2020 Land Rover Defender First Drive Review: Have An Adventure
The broad-shouldered Land Rover Defender is a stalwart in the classic off-road scene. Bold, boxy, and unrepentantly crude, its go-anywhere mettle cemented its reputation as one of the most off-road-capable vehicles on the planet.
Enter 2020, and the Land Rover Defender redux promises to deliver us from sport utility vehicle blandness. But do we dare invoke the dreaded “icon” term for the reanimated Landy? Put more simply: Does the decades-old nameplate live up to its revered origins? We flew to Namibia, in southern Africa, to explore its remote reaches for answers.
No Pressure, Team
First, a bit of background. Though Defenders of yore resembled Series Land Rovers that date back to 1948, Land Rover didn’t invoke the Defender name until it needed to distinguish between its brutal off-roader and the more civilized Discovery. Defenders killed it in the do-or-die Camel Trophy races and hung with the toughest street-legal four-bys that ever roamed the earth. Imported into the U.S. between 1992 and 1997 (US-legal examples from that period routinely command prices that would match new Discovery and Range Rover models), the global model’s 2016 discontinuation ended nearly 70 years of continuous production. So basically, no pressure with that new one, team.
For the diehards, the four-door 2020 Defender 110 might look a tad soft. Land Rover smoothed out those sharp, characterful shoulder lines, perhaps in attempts to achieve its target drag coefficient of .38. Also unsettling to the grizzled rock crawl set: diamond plate surfaces on the bonnet finished in plastic. One Land Rover rep suggested the material choice was due to pedestrian safety standards, perhaps the only otherwise explicable reason to use polycarbonate instead of metal plate common on OG Defenders.
Beneath the aluminum skin is Land Rover’s so-called D7x platform, an aluminum monocoque chassis that the brand claims is its stiffest structure to date. While the Range Rover uses aluminum subframes, the Defender incorporates forged steel units for greater robustness. All first-year 110 models receive air suspension, while steel springs will be available after the initial rollout. The base model ($49,900) gets all-wheel drive, a two-speed transfer case, and adaptive damping – basic hardware for the offroad set. But ticking the Defender First Edition box ($68,650) brings goodies like LED lights, a panoramic roof, and Terrain Response, which offers six settings to alter steering, traction control, throttle response and differential settings for varying conditions.
Bundled with the package is the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder powertrain, badged as P400. Churning 395 hp and 406 lb-ft, the mild hybrid setup is gutsy enough to make you never look back at the P300’s turbo four-banger, which produces 296 hp and 295 lb-ft. You’ll also want the optional locking center and rear differentials to get you out of the stickiest off piste situations. And while the Defender starts at a tantalizing $49,900, a few cute available trim “packs” are available: Urban, Country, and Adventure. The most deeply functional off-roading bundle, though, is the Explorer pack, which adds a snorkel, roof rack, gear carrier, and wheel arch protection for a well-worth-it $4,800. Fully kitted it out for hardcore expeditions and the price can reach into the $90,000 range.
On The Rough Stuff
Tackling the hinterlands of Namibia’s Kunene region with a well-optioned Defender over the course of three days reveals an experience that bears virtually nothing in common with its late, great, solid-axle ancestors. For starters, though the cabin hints at hardworn resilience, not all of its details are convincing – witness the exposed bolts that seem more like styling touches than functional bits, and some powder-coated beams that hide structural magnesium, but somehow come across as neither industrial nor refined.
The dashboard is sparse, with many of the vehicle’s controls managed through a central 10-inch touchscreen. Shame designers missed the opportunity to incorporate more hard buttons; though Land Rover’s successful HVAC dials and buttons are used, embedding the Terrain Response settings within the digital menu is a missed opportunity for potential tactility. Think of the Mercedes-Benz G-Class’ differential-locking rocker switches, or even Mini’s aircraft-like dashboard toggles. There are options – you can order your Defender with wood veneers, for instance. But craving such incongruous trim probably means you think you want something edgy, but what you really want is a Range Rover.
