“Just keep your foot in it and you’ll be fine.” That’s the first thing I tell my drive partner as we head into the dunes in Dubai. She’s behind the wheel of the extra-long 2023 Land Rover Defender 130 while I’m riding shotgun. Before us are miles of steep dunes undulating like the nearby Persian Gulf.

“No matter what happens, don’t lift your foot off the gas until I tell you.” 

My driving partner, let’s call her Melissa, gives me a nervous glance, but puts the big SUV in gear, takes a deep breath, and goes for it.

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130 dune discipline

Driving in the dunes is all about commitment, or  “driving with passion” as our Land Rover guides say. You have to stay on the throttle to maintain momentum, especially when piloting a vehicle that’s more than 17 feet long with room for eight and weighs in excess of 5,700 pounds. Pretty much anyone can get a tiny side-by-side through the dunes. A full-size SUV? Not so much.

I’ve driven stock vehicles through dunes in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, California, and Nevada, but I’ve never coached a newbie before. Land Rover makes instructing easier with a drive mode just for sand, full-time all-wheel drive with automatically engaging center and rear differential lockers, and an air suspension to bring ground clearance up to 11.5 inches. 

For this trip, our Defender 130 is outfitted with the P400 powertrain, which teams a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 with a mild-hybrid system to make 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. An 8-speed automatic puts that power down to the sand through 32-inch Goodyear Duratrac tires. 

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

As Melissa heads up the sandy slope, I can feel the traction control start to kick in a bit. “Oh crap,” I think. “We’re still in Auto mode.” Sure, Auto mode will respond to the terrain and act accordingly, but it’s definitely not as forgiving as Sand mode. Land Rover hasn’t let us air down the tires yet either, so we have a smaller contact patch on the sand and less flotation. But we’re in the middle of it now and it’s not like we can stop and change modes. Melissa just has to do it.

“Throttle! Throttle! Go! Go! Go! You got it,” I yell as Melissa stays steadfastly on goal, her eyes fixed on where she wants to go. It wasn’t the prettiest ascent those dunes have ever seen, but she’s conquered her first sand hill.

She looks over at me with a triumphant smile. “This is going to be fun.”

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

Going big in the 2023 Land Rover Defender 130

Once we air down the tires from about 39 to 25 psi and switch to Sand mode, which keeps the revs high and cuts the traction control nannies, Melissa is confidently piloting the Defender up and over some medium-sized dunes while numerous people behind us are getting stuck. This gives us plenty of opportunity to practice stopping and starting on the soft sand. It may sound easy but stopping too quickly will dig in the front tires and you’ll get stuck. Mashing the throttle from a dead stop will bury you as well. 

Then I get the chance to coach her up some bigger dunes, where throttle control is key.

“You have to carry enough speed to make it up the dune, but at the top you have to lift at just the right moment. Too soon and you’ll lose momentum and get stuck. Too late and you’ll launch yourself over the dune.” 

This gal’s got it. She heads up the dune with plenty of speed, the turbo-6 providing more than enough grunt. Just as we crest the top she times the throttle release and we coast over the last few feet, keeping all four wheels on the ground.

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

She does get stuck once, however, and it’s easy to do in a long vehicle like the Defender 130. The wheelbase may be the same as the Defender 110’s, but its rear overhang is much, much longer. All of the additional 13.3 inches of length versus the 110 is carried at the rear, bringing the total length to more than 200 inches. The departure angle here is 28.5 degrees with the air suspension in the highest setting. Meanwhile, the 110 and 90 sit at a much better 40.0 degrees.

This means that the rear can drag coming off a steep slope, and that’s just what happens. It’s soft sand so you can power through it easily, but the sand at the bottom of the hill is chewed up and Melissa doesn’t have enough momentum to power through. No worries though. A quick yank with a kinetic rope and we are out and moving again.

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

When it’s my turn to drive I’m a bit more aggressive. I crab walk along the side of a dune, flinging sand from all four wheels. I take the highest line I can across the face of another dune, just to show off. I’m able to point out to Melissa hazards like witches’ eyes, little sand bowls that can be hard to see that will end your day if you drive into one. We also chat about looking a few dunes ahead to chart your path, surfing the tops of the dunes as much as possible. While the others are digging out in the hot Dubai sun, Melissa and I are having a great time in cooled-seat comfort, singing along to bad ’80s music.

Of course, I can’t let my time in the three-row Defender go by without sampling that last row. It’s actually not too shabby. At 5-foot-9, my knees raise a little high and my butt sits a little low, but the 31.7 inches of legroom would be plenty on shorter trips. Hip and shoulder room are a little tight for three full-sized humans back there, but kids should be just fine.

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

2023 Land Rover Defender 130

I love that the Defender is primed for long trekking with the capability to carry a veritable butt load of payload. You can shove more than 1,700 pounds of gear and people in this thing and can carry 370 pounds on the roof while the rig is moving. Combine that dynamic rating with a static roof load rating of 661 pounds and that’s more than enough for a roof top tent for two.

Although I always prefer smaller rigs for off-roading, I can’t deny the Defender 130’s dune driving chops. It makes it easy for a newbie to learn and allows me to have some fun as well. Of course, you’ll pay for the privilege. The SE trims we drove start at just under $80,000 including $1,475 for destination, but the top Defender 130 X trim just squeaks its way into six figures.

That’s plenty of cashola for sure, but look at what else is out there. Besides Land Rover’s other three-row Range Rover and Discovery, only the Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer can come close to matching the Defender’s off-road prowess. I mean, are you going to take your Cadillac Escalade into the wild? Have fun with that.

If you’ve never driven in the dunes before, don’t freak out. Yes, it can be scary but the only two things you need to remember are to air down and drive with passion. A good Sand mode helps, too.

Land Rover paid for lodging and airfare for Motor Authority to present this firsthand report. 

—by Emme Hall



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