Given a rare opportunity to have 2 iconic off-road biased vehicles on test during the same week, I decided to pitch them head-to-head where it really counts…… a real off-road facility.

Although the 2 contenders do not match physically in every respect, the interesting factor was the similar price tags that they carry, so it’s a case of smaller with full specification or bigger with less bells and whistles.

The new Land Rover Defender is the shorter 3 door model powered by a 3L 6 cylinder turbodiesel motor. The power of 221kW and 650Nm very close to the Land Cruiser’s 3.3L V6 turbodiesel’s 225kW and 700Nm. The Land Cruiser uses a 10 speed automatic transmission VS 8 speed but both are equally smooth and comfortable in operation both on and off-road.

Where the 2 vehicles really differ is that the Land Cruiser is the base specification GX-R model so does without many of the electronics and gizmos that you get on the upper models in the range. The plus side is a saving of around R500 000 over the full spec model. In contract the Defender is fully specced and has a multitude of electronic aids to assist when off-roading.

The true question is whether you prefer to trust old-fashioned reliance on the driver or whether you prefer to rely on advanced electronic aid for assistance when the going gets really tough when you are far away from civilisation?

To answer this question we headed off to the ADA Off-Road Training centre to spend time putting both vehicles through their paces.

In contrast, the Land Cruiser only requires the pressing of a few buttons to ensure that it’s ready to tackle the tough stuff.  Once low-range has been selected, a single push of a button activates Crawl Mode. This operates as hill descent and ascent control, enabling the car to simply idle it’s way around the course.

Allowing for the fact that this is a very long and large 7 seater, you must allow for some constraints on manoeuvrability. There is a little trick here though, another press of a button reduces the turning circle in crawl mode allowing much tighter turns. It’s a pity that it only operates in this mode though. 

Before taking the Defender through the course, time is needed to acquaint yourself with all the settings and options that require both touchscreen and controls on the centre console to set the car up for off-road conditions. Every possible circumstance and terrain is allowed for, so it’s a case of ensuring you’ve made the correct selections and then you’re ready.

In the Defender, low-range and hill descent control help in most situations. The big winner is the exceptional camera system on the car allowing you to show wheel placing, front view, view under the vehicle and so many others. This makes life behind the wheel so much easier, unless you prefer the old-fashioned method of off-roading which requires the driver to get out of the vehicle to assess the terrain before tacking an obstacle.

Both vehicles handled every obstacle with ease and, most importantly, with the driver feeling calm, relaxed and comfortable. Even if my cameraman was terrified on a number of occasions, easily explained by the fact that this was his first 4x4 experience.

At the end of the day, trying to declare a winner was extremely difficult. Even allowing for the fact that there is a vast difference in passenger space between the 3 door Defender and the full size 7 seater Land Cruiser.

For many potential buyers who intend using the vehicle for true 4x4 activity or for crossing continents, the Defender may rely on too many electronic systems whereas the Land Cruiser  remains relatively simple. To others, the multitude of driving aids on the Defender make the journey so much easier.

After much debate, I feel that at an asking price of R1.28 million, the Land Cruiser in GX-R spec is just shadowed by the R1.4 million Defender. HOWEVER, this is only valid if the smaller vehicle suits your personal space and capacity requirements and needs.

Alan Rosenmeyer: