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2020 Land Rover Defender Test Drive Review
The Land Rover Defender didn’t have to leave, but as the saying goes, it couldn't stay here. In 1996, after only two model years, the United States banned the Defender 90 because it didn't have airbags, a proud feature this crusty old truck boasted from 1990 until its final breath in 2016. Around the world, the Defender—and the Series I, II, and III models that were nearly the same since 1948—has been Britain's answer to the American Jeep, the German Gelandewagen, and the Japanese FJ. It was a farming vehicle built on warrior bones that served millions, including armies, without a whiff of prestige or wealth.
Today, Land Rover is a luxury manufacturer of extreme off-road vehicles that can and do go everywhere on earth. The new Defender isn't anything like the old Defender, and thank God. But don't think the Defender has gone too soft, because at its core, it's just a cushier, way pricier Wrangler.
Look and Feel
The Defender is the box we've missed since the 2016 LR4, the last three-row Land Rover that looked like Land Rovers always did. It's so familiar: Squared-off edges, a roof that rises higher toward the rear, lots of glass, roundish headlights, and short overhangs and skid plates for the trails. We're not the only ones missing the Defender's blocky frame. The current Discovery that replaced the LR4 hasn't been welcomed by customers like its designers had hoped. That vehicle's smooth contours and Ford Explorer profile have undermined its truck-tough capability and Range Rover levels of luxury. The Defender is like a Burberry trench coat—classic and purposeful, hardly showy.
Building a box was the easy part. Detailing a box is why automotive designers get into this business. The Defender keeps some funky bits that, in the modern age, serve no purpose. Owners used to walk all over their Defenders, hence the step plates on the front fenders and a ladder on the back hatch. Those plates are now plastic and if you stepped on them, you'd dent the aluminum hood. However, you can fold down the three-piece ladder attached above the new vehicle's left rear wheel and climb atop the flat roof carrier, rated at well over 200 pounds. There are still "alpine lights" curving atop the roof. These were narrow windows placed at the edges of the rear window frames to help Land Rover drivers place their wobbly 4x4s around curves as they accelerated—or tried to—up the steep, squiggly Alpine passes in Switzerland.
Rounded rectangles comprise the taillights, stacked in a black bar connecting the tailgate glass, which visually narrows the Defender. Two smaller stacked lights, to the right of each taillight assembly, serve as additional brake lights and turn signals. They echo the old Defender's four lights that served the same functions, mounted as they were at the body's edge, which widens in a slight S-curve below the vehicle's centerline. An external spare tire, covered or not, is on prominent display and the tailgate still cracks open like a safe, with hinges on the right-hand side. Mudflaps, snorkels, and steel wheels are all available. The roof can be painted black, white, or body color. Four design themes can dress the Defender up for an urban assault (as in, blacked-out trim and huge 22-inch rims) or for a day in the country (with an external lockable storage box for random picnic items). Owners may choose the "signature graphic" instead of the storage box, which is a body-color square smack in the middle of the rearmost glass, or they can choose to have the full-width glass. Black fender flares, additional skid plates, vinyl graphics, and a factory matte wrap to cover the earthy paint tones (Pangea Green is our favorite) are among the many options. This is a very fun vehicle to configure, and in person, the Defender inspires the very adventures it's trying to sell. You just want to sail this thing through a ditch, which we did.
Inside, the interior is basic. Land Rover describes the unadorned, slab-sided cabin as industrial, and it sure is. Cloth comes standard, and there's an optional center jump seat like on old pickup trucks that deletes the center console. An exposed aluminum bar spanning the dash can be powder coated in white, along with the spokes on the steering wheel, and there are exposed screws poking through the oak wood trim on the console and on the rubbery door panels. Leather can cover the dash, door tops, and seats, but on many Defender models, it's a water-resistant synthetic and the seats have hard fabric on the edges to reduce wear. The touchscreen is neatly sandwiched between the open dash—it's like one big shelf—and there's a stubby shifter, some dials for the climate, buttons for the four-wheel drive (4WD), and small air vents. That's it.
Our tester was the HSE, one step below the X which features full leather, and was not at all luxurious, certainly not by the expectations of a $75,000 new car. It's not that nice inside, and to us, that dings the score in this category. A Mercedes-Benz G-Class is way more expensive, yes, but it manages to feel like a supreme luxury car and a high-grade off-road tool at the same time. So does a Ram 1500. The Defender, for all the uppityness of modern Land Rovers, is what Jeep would build. If you can imagine a Wrangler with softer materials and superior assembly, you can imagine being inside a Defender. Next to anything else, the Defender is like a commercial vehicle, or like a home in a rich neighborhood where the people inside couldn't afford to furnish it.
