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The concept of an electric off-roader might conjure images of a 4WD that’s all hat and no cattle, but the Land Rover Defender Electric is a surprisingly capable all-terrain vehicle.
While most EVs (electric vehicles) are built with emissions reduction in mind, the Land Rover Electric Defender was created on a very different remit, when a South African game park commissioned Land Rover to build a quiet vehicle for game watching.
That first-generation vehicle could hit 64km/h in forward or reverse (handy, if you’re being charged by an angry bull elephant), but more importantly it could approach park animals without disturbing them.
It was a relatively simple build that Land Rover wanted to embellish – and so what we get in the latest 110-wheelbase Electric Defenders is something considerably more sophisticated.
There’s a 300v, 27kWh lithium-ion battery pack sitting where the diesel engine would usually be, with the 70kW electric motor positioned under the front seats where the gearbox would usually go.
The power plant can deliver an impressive 330Nm of torque (the current 2.2-litre diesel has 360Nm) with a top speed limited to 113km/h.
The electric Defender also weighs just 100kg more than its regular diesel sibling; not that much when you consider the front-mounted battery pack alone weighs 410kg.
This relatively lean design means the electric motor can do what it does best – delivering maximum torque right from the get-go with no need for the standard six-speed manual transmission, which has been replaced by a single reduction gear.
However, the electric Defender retains its low-ratio transfer and locking differentials that require pulling-up and muscling a small lever before heading off-road.
Other key changes from the traditional diesel model include the introduction of air-cooling for the powertrain (replacing liquid-cooling), and regenerative braking, which uses the vehicle’s Hill Decent Control to generate another 30kW of electricity.
Importantly, the motor, battery, converter and all major components are fully watertight, providing for an increased wade depth of 800mm – up from 500mm on the standard vehicle.
Inside, it looks pretty much identical to a regular Land Rover Defender 110, which means the same atrocious ergonomics but a kilowatt gauge where the rev counter would usually be.
Its most significant Achilles heel is noise. Turn the key and you might not get diesel clatter, but you will get an appalling fingernails-on-blackboard whine.
Hardly the kind of quiet serenity we’ve come to expect from near-silent EVs these days.
The test route for our off-road excursion was Land Rover’s own mud-laden, water-logged proving ground (known as the ‘Jungle Trail’) near its Solihull factory in England.
Simply push the drive selector forward and off you go. There’s more of that irritating groan as the vehicle moves off, but once underway it’s relatively silent running.
At low speeds, throttle response is nice and linear and any fears we might have had about the electric Defender’s 4x4 capability are soon dismissed.
If anything, it’s easier to manage than the standard model Defender in an off-road environment because you don’t have to work the clutch – particularly useful when climbing muddy inclines out of a river crossing.
The full complement of torque from standstill is also massively useful for negotiating those steeper assents, with the electric Defender showing no signs of struggle.
Land Rover has also fitted the Defender with its proprietary Terrain Response system, which has been adapted to the electric drive for improved traction on sand and over loose surfaces.
It all works just as well as it does on the regular diesel Defender, though the throttle needs more of a shove and there’s less of that linearity that you get at crawling pace.
While the off-road course only required an hour out of the Defender’s battery life, its 27kW capacity is good for up to eight hours in these conditions.
On road, the electric Defender’s range can extend to about 80km, with an additional 20km in reserve.
Recharge time is 10 hours, or four with a fast charge.
While there are currently no plans to produce a production model of the Land Rover Defender Electric (Land Rover has so far only built seven of them), the technology and it’s application is indeed impressive and should prove useful in the company’s on-going hybrid development.
Land Rover is expected to reveal hybridised Range Rover models at September’s Frankfurt Motor Show.