The new Land Rover Defender turns an iconic nameplate into a smooth and modern off-road SUV

  • Classic Land Rover Defenders are quite rare and have gained a cult following in the US.
  • The 2020 Land Rover Defender is the first new Defender to be sold here from the factory since 1997.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since a new Land Rover Defender arrived on US shores. 

But for the first time since 1997, we finally get a fully federalized, fully road-legal Defender straight from Land Rover itself. You no longer have to wait for the 25-year import rule to expire or hit up a customization shop to get your hands on a Defender, and that in itself is a relief.

The 2020 Defender still retains the original’s boxy shape, but much of what made a Defender a Defender has been smoothed and ironed out to befit a brand that no longer uses military surplus to build cars. You’ll notice a sleeker face and larger dimensions. Electronic seats. A heated steering wheel. Fancy air suspension mon Dieu.

From the driver’s seat, the only way you’d be able to tell you were driving a Defender is by reading the name stamped across the steering wheel. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: The original Defender is bad! I’ve driven it. 

The new one? It’s good.

The 2020 Defender 110: Out with the old

The Defender legacy began in 1983 with the Defender 90 and Defender 110, their numbers a reference to the size of their wheelbases – or the length of the space between the centers of a vehicle’s front and rear wheels. 

1995 Land Rover Defender 90.Land Rover

Defenders didn’t come to the US until 1993 and left just as abruptly in 1997 because they couldn’t meet our safety standards. (Specifically, they lacked airbags and side-impact door protection.) As a result, the trucks were little-known and rare, becoming a kind of a hidden gem for fans and enthusiasts. 

Regardless of US regulations, though, Defender production kept right up until 2016. Following that came the current Defender for the 2020 model year, finally available to buyers in the US.  

Details and safety ratings: A straight-six smooth as silk

The 2020 Defender starts at $46,100 and comes with two engine options. My loaner, a Defender 110 SE, started at $62,250 and landed at $72,780 with options and fees.

The first engine option is a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, good for a claimed 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The second, which is what my loaner came with, is a mild-hybrid, turbocharged and supercharged 3.0-liter straight-six, good for a claimed 395 horsepower and 406 pound- feet of torque. 

Both engines are hooked up to a slick eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. There’s also permanent four-wheel drive and locking differentials, making the Defender as legit as any serious off-roader

And while the new 110 won’t offer rear bench seats like the old one famously did, you can option it with a three-person bench seat in the front, which is quite rad. Excitingly, the two-door 2020 Defender 90 will also be available here for the 2021 model year.

What stands out: Driving on stilts

Surpassing the original Defender – a rough, utilitarian thing – is a low bar, but it’s a bar nonetheless. To the surprise of no one, the new Defender passes it with flying colors, although it’s a bit like saying Usain Bolt runs faster than I do. 

Immediately, you’ll notice a crispness to the way the 110 drives, one that seems at odds with its 5,000-pound curb weight. The throttle response is immediate, agile, and light. There’s good low-end power, lending to the truck’s smooth power delivery. This is certainly due to the help of that mild hybrid system. 

As an added bonus, acceleration is accompanied by a throaty straight-six exhaust rasp, a delightful reminder of the old BMW straight-six engines. Steering feel is also vastly improved over the original truck’s. It feels responsive and modern.

Because of the Defender’s tall stance, you, in turn, sit tall as well. I felt like I was a half- to a whole head taller than everyone else on the road. People driving Honda Pilots only came up to my chest. I was practically sitting on the roofs of Toyota Camrys.

It was a great vantage point from which to observe the road, because hardly anything blocked my view – though, of course, I did become a big obstacle for everyone else to see around. You win some and you lose some, folks.

But driving the Defender over low traction surfaces – in this case ice and snow – is where it really shines. There, you get a sense of absolute tankiness, a sense of powerful unstoppability. It was ice and snow I’d eye nervously if I was in my C-Class sedan, but the Defender marched right over it like it was a minor puddle after a spring shower. 

For me personally, these feelings were validated when I happened upon my friend who’d gotten his Porsche Boxster stuck in a snowdrift because it didn’t have enough ground clearance. (He dug it out eventually, don’t worry.)

What falls short: Busy screen

I didn’t love the feel of the plastics in the Defender. They just didn’t respond to my touch with the solidity that I’d expect from a truck that starts at more than $60,000 in the 110 SE trim I was testing, although I will say that the door handles and parts of the dash were wrapped in a cool wetsuit-like polyurethane material that seems like it would be very easy to clean if it got dirty.

My first impression of the infotainment system was one of being overwhelmed. There were so many menu items, all presented on one menu. The navigation, phone connection, and music were conveniently located off to the side, but the system also presented seat and climate options alongside its valet mode, eco data, wade sensing, and vehicle dimensions. These, I felt, could have been tucked into some other menu folder to reduce clutter.

