Paused precariously on a thin spit of land on a remote Scottish Highlands estate is a convoy of mud-plastered 4x4s. I’m nearing the end of an arduous day’s off-roading, woozy with fatigue.
Twilight is looming. Drizzle flicks the windscreen. And it’s freezing. It’s always freezing here, even in summer probably. Do the Scots even have a word for summer?
Now the Ineos driving guide is ordering us via walkie-talkie to ford a loch. There is no visible path ahead, just murky water, possibly filled with monsters. The only choice I have is to blindly follow the vehicle in front, and hope.
Hope said vehicle is on the correct trajectory (and the driver isn’t an imbecile). Hope I’ve got a few drops of awakeness left in the tank. Hope I don’t veer too far left or right. Hope I don’t meet a cold, wet death for the sake of a car review.
In 2016 the Defender was, controversially, subject to a radical overhaul by the folks at Land Rover, resulting in a new, surprisingly modern car that inhabited a different spacetime dimension to its iconic forebear.
Step up Jim Ratcliffe, CEO of petrochemical multinational Ineos, and one of Britain’s richest people with an estimated net worth of US$15.3 billion. He’s also a Defender purist.
According to what is now motoring folklore, while having a pint in his local London pub – The Grenadier – Ratcliffe identified a potential gap in the market for a robust off-road workhorse, one built to modern specs with best-in-class engineering.
So what if his company had no automotive history, bar owning a stake in the Mercedes F1 team? So what if it would cost more than a billion euros to realize his vision? He was good for it. And may have had a few pints.
Cue six years of R&D, during which Ineos bought a state-of-the-art production factory in Germany, faced down a lawsuit from Jaguar Land Rover over the visual similarities to the old Defender and, just for giggles, bought the pub where the idea was born.
So here we are in early 2023, emerging from an icy loch in one piece, lungs not full of water, strangely calm. That’s the overriding sensation when you drive the new Grenadier: no matter the landscape, it’s utterly fearless and unstoppable.
During an epic two-day escapade, I traversed lochs filled with large, sharp sheets of floating ice, descended vertiginous tracks at impossible angles, and climbed the kind of rock-studded hills that would make even mountain goats hesitate – and still the Grenadier didn’t blink.
At the heart of the car’s supreme toughness is its super-stiff full box section, ladder-frame chassis. Additional beef is provided by heavy-duty solid-beam axles, developed in conjunction with agricultural machinery firm, Carraro.
Impressive pieces of architecture, sure, which go some way to providing a 3.5-metric ton towing capacity and 5.5 metric tons of winching power, but the Grenadier isn’t an industrial earthmover.
Brawn and comfort are needed if Ineos wants to break into a market already dominated, at the rough-and-tumble end, by the Toyota LandCruiser 70, and on the lifestyle side, by the Mercedes G-Wagen and Jeep Wrangler.
To this end, the Grenadier is equipped with progressive coil spring suspension and anti-roll bars, so that even on the most boisterous tracks, the ride is nowhere near as bumpy as it should be.
Even when tilted at insane gradients, you never think the car is in danger of flipping, especially with Downhill Assist mode engaged. In this setting you don’t even have to use the brake. Simply press the button, sit back and let the Grenadier handle the forward momentum all by itself.
As is to be expected in a four-wheel drive of this kind, there’s a separate, manually operated low-range transfer case that sends torque and power to the front and rear axles, with a lockable center-differential.
Additional front and rear diff locks can be optioned but, honestly, you’d only need to use them in the most extreme circumstances, like driving to the summit of Mount Everest.
With first orders about to land in Australia, where the car will now cost US$66,800 plus on-roads (up from the original price of US$58,200), the good news for early adopters is the Grenadier isn’t just a stylish tractor.
BMW’s six-cylinder, 3.0-liter engine, available in diesel or petrol, delivers huge amounts of torque (550 Newton-meters/450 Newton-meters respectively) off-road but, in combination with the German company’s eight-speed transmission, the car is surprisingly refined on conventional roads, too, and the switch from mud to tarmac in Scotland was seamless.
The only minor criticism is that the slightly vague steering requires frequent minor adjustments, which feels more noticeable on a sealed road.
With its rugged good looks and classic heritage shape, it’s easy to see the Grenadier appealing to buyers who are more likely to park the car at the soccer field than drive on an actual field.
But serious 4×4 enthusiasts and adventurers are catered for, with a long list of functional features, including 2,000 liters of load space, 30:70 split rear doors to make loading easier, beltlines along the body, rear ladder and optional roof rack or cross bars for carrying extra kit.
Inclined to get a bit mucky after a day’s trail biking? Rest easy. The whole interior can be safely hosed down (just like a Defender).
In fact, it’s inside where Ineos has done some of its best work. Adorned with a chunky analogue switchgear and hard-wearing cloth and vinyl, the cabin feels appealingly spare and old-school, and totally original to this model, especially the aviation-inspired overheard control panel, bringing a sense of drama to the experience.
And yet in other respects the Grenadier is bang up-to-date; there’s a large 31.2-centimeter central touchscreen, which – as well as the predictable stuff – displays cool things like steering angle, vehicle attitude and your current coordinates. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard. The audio system rocks.
From inside to out, it feels like a tremendous amount of thought has gone into this car.
Car? It feels wrong to call it a car. Most production vehicles are fairly one dimensional; they go from A to B, they move fast-ish, they (sometimes) make you look cool. The Grenadier is something else: a machine, a tour de force, an outlier.
And, if you happen to be driving blindly across a cold Highlands loch, perhaps a potential lifesaver.