2020 Land Rover Defender First Drive Review: Off-Road Wonder

First Drive / 22 Comments

Still the best 4X4 by far.

The previous generation Land Rover Defender has a well-earned reputation as an unstoppable off-roading machine. Few made it to the US, so few here have experienced just how ridiculously capable it is. The rest of the world has, though, so Land Rover knew that rebooting the fabled machine would bring high expectations. The company's engineers and developers set about the job with gusto and benchmarked the original in order to either match or exceed its performance capabilities, and boy did they succeed. The 21st-century reboot arrives with classic design cues crossed with a state-of-the-art permanent all-wheel-drive drivetrain and suspension system along with an upgraded iteration of the brand's Terrain Response control system.

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That's all attached to a monocoque chassis loosely based on the same architecture underpinning the Land Rover Discovery, Range Rover, and Range Rover Sport. The days of body-on-frame being necessary on an off-road vehicle are gone, and the new chassis is even stiffer than on Land Rover's other current models.

There are a few departures to the Defender of old. No longer is the drivetrain purely mechanical with big levers to push and pull, and the interior is no longer a simple agricultural affair. The new Defender is a more technologically advanced and plusher vehicle, but the recipe is ultimately about creating the last word in off-the-shelf off-roading prowess. To demonstrate that, Land Rover invited us into the desert for an intense weekend exploring the new 110-mode Defender's capabilities both on and off the road in Southern California.

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Exterior Design: The Right Amount Of Iconic

The new 2020 Land Rover Defender pays a lot of respect to its heritage. The squared-off silhouette, the rooftop's skylights, and the stacked taillights bracketing the side-opening rear door are immediately noticeable. Simultaneously, the design is fresh and forward-looking by mixing a strong suggestion of ruggedness and modern curves. Most importantly, Land Rover pushed the wheels as far into the corners as possible, and not just to create an aggressive stance. Approach and departure angles are critical on an off-road vehicle, as digging the front bumper into the bottom of a hill or losing it coming back down is far from ideal. In terms of benchmarking, the new Defender has the same departure angle and slightly less of an approach angle than the old one. However, the new model sits 1.6 inches higher and can tilt on its side to 45 degrees rather than 35 degrees before tipping over.

The 110 model name is a carryover from the original models. It used to represent chassis length, but that's no longer the case and now just means the 110 is the longer wheelbase model. The shorter Defender 90 will arrive in 2021.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: Now With Turbo And Mild-Hybrid Power

Here in the US, we get a choice of two engines to power the Defender. The first is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder generating a more than reasonable 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The Defender 110 we drove came powered by the larger option: a turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six with a mild-hybrid assist. It generates 395 hp and 406 lb-ft, which goes a long way to offset the hefty 4,735 lbs of weight. The power delivery is plentiful, smooth, and controllable for the most part. However, out on the highway, when you put your foot down to overtake, there's a lag between input and increased momentum. Once it kicks in, though, there's plenty of go for overtaking or joining fast-moving traffic. Initial takeoff is where the mild-hybrid system shows itself, getting things moving in as much of a hurry as you need.

The Defender 90 with the 2.0-liter engine returns an EPA-rated 18/21/19 mpg city/highway/combined. The Defender 110 we tested is rated at 17/22/19 mpg.

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On-Road Driving Impressions: Un-Defender Like

This reviewer grew up on a small island driving Land Rovers and Range Rovers. The Defender was a step up from the ride the Series model Land Rovers put their owners through, but it was still on the agricultural side. The steering was imprecise, braking was an effort, and using the clutch even more so. Only the bravest of people hurried a Land Rover Defender down a country lane or breached 70 mph on a freeway. The new Defender is an entirely different story, and Land Rover was confident enough in its road manners to let us loose on your reviewer's current stomping ground - Highway 74 in California. It's a long curved piece of road complete with switchbacks eminently suited for sports cars. The Defender is no sports car, but it's also unfazed by sharp corners, and the suspension happily soaks up bumps while keeping the chassis from wallowing around with ease. The steering is sharp and accurate, and it's just as at home on the freeway. It doesn't quite have the car-like handling of a crossover, but it's as close as we've come in an off-road biased SUV.