I also got the distinct sense that I was not the correctly shaped person Land Rover had in mind when designing the new Defender. If you’ve ever sat in an original Defender, you’d know that the cabin is actually quite cramped and narrow. For me, it was nearly perfectly scaled.

With this new Defender, I felt like Goldilocks sitting in Papa Bear’s chair: the seat was too long and kept hitting me in the back of my calves so that my legs were never comfortable in the footwell. (And before you ask, no, there is no adjustment for this part of the seat. I checked.) 

Even the visibility worked against me. Rear visibility is already quite bad, but even with the seat raised up as high as it would go, I still found the wing mirrors positioned directly in my line of sight, blocking pedestrians crossing intersections. 

At least there are a myriad of cameras all over the truck. They make the otherwise impossible task of parking possible.

How the new Defender compares to its competitors: Mid-tier pricing

The Defender shone during high speed cruising. It held to highway speeds just fine. The ride quality at 120 kph was no different than if we were going 40 kph. And because the Defender’s cameras provided such a comprehensive 360-degree view of its surroundings, I wasn’t terrified of navigating it through tight parking lots.

I could easily see myself using it as an everyday SUV. The low-traction stability was just an added bonus. 

Through that lens, the $62,000 price tag makes sense. Though the inside of the Defender’s trunk was lined in a rubbery plastic – easy to clean if you put something muddy back there, like a dog – this is still a truck for a luxury buyer. One who might want to get it dirty only sometimes. I also suspect that for those who won’t ever take it overlanding, the mere knowledge that it won’t get stuck off-road is enough.

People liked the original Defender because it was ratty and bad. No creature comforts to speak of. There was an honesty to that. This new Defender is upscale, comfortable, and doesn’t punish you for committing the crime of being tall. 

Not that Land Rover didn’t try and capture some of the old truck’s ruggedness, of course. There are fake diamond-plate inserts on the hood and exposed bolts all over the interior that may or may not be functional. The trunk is still accessible via a side-hinged swinging door. With “Defender” stamped all over the place, it sort of felt like the new truck was playing dress-up as the old truck. 

But a name is just a name. There’s no rule saying that the thing the name represents cannot change and take on a new definition. Well, maybe there’s a rule if you’re a purist. Nevertheless, it seems like Land Rover took a stab at broader appeal here.

Land Rover makes luxury SUVs now. It can’t get away with selling people rickety bits of farming equipment anymore. But in a portfolio of only luxury SUVs, how is it supposed to differentiate yet another luxury SUVs to the public?

Easy. Lean on the storied Defender name, which carries a cult following mired in nostalgia. The most powerful kind of cult following.

I personally couldn’t care less what Land Rover calls the new truck. You shouldn’t either. It’s objectively nice. But for luxury buyers stuck on the idea and heritage of a Defender – and who also can’t square with a lack of amenities – the new Defender is perfect. 

Article Credit: Kristen Lee
Photo Credits: Kristen Lee
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Review update: 2020 Land Rover Defender SUV looks the part

The 2020 Land Rover Defender proves you can enjoy an off-road vehicle without ever venturing off-road. Such is the privilege of luxury, to do what you want even if you never do. 

Land Rover relies on this luxury premise, starting from the Discovery Sport up the lineup to six-figure Range Rover models too pretty to toss in the mud. Yet the return of the Defender SUV after a 22-year hiatus in the U.S. resurrects a dedicated and relatively affordable off-road Rover to conquer all the terrain. 

Unfortunately, during my week with the Defender 110 three-row SUV, the holidays and pandemic blah conspired to keep me on my suburban streets, conquering nothing but snow banks. 

That may reflect how many if not most Defender owners will use the venerable off-roader. I live in a middle-class suburb with upper-class ambitions. Pristine Jeep Wrangler Rubicons occupy garage spots, with knobby off-road tires sullied only by the weekend’s landscaping project. In more affluent nearby suburbs, fortunate teens with the sweetest sixteens drive Wranglers and their parents drive Rovers. 

The Defender straddles that difference in image and price. Rest assured, its off-road capability is unassailable, like that of a billy goat, according to Kirk Bell, Senior Editor of Motor Authority. That helped it earn a TCC Rating of 6.6 out of 10. Around town, the Defender and its car-based unibody structure rides smoother and quieter than a rocky Wrangler or trundling Toyota 4Runner, at a similar price. The two-door Defender 90 costs $47,450, while the Defender 110 four-door model is $51,850. That’s a deal for a vehicle this capable and this well-equipped.

