Across much of the world, the Land Rover Defender is iconic and represents the pinnacle of utility vehicles. Here in the US, however, they were only available for a brief five-year window from 1992 to 1997 and, as a result, have had more of a niche—even cult—following. When Gerry McGovern and the design team at Land Rover set out to reinvent the Defender’s look, they took on a task so complexly layered it could have crippled even the most seasoned, confident designers. A further hurdle—making a wildly capable vehicle perform even better—would make the Defender a non-starter if not nailed. We’ve just spent three days driving the result of this journey and are thrilled to report that Land Rover’s all-new 2020 Defender honors the legacy of the mark and will impress seasoned Cotswolds purists and American newcomers alike. As expected, it’s an off-road beast. Surprisingly, it’s a delight on-road as well.
The original Defender was a study in boxes with hard creased right angles and essentially two simple volumes married atop four wheels. The new design nods to this geometry while balancing rounded corners, sophisticated angles and a more aggressive stance set on larger wheels. Simultaneously timeless and modern, it’s the embodiment of Land Rover’s aspirations to combine design and durability.
Inside, the driver holds a commanding position in firm-yet-comfortable seats with a clear view over the bonnet. The steering wheel is large to offer maximized control and storage spots are easily reached in the lower lip of the dash. Physical controls are kept to a minimum by sharing temperature, fan, seat-warming and Terrain Response among two dials. This sounds confusing, but the interface is quickly learned. Material options include ranges of textiles and leathers for seating, metals and woods for trim—all in a range of colors and textures within a palette compatible with the rugged use Defender is intended for. And of course, the floor mats and boot liners are rubber.
There’s incredibly complex technology inside the Defender and it’s all built for delivering simplicity to the driver. Land Rover’s new PIVI Pro infotainment system makes its debut in this vehicle and is a welcomed update to past systems—the touch interface is intuitive and responsive with an elegant and minimal design. Of course, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also supported. Cameras around the vehicle offer several viewpoints, like a standard overhead view while parking or a less common 3/4 isometric view that’s helpful while navigating more complex terrain. And regarding terrain-navigation, the Terrain Response system can be dialed in to specific modes or left on auto to dynamically control power and differentials for all different off-road scenarios—it can even enable Wade mode when traversing water up to three-feet deep. In addition to Land Rover’s long-standing hill decent control mode, there’s All-Terrain Progress Control which is essentially off-roading cruise control. The good news for purists is all of these features can be turned off or managed manually.
On the road the new Defender is surprisingly delightful. We drove a Defender 110 four-door (the Defender 90 two-door arrives in 2021) with a three-liter, 395 horsepower mild hybrid EV/gas engine. It’s the same P400e base engine in the current Range Rover Sport and delivers a lot of power very quickly. The center of gravity on this car is very low, making cornering quite satisfying. Despite being a tall vehicle, it can take turns at high speeds and never once feel unstable. Further, the car doesn’t feel stiff or uncomfortable on a long road trip—something we generally avoided in the previous generation Defenders.
Tackling the challenges of off-road environments is what Defender was created to do. For decades it has been the class-leader in capability around the world and this redesigned model honors that heritage and excels into the future. Our drive included a session at the Land Rover Experience Center on their controlled course with extreme features and a drive up the backside of Mt Equinox on what seemed like an abandoned and unmaintained rocky service road. Not only did the Defender tackle every challenge presented, it did so with grace. Scaling steep slopes and crawling over large rocks seemed almost effortless and at the same time we felt a clear and direct connection to the terrain below us. And while the automatic systems work fantastically, there’s always the option for the full manual control many purists insist on.
Defender holds a specific place in the Land Rover family—it’s the hallmark of durability. The other end of the spectrum is Range Rover which epitomizes refinement. Their Discovery vehicles exist in between.
The 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 four-door is available now and the Defender 90 two-door will be coming in 2021. The 110 starts at $49,900 for a base model and can spec up to $80,900 for the Defender X.
Hero image by Josh Rubin