2020 Land Rover Defender Review

2020 Land Rover Defender - Defender returns for an encore performance


In many ways, the very British Land Rover was ahead of its time during its emergence at the end of World War II.  The simple business plan never deviated far from its somewhat quirky, multi-doored boxy body style.  At first, these utilitarian vehicles attracted a select number of buyers but as time marched on, a growing cadre of enthusiasts glommed on to the potential of these multi-functional Swiss-army knifes on wheels.

Both Land Rover and its British running mate Jaguar (in corporate short hand, known as JLR) now find themselves an important tangent of Tata Motors, one of India's largest auto conglomerates. Tata took hold of both nameplates from Ford Motor Company back in 2008.

In the rocky 2020 Pandemic-laden calendar year, JLR's U.S. sales totaled, 101,819, down 19 percent from the previous 12-month cycle, representing less than one percent of the U.S. automotive market share.  Land Rover continues as a posh, targeted product here in the states and many points around the globe, but with notable name recognition and desirable sport utility vehicle underpinnings, it's a niche with potential growth.

Think of the Land Rover brand as an upscale SUV import company with three families in the U.S.: Range Rover, Discovery and returning for the 2020 model year after a prolonged absence, Defender.

Great to reintroduce the 2020 Defender to a distinguished buying audience as the vehicle got a late start during its U.S. return.  Dealers began receiving shipments during the summer of 2020. It's self-defined as the company's "most off-road capable Land Rover vehicle ever" with a maximum ground clearance reaching a hearty 11.5 inches.  Adjustable air suspension comes standard, allowing ride-height adjustment from a push of a dashboard button.

The first generation Defender traces back to 1983 in most corners of the world, although the U.S. market had to wait until 1993 for availability and even then, its stay lasted less than five years.  The rest of the world enjoyed the ride until 2016.

This all-new from the ground up 2020 Defender offers two mid-size, body styles: a lower-volume three-door hatchback (the 90 model) and family-friendly five door (110 model).  Future plans include the intro of a smaller compact-sized variant. Both the 90 and 110 models include a First-Edition trim with the larger, volume-leading 110 adding Base, S, SE, HSE and X content trims. The full range of three-door 90s are not expected in volume numbers until the 2021 model year.

With a majority of the 110s offering five-passenger seating, a two-person third row growing passenger count to seven, is available but not recommended unless accommodating non-full-size travelers in the way back. Also optional is three-person first-row seating.

Despite its off-road chops, Defender's on-road ride delivers surprising smoothness. During a week's time traversing around Chicago area tollways, the sometimes bouncy tendency usually associated with conventional SUVs remained a distant memory. For such a tall-standing vehicle, body sway during spirited turns was also kept in check.

Competitors include the more pedestrian, non-luxury Jeep Wrangler; Ford's new, reimagined Bronco and the upmarket Lexus GX, all off-road capable vehicles.

True to its off-road nature, Defender circa 2020 mounts the full-size spare tire on the hatch door, where it's readily available (rather than under body where it may compromise ground clearance). The rear door, accommodating added tire weight, opens in side fashion (hinged at the right and opening like a refrigerator door) rather than bottom's up.

The top rear sports a sharp 90-degree angle rather than a curved nuance, resulting in a taller stance than conventional five-door crossovers.

Full-time all-wheel drive and locking differentials come standard as does a twin-speed off-road intended transfer box.  When off-roading, a low-range 'push' button summons the needed electronics with an assortment of drive modes, including set-it-and-forget-it 'auto.'

Two available engines include a turbo-charged 3.0-liter inline six MHEV (mild hybrid electric vehicle) sporting a hybrid power boost and delivering a usable 395 horses. This self-charging hybrid technology never needs plug-in support but does not propel exclusively on pure electric power (thus, the 'mild' designate).  

With MHEV, kinetic braking energy gets captured and restored for later use to extend fuel range.  Available Start/Stop technology  temporarily 'quiets' the engine at stop lights or long idling situations, than revs back to life when lifting the right foot off the brake pedal.   Defender also offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder delivering 296 horses.  Both mate to a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission.

The JLR corporate team announced in February of 2021 an aggressive move to a cleaner balance sheet indicating that all Jaguar cars and 60 percent of Land Rover branded vehicles would run solely on battery-sourced power (no internal combustion sparked or diesel engines) by the year 2030.

Five-door 110 pricing starts just under fifty grand at $49,900. Our SE trim started at $62,250 and a multitude of stand-alone extras brought the bottom line to $72,180 with a $1,350 destination charge.  Adaptive cruise control adds $1,020 with satellite radio a $300 ding.  A recommended cold climate package (for those Midwest residents) adds $700 and $1,750 for a sliding panoramic roof.

The long, straight-across, blocky dashboard (rather than a more nuanced serpentine version) includes a long, grooved, storage shelf above the glove box.  A built-in Smartphone plug port built into the shelf aids shot-gun passengers. The shelf eventually meets up with a multi-function, 10-inch infotainment flat screen. Each shelf end provides a mini grab handle, useful when entering and exiting and supplementing ceiling-type grab handles.

The instrument panel includes a center, multi-paneled digital window selectable via steering wheel buttons.  The click to pick includes a detailed navigation feed delivering useful guidance without having to stare far right at the center flat screen for extended periods. Heating and air controls monitor from 45-degree panel jetting out of the lower dashboard.   Dual-function twist dials control fan speed and temperature control with an array of push buttons handling other duties.

The electronic-start push button locates on the dashboard, conveniently away from steering wheel interference.  It's adjacent to the electronic gear shifter, also dashboard bound rather than lower down between front buckets.  With the shifter out of the way, mini storage opportunities abound below and fore of side-by-side beverage holders between the buckets, enough room to stow a small laptop or purse ('man purse' or otherwise).

Despite the MHEV boost, fuel economy resembles a throwback to old school SUV traditions with the inline six mimicking numbers usually associated with V-8 thirst registering a rather paltry 17 miles per gallon city and 22 mpg highway (19 combined).  Pricier premium unleaded is recommended for optimal performance.

2020 Land Rover Defender

Price as tested: $72,180

Engine: 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder

Horsepower:  395

Overall Length:  197.6 inches

Wheelbase: 119 inches

Overall Height:   77.4 inches

Overall Width:  79.1 inches

Fuel economy: 17 city/22 hwy.

Assembly: Slovakia

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.