Land Rover Defender 2020: first review

The original Defender was the foundation vehicle of the Land Rover line, but a far cry from the luxurious sport utilities that have become synonymous with the marque in the last few decades. It was a rugged, minimalist workhorse. Right up until the last one rolled off the assembly line in Solihull in 2016, the Defender was capable, tough, and proudly unrefined.

This is not that. 

The long-awaited, much anticipated successor is a wholly different beast. Some of the purists who love the original Defender are decidedly not fans of this new generation. Which is understandable, because yes, it’s a completely different vehicle. Of course it is—current EPA and pedestrian safety standards (just to name a couple)—would make it impossible to retain the utterly (if timelessly cool) square shape of the original. And in the decades since the original Defender was designed, car markets and buyers’ preferences have changed. The new Defender maintains a lot of the blocky vintage Rover appeal… and it’s also evolved in a lot of really impressive ways.

Made in Slovakia

The new Defender isn’t rolling off the Solihull assembly line like its predecessor. Instead, it hails from Land Rover’s new facility in Nitra, Slovakia, where it’s produced alongside the Discovery.

The Land Rover Defender 110 (which refers to the 110” wheelbase) is being introduced first, and the shorter, two-door Defender 90 will follow. It was originally slated to make its appearance in Fall 2020, but pandemic-related production delays have led Land Rover to potentially push it back a little further, to let the 110 have a proper launch and undivided spotlight.

 The new Defender’s US debut was originally set to coincide with the April 2020 release of the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, in which it has a starring role. But the pandemic has delayed 007 until November. The Defender 90 will likely arrive in the US around then.

True to its lineage—in all the right ways

Immediately evident when you get into the Defender is the tall greenhouse that’s always been a Land Rover hallmark. From the driver’s seat I immediately recognized the commanding position that I loved in my ‘94 Range Rover Classic. Also similar to the earlier RR, Discovery, and the OG Defender is the dash—it’s rugged and open, with trough-like areas for storage. There’s also a magnesium crosspiece that runs across the entire width of the dash—it’s actually structural, which makes it a doubly cool design element.

The cabin feels rugged, yet refined. It has a utilitarian aesthetic reminiscent of Toyota’s modern FJ, but with more polish. It’s very spacious—it’s wide and tall, and even the passenger seat feels far away.

What’s it like to drive?

Pressing the start button brings to life the P400 engine, a turbocharged and supercharged 395-hp 6-cylinder MHEV—a hybrid engine that blends a traditional combustion engine with hybrid technology that helps reduce fuel consumption and reduces emissions. (The other option for the US is the P300, a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.)

Acceleration is smooth and power is ample. This isn’t a car that’s built for speed, but the P400 doesn’t feel underpowered, and getting up to freeway speeds is effortless. Maybe the most notable characteristic is the ride—it’s supple, and almost soft. The air suspension definitely lends some float, but the thing corners surprisingly flat; there was none of the topheaviness that big SUVs often exhibit when taking curves at speed.

One of the most notable things about the new Defender is its technology; the gauges are all high-resolution digital renderings, and the main infotainment touchscreen—controlling everything from the seat temperatures to the air suspension settings—is like an iPhone right there on the dash. The previous Land Rover touchscreens I’ve used have been sort of laggy and cumbersome to use, but the new system—called Pivi Pro—is a significant advancement. It’s as responsive as a smartphone, and really pleasing to use. Pivi Pro will be making its way into all new Land Rovers soon, but the Defender is the first model to get it.

Offroad appeal

Let’s face it, a lot of the new Defender buyers won’t be overlanding in Namibia, or conquering the Rubicon trail. But they could. Reviews from credible testers suggest that it’s very capable for extreme offroading (we’d expect nothing less from Land Rover), and it has expansive customization options for a lot of applications; accessories include a rooftop tent

The $50,000 entry point for the base model 110 is a little higher than the base Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon (which starts in the low $40k range, and includes a 6-cylinder instead of the base Defender’s turbocharged 4.) The base Defender is right in line with the 4Runner TRD’s starting price—though again you’re getting a v6 with the Toyota. They’re all capable, and for hard-core wheelers, the distinctions are probably a moot point; each have their own brand loyalists who wouldn’t consider anything else.

But most of us will be using it primarily for urban adventures, with maybe some periodic departures from the blacktop or mountain driving in snowy conditions. The Defender will do all of that easily and comfortably. I also like the fact that it can wade through almost 3 feet of water—because this is 2020, where we’re perennially apocalypse adjacent. (No word on how it stands up to swarming murder hornets.)

The new Defender is an intriguing blend of heritage and innovation. It has plenty of styling cues and characteristics to stay true to its Land Rover DNA, while at the same time bringing a new level of sophistication to the overall driving experience. It’s a modern and several times removed descendant of its original ancestor, but definitely one worth getting to know and appreciate for what it is.

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