Other than the Porsche 959 and Nissan Skyline, there has been no unobtainable vehicle held in such reverence by US buyers than Land Rover's off-road legend Defender. It was, in fact, available for purchase for a couple of years in the 1990s, but quickly fell victim to increased US crash-test standards and became forbidden fruit in this market. So, it is with much interest that Land Rover officially brings an all-new Defender to the US market in 2020.
Riding an all-new chassis, the 2020 Defender is set to do battle with the Jeep Wrangler, Ford's all-new Bronco, the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon and Toyota's outgoing Land Cruiser. Defender is offered in 2- and 4-door wagon body styles, but doesn't' have removable roof panels or doors like Wrangler or Bronco. The 2-door is dubbed Defender 90 and the 4-door the Defender 110. Size wise, the Defender 90 is 12 inches longer than a 2-door Wrangler and the Defender 110 is 10 inches longer than a Wrangler Unlimited. The 90 seats five or six passengers while the 110 offers an available 3rd- row jump seat, allowing five, six or seven passenger capacity.
Trim levels include the base, X-Dynamic and X. The base is offered with either a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 296 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque or a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder that makes 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Six-cylinder models get a mild hybrid system that's designed to improve city MPG. All Defenders come standard with an 8-speed automatic transmission, a two-speed transfer case and all-wheel drive. Maximum towing capacity is 8200 pounds on all models.
All Defender trims come standard with forward-collision warning and mitigation, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitor and a 360-degree camera system. Also include are air suspension, LED headlights, 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple Car Play support. Pricing for the Defender 90 starts at $46,100, while Defender 110 pricing starts at $50,500. Land Rover offers four accessory packages -- Explorer Pack, Adventure Pack, Country Pack, and Urban Pack -- each of which outfit the Defender with specific features.
The base 2.0-liter turbo should prove to be a suitable powertrain for the 5,000-lound Defender, though it is just becoming available. Land Rover claims that it will propel the Defender 110 from 0 to 60 MPH in just under 8 seconds. Not impressive, but also not unacceptable. More than likely, most Defender models will drive off the showroom floor with the innovative and powerful 3.0-liter inline six.
In addition to turbocharging, this all-new engine for Land Rover, dubbed Ingenium, adds an electric supercharger and a 48-volt hybrid system. Altogether, the advanced powertrain makes 395 horsepower and, more importantly, 406 lb-ft of torque at a lower 2000 RPM. The 3.0-liter engine is S-M-O-O-T-H and plenty powerful. There are no peaks or valleys in power delivery and it provides ample passing punch. Stomp on the gas the a 3.0-liter equipped Defender will run from 0-60 MPH in a tic under 6 seconds.
Both engines mate well to the buttery smooth 8-speed automatic. In addition, Land Rover has equipped with the Defender with all of the necessary hardware to make Defender extremely capable off road. There's a 2-speed transfer case, locking center differential, optional locking rear differential, Land wizardly Rover's Terrain Response system and optional adjustable air suspension system. In addition, the Defender has class leading approach and departure angles, 34.4-inch wading ability and 11.5 inches of ground clearance.
While the original Defender, and a vehicle like the Jeep Wrangler, relied on traditional mechanical solutions to maintain off-road prowess, the new Defender blends mechanical grit with electronic wizardry to tackle the rough stuff. Purists might complain, but there is no denying the Defender is extremely capable off-road, even in basic trim. The Terrain Response System can make even first-time off-roaders look like seasoned pros and the combination of ground-clearance and mechanical tools allow the Defender to tackle almost any trail.
Thanks to all of its high-tech engineering, the 3.0-liter six scores best with an EPA city rating of 17 MPG and a highway rating of 22 MPG. The 2.0-liter four nets 17/20 MPG ratings. Both engines require premium-grade fuel. At least the Defender has a large 23.4-gallon fuel tank to help limit trips to the gas station. Indeed, real-world resting reveals the EPA numbers to be reasonably accurate, with high-teens being the norm in routine suburban commuting.