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Off-Road Driving Impressions: Simply Magnificent

Getting off the pavement is what will make or break the new Defender and, in the blistering heat of the desert, it proved itself to us. The trail we followed covered river washes, rutted dirt tracks, rock-strewn ground, dirt tracks you can pick up speed on, sand dunes, and an area to crawl over rocks. It was all negotiated on the factory-supplied Goodyear Wrangler all-season tires and using the various modes in the Terrain Response system. On the loose dirt, we grew confident enough to start pushing the Defender hard into corners to see how the traction system dealt with it, and the Defender didn't miss a beat. Without fail, it corrected going in too deep before braking, then happily wagged its tail with too much throttle delivered early on exit. Later on, cruising at 70 mph on a long straight dirt road, the suspension soaked it all up and kept the ride as comfortable as a Civic on a California freeway.

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The real test started when the trail started getting gnarly through deep ruts and obstacles tilting the vehicle on its side. Nothing fazed the Defender, and after a while began to feel a little too easy negotiating harsh terrain. The Terrain Response system is incredibly well-tuned, and to the point we could see inexperienced off-road enthusiasts getting overconfident and eventually finding its edges somewhere a long way from help. However, for this test's purposes, it helped us through areas that would usually take an artful dance on the peddles to get through without damaging the bodywork. In this case, a tightly walled area through deep ruts where there's no choice but to test axle articulation and get a wheel off the ground before see-sawing and getting its diagonal partner airborne as well. All it took was a seasoned spotter to guide us through along with gentle use of the throttle to crawl through the tight mini-canyon.

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The off-road journey's final stint involved Sand Mode and some lovely dunes to carve our way through and over. The Terrain Response system made sure the appropriate diffs were locked, and by choosing a route and a judicious amount of throttle... we had to back out of the first dune before cresting for fear of getting stuck. With red cheeks and a bruised ego, we took a second run at the dune with more throttle, and despite being on inappropriate tires for the job, the Defender popped neatly over the top and down again.

While the trail we followed down towards the Mexican border and back isn't the most rugged the Defender will face over the years; it was a great shakedown to demonstrate its abilities. More importantly, it showed that the new Defender will go further than the previous generation while exerting less effort.

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Interior: Comfortable And Functional

The new interior is a far cry from the original Defender's. Ergonomically, the original was a nightmare, and material-wise it was cheap and, well, there wasn't a lot of it. The new Defender offers a comfortable and well thought through interior that will make for a relaxing family vehicle. The materials used appear to be hardwearing, even at higher trim levels. When trips get longer and things get rougher, there's plenty of storage space and grab handles. In fact, the dash in front of the passenger is one long storage space and grab handle. The back seats are broad, comfortable, and legroom is plentiful. The cargo space is generous and boxy, although the rear door opens to one side. It blocks the right-hand side where the pavement is in the US and could prove awkward for unloading at times.

The infotainment system is a massive improvement over everything currently in Land Rover's lineup. The ten-inch central touchscreen runs the new Pivi Pro system, which is pretty, quick to respond, and fairly easy to navigate. Every model comes with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, HD Radio, navigation, and plenty of USB/12-volt sockets.

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Price & Trims: Expensive But Full Of Value

There's a series of trims for the Defender from the base, S, SE, HSE, First Edition, to X. The base Defender 110 starts at $49,900 and is well equipped with most of Land Rover's off-road tech. That includes the Terrain Response system, a two-speed transfer case, hill launch assist, and hill descent control. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, HD Radio, and navigation are also standard, and the base model comes with cloth seats and rubberized flooring. The Defender S starts at $53,350 and adds leather-upholstered seats with 12-way semi-power adjustability, a 12.3-inch interactive driver's display, and auto high-beam assist. At the top of the range is the Defender X at $80,900, which, when loaded with options, means you can spend over $100,000 on a Defender.

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Verdict: Not Really A Defender But We're Fine With That

In truth, the new Defender occupies the space that the Discovery used to before it became a family hauler with some off-road chops. The Discovery came out in 1989 to bridge the gap between the Defender and Range Rover as the latter went more and more upmarket. The new Defender is not luxurious, but it's in the premium market if you want your interior to stand up to punishment. That's a far cry from the ultra-utilitarian farmer's workhorse of the old one. However, we are in a different age, and the new Defender is now a rugged overlander that can double up as a family hauler.

If Land Rover had religiously stuck to the original Defender brief and given it a bare-bones interior, it would be competition for the Jeep Wrangler, but it didn't. It also doesn't compete with the Range Rover's refined luxury. It has some of the family refinement of the Discovery and more off-road ability than the Range Rover. For those who like to get off the beaten tracks without investing heavily in aftermarket parts, the new Defender shapes up to be the new benchmark in off-roading.

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