Possibly the most Newtonian vehicle ever produced, the 2020 Land Rover Defender is an equal and opposite reaction to other SUVs’ motion to become ever more at home in upscale grocery store lots and valet lines outside restaurants.
Ike Newton’s second law of motion in vehicular form, the Defender is Land Rover’s existential counterpunch, built to ford raging streams and cross burning sands that would devastate other brands’ “soft-roaders.”
That ability is vital to Land Rover, despite being used by a vanishingly small number of its owners. The British brand has banked big bucks trading on an image for go-anywhere ruggedness while building ever more cushy land yachts never likely to leave the pavement. The Defender was developed as a rolling reminder of how the brand earned its chops.
Jeep, Land Rover’s American spiritual counterpart — and inspiration; don’t forget the U.S. Army Jeep pre-dated Land Rover by, let’s see, World War II — has watered its roots rigorously for 80 years. At Jeep: Job 1 has always been making sure the iconic Wrangler maintained a visual link to the 1941 Willys Jeep and kicked every comparable SUV’s butt when driven off road.
Land Rover’s image rests on the original 1948 90, a rugged SUV that begat a line of ever more luxurious and profitable offspring. Rover built 90s, followed by the bigger 110 — both were eventually renamed Defender — from 1948 to 2016. After an inexplicable hiatus, the revered name is back for 2020.
The new Defender’s modern styling makes the play for brand heritage a bit tenuous, but the SUV’s performance and price hit the bull’s-eye.
The four-door Defender 110 is on sale now. The shorter two-door Defender 90 should reach U.S. dealerships in early 2021.
Land Rover expects the Defender to compete primarily with the Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes G-Class, Toyota 4Runner and Ford’s upcoming 2021 Bronco. That’s a wide range of brands and prices, but I’d add one more: The new Jeep Grand Cherokee due next year should have a combination of capability and luxury to cover the same ground as the four-door Defender 110.
Driving impressions: Smooth, capable, quiet
Land Rover engineered the Defender to reassert its off-road credibility, but the four-door Defender 110 I drove was smooth and comfortable on the road. Tire and wind noise are low, despite the Defender’s upright profile. A windshield with subtle rake and curvature combines low noise and resistance with traditional Defender looks.
I drove a well-equipped Defender 110, powered by a 3.0L mild hybrid straight-six engine that developed 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
All Defenders have all-wheel drive, with a two-speed transfer case that delivers a low range of gears for crawling through the most daunting terrain.
In addition to its smooth, quiet ride, the Defender’s steering is responsive, with good on-center highway feel. The brakes are massive — 14.3-inch front/13.8 rear — with plenty of stopping power and easy pedal modulation.
The mild hybrid straight-six — developed by Jaguar Land Rover after years when the brands relied on Ford V6s — is smooth and powerful and its mild-hybrid augments torque to an impressive 406 pound-feet at 2,000 to 5,000 rpm. The broad torque range pays off both off-roading — when low-end torque aids scrambling in rough terrain — and towing. Defenders equipped with the 3.0L I-6 (inline six) can tow up to 8,201 pounds.
The Defender’s rugged construction, advanced electronics and lavish off-road gear should make it a beast off-road, its mild manners on road notwithstanding.
The interior has tons of headroom. Leg and shoulder room also are good, a welcome change from the days when Land Rovers offered bafflingly small interiors in bulky, boxy bodies. The interior’s rubber surfaces, synthetic suede and mesh upholstery promise to look good through years of hard use. The gauges in the customizable electronic instrument cluster are crystal clear.
The 400-watt Meridian sound system in my test car sounded great, but the volume dial is a long reach for American drivers — all the way over by the glove box on the passenger side. That’s perfect ergonomics for right-hand drive Defenders in England, while a thumbwheel on the steering wheel allows easy volume control for us fussy Colonials.
The cargo space is large, but Land Rover’s traditional side-hinged tailgate may be an anachronism that’s outlived its use. It’s easy to open the more common top-hinged tailgates, particularly in the parking lots and structures that will be most Defenders’ native habitat.
The 2020 Defender’s styling is a bit more upright than Land Rover’s other current models, but still considerably softer and more rounded than the classic it replaces. It’s distinctive, but the step-up roof and availability of a black, side mounted exterior box for gear are the clearest visual references to the vehicle’s heritage. I wish Rover had committed more fully. If you’re going to play the retro card, you might as well go all-in.
Vital off-road statistics
—Can wade 35 inches of water
—Climbs grades up to 45 degrees
—19.7 inches of wheel articulation
—38-degree approach angle, 45-degree departure
—Can hit an 8-inch curb at 25 mph without damage
—Ground clearance is 8.5-11.5 inches
Defender 110 prices start at $49,910. The smaller Defender 90 is expected to start at $46,100. The base 2.0L turbo four-cylinder will be available in both models. It produces 296 hp and 205 pound-feet of torque.
The numbers 90 and 110 referred to the original 1948 model’s wheelbase, but now they’re just familiar names. The Defender 90′s wheelbase is 101.9 inches; overall length 170.2 inches without rear-mounted spare tire, 180.4 with. The Defender 110 I tested had a 119.0-inch wheelbase. It was 197.6 inches long with rear-mounted spare, 187.3 without.
The Defender 90 seats up to six, while the 110 can accommodate seven with rear-mounted jump seats that are perfect for the colleague who shouldn’t have invited themselves to lunch.
My loaded 3.0L Defender 110 SE had a $62,250 base price and cost $76,425 as tested. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Defender isn’t cheap, but it’s still a pretty good deal. A similarly equipped and capable Mercedes G-Class will cost far more. Jeep Wranglers will be in the same neighborhood. I expect that will also be true of the Ford Bronco and new Jeep Grand Cherokee next year.
Options on the Defender 110 I tested included:
—Adaptive cruise control Heated windshield, washer jets
—Heated steering wheel Headlight washers
—Electronic active differential
—Sliding panoramic roof
—Terrain mode control 2-inch five-spoke wheels
—Black contrast roof 14-way memory heated front seats 60/40 split, heated rear seats
—Third-row jump seats
—SiriusXM satellite radio
2020 Land Rover Defender 110 SE at a glance
Base price: $62,250
As tested: $76,425 (excluding destination charges)
Four-wheel drive 5+2 seat midsize luxury SUV
On sale now.
Engine: 3.0L mild hybrid inline six
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Power: 395 hp @ 5,500 rpm; 406 pound-feet of torque @ 2,000-5,000 rpm
EPA fuel economy estimate: 10 mpg city/14 highway/12 combined
Wheelbase: 101.9 inches
Length: 187.3 inches without rear-mounted spare, 197.6 with
Width: 78.6 inches (excluding mirrors)
Height: 77.5 inches
Curb weight: 5,035 pounds
Assembled in Nitra, Slovakia
(Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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