But the base turbo-4 lacks the billy goat’s gruff of the turbo-6 I tested. Loaded with options and packed with features, the 2020 Defender 110 First Edition tester cost nearly $80,000. That’s no deal. Here’s where the First Edition stood out and where it went flat during a week of suburban and urban winter driving.

Hit: Classic SUV style

The 2020 Defender 110 First Edition looks like a toy truck come to life, shaped like the very box it came in. From the front or rear, it has a stacked stance: Fenders flare out from broad shoulders that support a square greenhouse narrower than the body. Cladding over the wheel arches and rocker panels match the blacked out roof. The front is not its best angle; the pixelated lower grille looks like a heat plate from a…grill. In back, the spare tire mounts to a rear door hinged on the passenger side to swing out to the curb for safety, though it can block access in urban parallel parking settings. 

The utilitarian interior is more compelling. The high seat position and rectangular glass provides a commanding view favored by SUV drivers and off-roaders. Exposed rivets on the door panels, dash, and console complement hard rubbery plastic that’s easy to clean and OK to muddle. Conserving space and limiting redundancies reflects the outdoorsy ethos of its targeted consumers. 

Hit and miss: Improved but imperfect tech

The Defender comes well-equipped with 18-inch steel wheels, LED headlights, rear fog lights, rubber flooring, 8-way power adjustable front seats, wireless charging, and a 10.0-inch touchscreen with smartphone compatibility. The wide screen with small menu buttons is fixed over a simple climate control interface with physical temperature dials that double as seat warmer buttons. I love this set up so much more than twin screen anything. The clean, streamlined display is a nice touch that matches the utilitarian nature of the Defender. But the steering wheel controls require too long of a press to change audio stations. Such nitpicking of basic controls pales in comparison to all the latent and potential tech, including over-the-air updates and an excellent surround-view camera system that projects what’s around the Defender at ground level. 

Miss: Explorer Pack

The tester came with the $4,800 Explorer Pack, that included the covered spare. Spare me. The over the top accoutrements include a steel saddlebag over the passenger side rear pillar, a massive roof rack like a flattened picnic table that added road noise and prohibited garage access, and a snorkel rising up the driver’s side front pillar less conspicuously than Toyota TRD Pro models. The mud flaps were cool, the decal was silly.  

Hit: Interior storage

Cubbies, cargo shelves, door pockets, and other storage solutions evoke the clever use of space in backcountry backpacks, without all the zippers and carabiner hooks. A shelf runs the length of the dashboard, interrupted by the steering column and touchscreen. It’s perfect for transponders, phones, gloves, a ham sammich, duct tape, utility knife, a tube of tennis balls. Additionally, the center console has multiple levels of storage, cupholders, and a wireless charging shelf. It could also be swapped out for a front jump seat, so you could sit three across up front, same as in back. When not in use the novelty folds down with cup holders integrated into the back.  

Miss: Third-row seats

The Defender 110 can be equipped to seat 5+2 in the wayback for $1,200. Skip it if you can. Grade schoolers could barely fit in the third row, and when they could it cramped second-row riders. The second-row slides forward as well as reclines, and that area is better used for its 34 cubic feet of cargo room. 

Hit and miss: Punchy but inefficient powertrain

The uprated 3.0-liter turbo-6 makes 395-hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, good enough to launch the heavy upright box to 60 mph in under six seconds. It’s surprisingly quick given its dimensions, and the effortless 8-speed automatic transmission provides quick shifts. The 48-volt mild hybrid system is meant to even out the electrical load and increase efficiency, but the standard four-wheel-drive Defender has some thirsty window-sticker numbers: an EPA-rated 17 mpg city, 22 highway, 19 combined. On the upside, it can tow up to 8,200 pounds.

Hit: Surprisingly composed handling

The tester came with adaptive dampers that soaked up road imperfections and cleared curbside snowbanks with nary a shrug. It rides like most other car-based crossovers that lack the off-road chops of the Defender. Direct but light-to-the touch steering also adds some driver’s appeal. An air suspension lowers the ride height from the rear if loading up gear or the family Rover with four legs, and raises up to 2.9 inches for off-road clearance.  

The off-roading component is the crucial one for the Defender. That should be why you’re considering it. But if the style and image compel more than any other attribute, it’s a worthy consideration for its striking, clever design and potent but inefficient turbo-6. 

2020 Land Rover Defender 110 First Edition

Base price: $70,000, including destination

Price as tested: $79,190

Drivetrain: 395-hp 3.0-liter turbo-6 with an 8-speed automatic and four-wheel drive

EPA fuel economy: 17/22/19 mpg

The hits: Style, packaging, turbo-6

The misses: Price, Explorer Pack, useless third row.


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Article Credit: Robert Duffer
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