Oftentimes a vehicle that is extremely capable off-road struggles with civility when driven around town or on the highway. The Defender's secret is that it sports a ride that's very comfortable and controlled and can even be hustled a bit through the twisty bits. Making all of this possible is the sophisticated air suspension that allows a soft and complaint ride off road and a firm and controlled ride on. Of course, the Defender isn't nearly as sporty or athletic as a BMW X5 or Audi A7 -- the sluggish steering and obscene ground clearance make sure of that. And while the brakes provide ample stopping power the pedal is more an on-off switch than a dimmer. Thankfully, there's very little body motion in extreme maneuvers.
Just as it works off-road to give the Defender plenty of wheel travel and on-road to control the ride, the air suspension allows enough compliance to maintain a smooth ride over even the roughest pavement. In addition, the tall-sidewall tires soak up minor pavement imperfections with aplomb. All told, the Defender defies the odds and truly proves to be a Jack-of-all-trades when it comes to drivability.
Unlike some off-road competitors, the Defender is extremely quiet inside. Not quite rivaling true luxury crossovers, but close, with the biggest culprit being wind noise on the highway.
Land Rover designers tried to capture a bit of the "charm" of the original Defender when sculpting the interior of the reborn model. Thankfully they only mildly succeeded as the original was positively dreadful both aesthetically and ergonomically. While maintaining the original's Spartan appeal, modern conveniences, logical design and thoughtful touches abound this time around. Materials are both sturdy and upscale. Land Rover seems to even have a handle on the fit-and-finish as assembly quality and tolerances are greatly improved.
Drivers face an elegant, if somewhat confusing, all digital instrument cluster. Thankfully, it's programmable and can be dumbed down to provide the basics without much trouble. The display is crisp and sharp and easily readable day or night.
The infotainment system is controlled by a 10-inch touchscreen that's arranged horizontally and divided into dedicated tiles. It is customizable and can be remotely updated as software enhancements become available. There's definitely a learning curve and some functions never seem to come easy. Things as simple as changing the radio station require several taps. Still, the screen is large and most functions can be handled without a trip through the owner's manual.
Controls for the HVAC and Terrain Response System are jumbled together in a pod below. This is to accommodate the available middle jump seat. Though the design is elegant and simple, operation can be confusing and takes time to master even simple things like changing the fan speed. The dual knobs do double duty and control temperature, fan speed, seat heating/cooling and the Terrain Response System. Android Auto and Apple Car Play are integrated, but since the screen controls so much, there's a fair bit of swapping in and out of systems, and that grows tiresome.
Beyond the muddled controls, the rest of Defender's interior is simply brilliant. The front and second-row seats are thickly padded and offer great support and long-haul comfort. There is ample head and leg room as well. Even the available third-row seat is nicely appointed, though it's best suited for children. The tall and airy greenhouse provide an ample view of the road and surroundings and the adjustable ride height help soften the step-in height.
Seating configurations are worth noting. Both the 90 and 110 offer either front buckets or a three-place bench seat. All models get a 3-person second-row bench seat. Available on the Defender 110 is a 2-place third-row seat. However, it cannot be combined with the front bench seat.
Cargo capacity is good but not class leading. On Defender 90 there is 15.6 cu. ft. behind the rear seats and 58.3 cu. ft. overall. Similarly, Defender 110 models measure out at 70/34/10/7 cu. ft. In addition, because of the rear-mounted spare, Defender has a swing-open tailgate. This is a feature shared with the Jeep Wrangler and new Ford Bronco. While not as convenient as a pop-up tailgate, it shouldn't be a deal breaker for most. It does mean that there's a bit extra carrying when loading from the curb. On the flip side, interior storage is great with lots of open and covered bins throughout. Land Rover even offers an optional cooler box to keep drinks cold.
Bottom Line --Bravo, the Land Rover Defender is finally available in the US! For many buyers, that's enough to open the check book. But look at bit deeper, Land Rover has done their homework. Not only does the new Defender remain an off-road champ, it does it without diminishing any on-road prowess. In fact, the new Defender is quite at home on road. Despite the high price tag, you'd be hard pressed to find a vehicle that is so balanced in its virtues. (Of course, the jury is out on the new Bronco.)