Considering how a Jeep Wrangler can now cost $60,000, a loaded-up Land Rover Defender justifies its price once you start driving. It's quiet, plush, and soft at all times, on every surface. Standard air springs are the best cushions, ably filtering nasty ruts and bumps at speed. To which, the Defender has no trouble reaching with its optional powertrain, a 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six with 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. It's a mild hybrid, and one of the turbochargers is powered by an electric motor, not the exhaust gas. This removes turbo lag at low speeds and ensures consistent power at higher speeds. The Defender won't coast with its engine off like the similar hybrid setup on the newest Mercedes inline-six models, but the mild-hybrid system's separate 48-volt battery can power many vehicle accessories, like the air conditioning, for long intervals while stopped and it restarts the engine much quicker than the older auto stop-start system that relied on a traditional starter motor.
Initial throttle application is lazy and long—these are the traits desired for off-roaders—but in the eight-speed automatic transmission's sport mode, the Defender launches aggressively and emits a little rasp that we'd love to hear uncorked in a Jaguar once this same engine makes its way to those models. But the Defender is a defiant truck, so much that it's the only vehicle in memory that decelerates while traveling downhill. There's a lot of friction and air resistance working against this vehicle. Unlike the newest Range Rovers, the Defender lets the driver feel every pound. The steering is slow and requires corrections on the highway, the suspension leans a generous amount, and the brakes require a deep stomp. An optional electronic locking rear differential with torque vectoring helps tighten the Defender's wide trajectory around turns, but this vehicle handles like SUVs did 20 years ago. Don't upset the apple cart.
The standard engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four with 296 hp and 295 lb-ft, without a hybrid assist. It's available on the base and S models and best fitted to the smaller, two-door 90 that is arriving in 2021, rather than the four-door 110 available starting in 2020. More efficient, higher-torque diesels are available in Europe and never coming to this country, sadly.
Off-road performance, with the aid of Terrain Response 2 and the adjustable-height suspension, is exemplary. We sampled the Defender at Land Rover's driving school in Manchester, Vermont, and on the unmaintained rock trails surrounding it at the base of Mount Equinox. Like any Rover, the Defender is a point-and-click affair: Select your terrain (or let the computer decide), and you'll have the perfect blend of throttle, gearing, diff locking, and torque routing for any scenario. In low range, only obstacles cutting higher than 38 degrees over the front bumper will block progress, or a side angle more than 45 degrees or water more than three-feet deep. Those are roller coaster figures that would make any ordinary person squeal. The Defender bit and chewed through the forest like a deer, with expert help from Land Rover staff who spotted our line the entire time. That's essential for anyone off-roading, even with the best 360-degree cameras on board. At times when we applied too much throttle in a steep crag, seemingly buried by stone, we dialed back. Inch by inch, the Defender found traction, cleared the hump, and came out the other side unbruised.
We could have done the same in a Wrangler Rubicon, but on the ride home, we'd have been yelling over the wind and tire noise. The Defender is a multi-purpose vehicle that's entirely happy on pavement as it is falling down a cliff.
Form and Function
As we've described, the Defender is built first and foremost to drive in the worst conditions. Its exterior and interior design, while retro and minimalist, is to move people and their gear anywhere. That goes for all the surfaces inside, which strive for durability and cleanup over anything posh, though it's nice to see a rubber floor inside a Defender instead of bare metal. New two-door SUVs are rare, and the Defender 90, which will arrive in 2021, is very unique: It has an optional jump seat that serves as an armrest when stowed. In this configuration, the two-door 90 will fit six people. Or, it can fit three up front and stow a bunch more gear with the seats folded. The jump seat is also available on the four-door 110. That model (the 90 and 110 used to stand for the wheelbase, in inches, but that stopped being the case a long time ago) has an optional third row, for seven seats. You can't order the front jump seat and the third row together, so total passengers are five (standard for 90 and 110), six (optional on 90 and 110), or seven (110 only). Land Rover designed the front jump seat to accommodate an adult, while the third row is there in a pinch, or for little kids. For choice, this cabin layout can't be beaten.
The austere look also pays dividends for ease of use. Controls are simple, as is the new infotainment interface that reduces clutter. Headroom and legroom are generous in the first and second rows, and the standard panoramic moonroof on the 110 and folding fabric roof on the 90 let all the light inside. Rear air conditioning is optional, along with rear heated seats. We'd recommend the front refrigerator in the center console, too. Cargo space on the two-door 90 is 16 cubic feet and 58 with the rear seats folded. On the four-door 110, it's 34 behind the second row and 79 with them folded. Models with the third row have only 69 cubic feet with all rows folded, though there's an equivalent 35 cubic feet behind the second row and 11 behind the third row.
