With the recent release of the New Defender, I was lucky enough to be invited on a trail ride with one of the demo vehicles from Land Rover Denver. They had already done a little outfitting of this one with a 2” air suspension lift and larger 275/60R20 BFG AT tires.
We met at the Chinaman Gulch trailhead just outside Buena Vista Colorado Sunday morning. It was a cool dry morning following a pretty good rain the night before which really cut down on the dust on the trail and offered incredibly clear views of the surrounding sky and mountains.
Four of us lined up that morning, Chris & Shea Breidenbach in his ’94 D90 nicknamed “The Crusher”, me and Dena in the ’98 P38 nicknamed “Trail Shark”, Steve Burt the GM of Land Rover Denver in the ’20 D110, one of Steve’s sons in his Jeep TJ, the other son hiked most of the trail taking video.
We spent a little time chatting while airing down our tires, Chris and Steve have known each other for years but this was the 1st time I’d met Steve. While he is a bit newer to Land Rover having been a GM at a local Porsche dealer for the last 12 year he has been an off-road enthusiast for years, when he heard the Defender was making a comeback he took a renewed interest in the brand and was able to secure a GM position with the dealer.
Once aired down we loaded up and rolled out onto the trail, Chinaman Gulch doesn’t disappoint, with tough challenges within a few yards of starting the trail. Chris and his D90 initially took the lead, followed by the D110, my P38, and the Jeep. The trail is a constant rock garden with large dug out holes for the first long climb and navigating the right line can be a challenge for many drivers and vehicles. Watching the D110 from behind I could see the traction control working to find the right grip, the independent suspension stretched its legs as best it could but the holes and boulders were too much to keep all 4 tires in contact all the time, still she clawed and climbed her way up the trail.
A short way up the trail we experienced our 1st mechanical issue of the day, the Jeep lost the front track bar bolt. While figuring out how to perform our trail repair it was thought that recent work by a shop may have left it improperly torqued, luckily Chris had the correct diameter bolt on hand, though a bit too long. With no way to cut it down and rethread it on trail we had to come up with a way to take up the extra length, being too large a diameter to slip a socket over it I had a bit of inspiration and asked if we had some spare box end wrenches. We did, and we were able to create a stack of three wrenches that took up just the right amount of space, these were placed above the trackbar frame mount and laid in line with the frame which kept them out of harm's way (or interference with any moving components). Overcoming obstacles and challenges on the trail is not just about driving over a rock, it’s about figuring out how to keep going no matter what.
We continued on and up the trail, crawling over loose scree, rocks and boulders, and winding our way around obstacles to big to drive over. I for one often look at those “too big” obstacles and wonder if I can, then should I try it, sometimes I do and sometimes I remember that I have to drive it home 😉.
The Defender did admirably, but this trail is definitely outside its normal scope and design intent. The long 119” wheelbase made for a low break over angle which caused some issue here and there, though everyone was quite impressed at the approach and departure angles.
When we reached the top of the first section of trail we took a break, allowing some side-by-sides to pass by. The Defender caught their eye and I could hear a few statements about seeing it out on this trail.
Steve offered the driver’s seat of the Defender to me at this point and I couldn’t refuse, he gave a quick run through of the Terrain response and EAS settings putting it in Rock Crawl and extended height settings for me (I will say that the new control layout for such is not as user intuitive as the rotary knob and buttons of the LR3 and LR4, but I expect is something quite easy with a few minutes of getting used to). I was immediately impressed with the headroom, a big concern with me at 6’4”. I found the seating exceptional in comfort and position, with firm and supportive seats that I feel would be great on long distance drives on both smooth and rough terrain, and very good visibility all around. The rearview mirror camera system is amazing, so much so that unless you are wanting to see your kids in the back seat I see no reason to use the standard mirror function at all.
