Miles away from Dubai’s skyline, a cityscape seemingly out of the film Blade Runner, are the expansive sand dunes of the Arabian Desert. The region offers respite from the teeming metropolis, where skyscrapers and bedazzled SUVs reign supreme, and a slice of heaven for those seeking otherworldly off-road experiences.
The expanse of sand hills is a perfect place to challenge yourself in a capable vehicle. During the toastiest months of the year, they also happen to be Land Rover’s destination for hot-weather testing on rigs like the new Defender 130. Our springtime expedition was a tad less daunting thanks to the season’s somewhat moderate temps. But our test subjects still had hard work ahead of them: climbing, apexing, and descending steep, slippery grades without the traction of specialized, sand-specific tires.
First, something to know about the latest Defender 130: Unlike old-school Defenders (which more closely resemble farm implements than passenger vehicles), the nomenclature does not reflect its wheelbase. The new Defender 90’s axle-to-axle distance, for example, is in fact 101.9 inches, while the 110 variant sports a 119-inch wheelbase. Despite its differing numerics, the Defender 130 has a wheelbase that’s identical to the 110’s, though it does claim 13.5 inches more rear overhang. The extension is a welcome addition for those hoping to haul stuff, as the new model more than triples the cargo volume behind the rear row. However, off-roading cognoscenti will note that its departure angle of 28.5 degrees pales in comparison to the Defender 110’s 40-degree figure.
It turns out that the dunes’ pillowy softness means the tails of our trucks would be in no danger of scraping or bottoming out on steep slopes. We can’t speak to the 130’s all-terrain abilities over hard rocks and less forgiving surfaces, but for our purposes, the extra length proves to be of near-zero consequence; the real challenge is not to get stuck in the sea of fine silt.
Like any proper desert trek, the excursion was handled with the logistical aplomb you would expect from the automaker responsible for everything from the legendary de facto Olympics of 4×4’ing, the do-or-die Camel Trophy, to posh leather-lined Range Rovers. That means a team of experienced overland competitors, technicians, and planners, along with the requisite medics and support crew.
As sanitized as the experience could have been, the vagaries of the natural world meant wild cards could, and did, emerge at the drop of a hat. “You will get stuck,” our veteran leader notified us during a driver briefing. “It happened to me, and it can happen to you.” That said, there are a few tactics to employ when tackling these seemingly indomitable mountains of sand.
For starters, momentum is your friend: if that viscous material beneath your tires is building up more friction than your throttle foot can counteract, the vehicle will come to a slow but resolute halt. This is especially true on extra-soft sections and during ascents. Land Rover being Land Rover, the Defender comes equipped with a mode for driving on sand and dirt. By pre-programming the power distribution and stability control to cope with these unusual conditions, the Defender is able to claw itself through surprisingly stubborn terrain.
Doing so, however, requires a bit of unlearning if you’re steeped in traditional off-roading technique: easing away with a smooth throttle and mashing it when the going gets slow will generally lead to sand success . . . generally . . . unless you’re forced to stop on an incline, or get caught in dune traffic, or venture a bit too sideways on a hill and don’t properly correct. Ask me how I know.
Like any adventure where one is exploring both their personal limits and that of their machine, piloting the new Defender 130 through sand dunes proves to be a delicate dance between prudence and risk. While the vehicle’s electronics make it easy to approach these low friction surfaces, the street-ready tires can be the difference between successfully ascending that seemingly impossible rise, or digging in and getting stuck. Regardless of the occasional rescue, the Defender 130 retains its historically proven ability to surmount exceptional challenges, in this case maintaining a comfortably pleasant experience for those of us foolhardy enough to take on this otherworldly testing ground. Think excellent insulation, comfy heated and ventilated seats, and a 10-speaker, 400-watt Meridian sound system, whose delicacy belies the truck’s go-anywhere ethos.
The Defender 130 has also been tuned with a bit more straight-line suspension softness over the 110, reducing fatigue on longer drives. And the adaptive suspension stiffens during cornering in order to avoid feeling mushy on twisty roads and trails. One nitpick: selecting and adjusting the off-road modes requires using the 11.4-inch touchscreen. Rather than relying on the haptically satisfying experience of twisting a dial or pushing a button, the screen—which typically gets dusty in these outback settings—is more problematic to operate, especially when the vehicle is in motion.
The tools at hand are powerful, including hill-descent control, cameras that peer below the vehicle to help navigate over rough surfaces, and visualizations which represent suspension travel and water levels for wading. This is a transport that has been tested more than 2.4 million miles through a gauntlet of abusive landscapes. It’s only that we wish the interface felt just a tad less digital and more physical than the screen-based setup.
A postscript to our dune drive: while we traveled with a 296 hp, six-cylinder power plant, we were able to later sample the just-released 493 hp V8 Outbound model, which backs up the notion that more is indeed more. The smaller engine proved well-tuned for the nuanced task of negotiating sand dunes, but the V8 offers more grunt and get-up-and-go for scenarios that call for higher torque and more output, like high-speed passes. And while, equipped with the proper accessories, the six-cylinder version is perfectly sufficient for essentially all off-road forays, the honeyed power of the bigger mill makes the V8 Defender our preferred steed for adventures, whether urban or unbounded.
Ready to start summer in high gear? There’s still time to join Robb Report’s 2023 California Coastal Rally, June 4 through 8. For more information, or to register, visit here.
Click here for more photos of the 2023 Land Rover Defender 130 in action.