We tried using the ladder and it's indeed easy to climb on the roof and stand on it like you're king of the jungle, provided you're no more than 220 pounds. Towing is an impressive 8,200 pounds with either the four- or six-cylinder engine. To prove how tough the Defender is, Land Rover drove it straight into an eight-inch-tall curb at 25 mph, over and over. That's what engineers did during development to simulate a seven-ton force smashing into the suspension and body.
Pivi Pro is the newest Jaguar Land Rover infotainment system. Typically, JLR infotainment is among the worst in the industry—the screens freeze, buttons won't work, features appear that aren't actually on the vehicle, and worse. The previous InControl Touch Pro had a streak of software errors that were never fixed. This system is a complete overhaul, with two SIM cards able to handle two sets of streaming data (one for navigation, weather, and other onboard apps; the other for over-the-air software updates). The updates can affect 16 computer modules, including the drivetrain, so future revisions won't be limited to the 10-inch touchscreen.
The interface removes the color-coded menus for a muted grayscale theme with thin type. Indeed, it's easier to adjust the stereo tone, type an address, or switch radio stations. But there are some user interface problems already, like how small the zoom icons are on the map, or how the side bar showing the phone's signal and other info is too small to read and overlays a transparency over the map, which effectively blocks your view and makes the info even harder to read. Adjusting vehicle settings is easier, and overall it seems faster. We'll have to wait and see how Pivi Pro works the more Land Rover models we get to drive.
The capability helps in off-road situations. The front cameras are aligned in such a way that the display can show the ground underneath the front hood. While this view was a little fuzzy on our trail, we preferred showing the two side cameras to make sure we weren't scraping the rims. A rearview mirror also doubles as another screen, so that if you've loaded the Defender to the ceiling, you can still see behind you. Altitude, vehicle pitch, and vehicle roll readings are a handy off-road guide. You can also see steering angle, wheel travel, and whether the center and rear differentials are partially or fully locked.
Analog gauges with a seven-inch display come standard. Our vehicle had the 12-inch digital instrument panel that features full-screen maps and new gauge renderings. Operating all these settings is a little tricky on the move, so it's best to set up this cluster first before driving. Overall, the displays are very sharp. An optional head-up display is also available. 4G WiFi is included. Rear passengers can click tablets into removable brackets mounted on the rear seats—a far better solution than fixed, ugly screens that stick out of the seat backs and quickly become out of date. A wireless charger comes standard in the front console.
While the Defender 90 won't arrive until the 2021 model year, the base Defender 110 comes into 2020 with steel wheels, manual seats, and a lousy stereo. Even so, the infotainment with navigation comes standard, as do Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, LED headlights, proximity entry, 360-degree cameras, air suspension, traffic sign recognition, lane keep assist, and emergency braking.
All the niceties, like a heated steering wheel, leather, 14-speaker Meridian stereo, and the dozens of accessories like an integrated air compressor come on the SE, HSE, X, or First Edition models. Adaptive cruise control is available, but a semi-automated driving feature is not offered.
The Defender has not been rated by any U.S. crash testing agency or organization, and due to its price and limited volume, will not be rated anytime in the future. The Defender does not come with knee airbags or rear side airbags—there are six in total. Forward emergency braking, lane-keep assist (which only nudges the wheel), blind-spot monitoring, driver attention monitor, and 360-degree cameras come standard. Rear cross-traffic alerts and alerts upon exiting the vehicle, such as passing cars or cyclists, are optional.
The 2020 Defender is a short model year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting factory shutdowns. The 2021 models will arrive early in that year and include trims for the 90. The 2020 Defender 110 starts at $49,900. The 110 S is $53,350. Those two models have the four-cylinder engine. All other 110 models have the six-cylinder hybrid. The 110 SE is $62,250 and the HSE we tested bases at $68,350 (ours was $75,000 with destination). The First Edition, which is really an HSE, is $68,650 while the two-tone, loaded 110 X is $80,900, each before individual options.
As a style and luxury good, the new Land Rover Defender is worth the price since imported, old Defender models have been pouring into the country for years and resold with aftermarket mods for north of $100,000. But as a luxury truck, the Defender's price is only justified by its road manners, off-road skills, and impressive tech. It's not the luxury experience you'd expect in a modern Land Rover, and a Jeep can do most everything it can do on a trail. The Defender is a specialty piece of equipment built in low numbers, which may be all the reason to buy one.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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