Tackling the hinterlands of Namibia’s Kunene region with a well-optioned Defender over the course of three days reveals an experience that bears virtually nothing in common with its late, great, solid-axle ancestors
As it stands in the remote stretches of Namibia, at nearly six-and-a-half feet tall, there is little that gets in the way of the Defender 110. Clad with optional Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac rubber, the Defender’s air suspension cushions enough of the blows from surface irregularities to encourage higher speeds over some seriously sketchy terrain. Because our convoy covered nearly 500 miles – many of them challenging, low-speed rock crawls – over the course of three days, we made up for the agonizingly leisurely parts with some elevated velocities over extended durations of time.
The Defender took virtually everything we could throw at it. Rock crawling through the famously tricky Zan Zyl’s Pass? Done, though perhaps with less wheel articulation than you might have with a solid axle truck. Pulling through gobs of mud? Accomplished, in spite of one river crossing episode involving a deceptively deep rut that the 8.6-inch ground clearance or 35.4-inch wading depth couldn’t aid. Nobody’s perfect, though the Defender certainly tried its damndest, as evidenced by the so-called Wade Program which elevates ride height, closes HVAC vents to recirculate air, and lightly engages the brakes to wipe the rotors dry.
Driving over the rough stuff imparts less of a feeling of imperviousness than, say a Range Rover, which manages to sashay over jagged ruts and bumps with silky smoothness. But this is not that kind of party: Defender is all about getting you there by hook or crook, tackling the toughest terrain and coming out on top. That said, the electronics do, in fact, do wonders for the offroading experience. Sand mode, for instance, will get you out of most traction-limited jams by tweaking the differentials, traction control, and power delivery just right so all you need to do is aim the wheel and bury the pedal.
While our test rigs required an occasional computer reflash for warning lights (these were, after all, pre-production units), it seems like true off-roaders developed the Terrain Response system in order to gain the most climb-anything capability given the hardware. Another must-have feature for those who venture away from tarmac is ClearSight Ground View, which effectively depicts an overhead view of the surrounding terrain and the ground below the vehicle on the 10-inch touchscreen. It’s brilliant for negotiating tricky surfaces. Though the iterations we drove were not capable of entirely switching off traction control, we were told that might change by the time the Defender reaches showrooms.
It seems like true off-roaders developed the Terrain Response system in order to gain the most climb-anything capability given the hardware
Spend enough time in the Defender, and it might become easy to forget its size. Ahead of the driver is a fairly natural feeling cockpit scale, but behind is quite a bit of body – despite the 110 moniker, which refers to the old model’s wheelbase, the distance between these axles actually measures out to 119 inches. Incidentally, the 90 model’s wheelbase comes in at 101.9.
Slide across gravel at 50 mph, and you’ll feel the length of the Defender 110 swing with enough momentum that you might be grateful the traction control isn’t entirely defeatible. But in this age of ubiquitous third-row seating and rampant supersizing, the bigness is a competitive necessity. At least the Defender handles its nearly 5,000-pound mass with composure and ease. There’s plenty of power from the mild-hybrid straight-six, and the brakes always feel up to snuff.
Three solid days of driving, and the Defender seems to endear itself more with every mile – and distance itself from its ancestors. It’s easy to forget how flawed the earlier Defenders were. They remained character trucks as the world progressed around them, seemingly taking pride in a rough ride, drafty cabin, and unapologetic in their lack of refinement. The new Defender may not satisfy the old guard (on that note, most enthusiasts are terminally destined to viewing the past through rose-colored Serengetis anyway) but it does tick a vast number of the boxes required by those craving functionality and comfort. Sure, it can’t stand out from the crowd like an 80s-era Defender might, but it counters that unmistakable character with the utmost livability and capability.
Historical comparisons aside, the new Land Rover Defender 110 manages to embed itself into a unique and genuinely rugged segment with few challengers. Sure, Mercedes-Benz’s beloved G-Wagen is a time-tested classic whose updates move it elegantly into the 21st century. The boxy Benz also starts at a dizzying $130,900. And yes, the (also iconic) Jeep Wrangler practically wrote the book on attainable off-road capability below $30,000. But the American four-by-four is hardly a luxury heavyweight.
Three solid days of driving, and the Defender seems to endear itself more with every mile – and distance itself from its ancestors.
Through that prism, the new Defender comes into its own. It can get spendy when generously equipped and yes, there are more great SUVs to contend with than ever. But few claim the heritage or capability of the Defender, which bolsters the argument that while nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, the future is certainly what you make it.