carrying tailgate door that opens wide enough – to load a standard Euro Pallet (the sort you see around the back of shops, or in pieces when building a bonfire) via a forklift truck. Some companies have this as a purchase criteria, so Land Rover’s been smart there. A payload of 800kg is decent, although that other lifestyle CV, the double-cab pickup, is obliged by law to offer just over one tonne.
To continue the utilitarianism, rubber mats can be found in the passenger compartment. Land Rover can’t resist pointing out how they can be hosed down, just like the original Series Land Rover.
You’d be brave to, however, given the amount of tech inside the Defender Hard Top. This isn’t some stripped-out CV special: even the most basic gets the beautiful-looking Pivi Pro touchscreen infotainment system, plus heated seats, folding door mirrors, a 3D surround camera system and, optionally, Land Rover’s clever-but-weird-to-use ‘ClearSight’ rear-view mirror camera. It solves the problem of how to see out the back window when fully laden – or if the apprentice is on board.
You can have posher S, SE and HSE trim lines with the 110 Hard Top, but the 90 only comes in base Defender spec. It’s the one I drove and, believe me, you don’t need any more. What’s more, I liked the rugged but high-quality materials and plastics, rather than the usual plethora of leather. The charismatic interior helps, too – it’s amazing what else you don’t need when you have great design as standard.
As with a van, you really have to climb up to get into a Defender Hard Top, heaving yourself into place by grabbing the steering wheel. It’s a tall, wide machine, with a superior-feeling view down. The size and squareness takes some getting used to, as does the off-road-friendly slowness of the steering. Somehow the arm-twirling adds further to the authenticity.
Later versions of the old Defender literally had van engines – taken from a Ford Transit, no less. Nothing so uncouth here; the first new passenger Defenders had a JLR 2.0-litre diesel, but this has quickly been replaced by a smooth and effective 3.0-litre straight-six. It’s got plentiful pulling power, even with a load bay full of potatoes (yes, really – we visited Chase Distillery on the drive event to drop them off and get a before-and-after experience).
Wheels of steel
Defender 90 Hard Tops come with a 200hp D200 engine. The 110 Hard Top, to haul its potential extra mass, has a D250 or D300 motor. All have an eight-speed automatic gearbox to further the effortlessness and serve up a creamy, sophisticated and expensive-feeling drive.
A 48v mild hybrid system is standard, which helps ease turbo lag and extends the engine-off period as you roll to a halt, but don’t think you’ll be getting much more than 30mpg. The genuinely fuel-saving, EV-able plug-in Defender Hard Top is still to come.
On the road, it’s a charm. It’s way more refined than a van has any right to be. It has a supple ride – aided by standard, high-sidewall tyres (on gorgeous steel wheels) that soak up sharp potholes with aplomb – and while it does tip and roll into corners, it still handles confidently. Steer the huge, accurate wheel gently, flow with it, and you’ll make cracking back-road pace, aided by that lovely engine.
The USP of the Land Rover compared to other commercial vehicles is its ability to properly off-road. This is what will bag it fleet orders from the Forestry Commission, National Grid and the like. It can probably go where no other van can.
It wades up to 900mm (and driving through nearly a metre of water feels scary, believe me), and easily lug those bulky loads up hills thanks to intelligent all-wheel drive. You don’t have to scratch your head and press buttons to set indecipherable modes, the car does it for you. You can add further to its ability with optional electronic air suspension, giving a whopping ground clearance of nearly 300mm.
The same unstoppable confidence it gives you on-road easily carries across off-road. It’s so incredibly competent, you’ll want to set up a business offering nationwide home delivery just so you have an excuse to throw new challenges at the Defender Hard Top. It feels ready for anything.
Work and play
What’s good for work is also good for leisure. Carried out a work-life balance reset during the pandemic and now find you’re into mountain biking, surfing, camping or other such leisure pursuits? Here’s the weekend hack that’ll get you and all your stuff wherever you need to go. Get serious on that craft side hustle and you could even buy it VAT-free through your business.
Brits love vans right now. Here’s the best go-anywhere, do-anything van there is. The fact it feels as charming and as capable as the award-winning regular Defender makes it hard to see what’s going to top the Hard Top.
Richard Aucock writes for Motoring Research
Price: from £36,566 (ex. VAT – or £44,210 inc. VAT)
Engine: 3.0-litre straight-six diesel
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
Power: 200 hp
Fuel economy and CO2: TBC
Boot capacity: 1,335 litres