As I rolled out and downhill my 1st observation was that the hill descent control is worlds above earlier generations, the pulsations of the automated braking were less pronounced and the speed was much more reasonable in the rock crawl mode than prior generations. I spent a little time playing around learning throttle control and getting used to the shifter, and while different than what I am used to I found both to work well with no specific complaints. As I progressed down we encountered a heavily rutted section that forces maximum articulation at a steep forward and slightly left pitch, at one point I was clearly balancing on left front and right rear tires. This is where I could really feel the balance and stability of the truck, giving me enough confidence to continue forward.
At the bottom of this section I was greeted by an area of sand wash that weaves around for a while, so I punched it to see how she handled off-road at some speed. While only getting up to 25-30mph in short stretches it still put a smile on my face to feel the suspension work as I zipped through this narrow section. I was impressed with how quiet and solid the Defender felt.
Next up we came across an optional obstacle know as the rock pile, Steve assured me it was ok to give it a go and everyone got out to watch how it went, Chris assisted me by offering some spotting assistance. Where’s that Invisible Bonnet tech that LR debuted a few years ago when you really need it 😉. Still she climbed with surprising control, and this is where I noticed a little “Hold” light pop up on the dash, and I could tell that the computer system was keeping the truck from rolling forward or back without my input, I was very surprised and impressed with that as it made the very slow and careful crawl over the rock pile much more manageable.
After clearing the Rock Pile we took a lunch break, during that time I spotted Dena driving my P38 over the “big boy” line of the Rock Pile. This line involves a crazy climb and pivoting of the vehicle off the driver’s side frame to line up for the exit drop off. It took a few tries to get the right line, but she did it. Unfortunately the drop off has gotten continually more dug out and when Dena came off the drop she wasn’t on the brakes hard enough and the P38 did a near 2’ fall onto the rear bumper finishing off an already shattered and tapped rear quarter glass. This is what my P38 is built for, so was just something to laugh at and realize that my next build phase of the truck was about to begin.
With Steve back in the driver’s seat of the Defender we continued on to the next trail obstacle, Whales Tail. This challenge is typically taken on from the center line of a roughly 50-60’ wide section, but as that section is so heavily used it has gotten very dug out making it extremely tough to approach and even harder for short wheelbase vehicles to climb out of. The far right line is still no slouch, while the far left line is basically custom rock buggy territory. It took a few tries but Chris was able to get his D90 up the center line, then Steve took the D110 up the right side, we put Chris’s wife Shae in our P38 and convinced her to drive the center line, while skeptical and timid about it at first, she acquiesced and gave it a go. The P38 in her normal fashion, made short work of it, though I did have Shea use both lockers to aid in the speed and simplicity of tackling an obstacle that was very intimidating to her. Moving on we kept Shea in the driver’s seat as she rarely if ever has spent any seat time driving off road while Dena gave her direction and tips from the passenger seat, this is a common situation and Dena & I love to use the P38 as a “training truck” for those that are new or uncomfortable off-roading. I’ll often walk past my truck stating that someone has to drive it as I’m walking this section of trail, and Dena will be sitting in the passenger seat egging on someone to get in. In this case Shea got to drive the rest of the trail for the day, seeing her smile and joy in her eyes is well worth giving up my seat time. Having her spout out “Jeff, I LOVE THIS TRUCK” was truly icing on the cake, sorry Chris but you’ll (or I’ll) have to build Shea a Rover very soon 😉. BTW, if anyone is wondering, yes we are already building Dena a P38 of her own.
We took a bypass exit from the trail rather than finishing the loop and returning the way we came up, this was my 1st time on the bypass and while much easier in regards to obstacles, it offered great scenery and a new experience. We spent the next hour or so meandering along this bypass eventually ending well east of the Chinaman Gulch trail head and back to pavement. We stopped here to air up our tires, relax and talk with each other before heading home. I thanked Steve again for the seat time and started discussing how soon I can get a Defender myself, silly me for not preordering but I was so concerned with my headroom and visibility I couldn’t bring myself to do so.
This was such a great day for us all! From the simplicity of enjoying the day outdoors with friends, to challenging ourselves and our vehicles driving over the various trail obstacles, to seeing and getting used to the new Defender!
This is a day I will not forget! 😊
JC’s British & 4x4