We slip behind the wheel on US soil for the first time, and boy was it worth the wait.
This is the moment many of us off-road fanatics have been waiting for. Nearly a full year after seeing it in the metal at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show, we’re finally behind the wheel of the legendary, reborn 2020 Land Rover Defender on US soil, er, sand. To prove its mettle, Land Rover brought us to the Anza-Borrego Desert, one of the most inhospitable regions in the world, during a surprise heatwave – prime testing conditions, we’d say.
To hear Land Rover tell it, the hotly anticipated Defender is the missing piece of the company’s trifecta, which also comprises Range Rover and Discovery families. Where the Range Rover provides refinement and the Discovery brings versatility, the Defender will blaze a path in capability. So if this vehicle is the off-road pace car of the entire Land Rover lineup, then it’d better be just as good (or better) as the highly collectible, V8-powered Defender from the 1990s. Before we find out, we hit the highway in a four-door Defender 110 (don't worry, the two-door 90 is on the way), hopefully finding more comfort than in that old off-roader.
A Polished Stone
American drivers primarily associate Land Rover with the Range Rover line of luxury SUVs. Overseas, the Land Rover name is inextricably linked to the original Series off-roader, but even that rugged trucklet sports some royal panache – Queen Elizabeth owns a 1953 Series I, and there are plenty of images of her tooling about her estates in Defenders. Given its royal provenance and Land Rover’s premium reputation in the US, it’s fair to expect a lot of the 2020 Defender insofar as on-road competence and comfort are concerned.
Luckily, it delivers, especially when optioned with the torque-rich P400 powertrain, consisting of a mild-hybrid, turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six that makes 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet. A turbo 2.0-liter inline-four is standard, making 296 hp and 295 lb-ft, which we haven’t driven yet. As tested, the smooth-revving P400 offers peak torque between 2,000 and 5,000 rpm, with max power taking over at 5,500 rpm. Abundant low-end twist makes downshifts mostly unnecessary, but a stellar ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox still provides snappier responses than Rickles.
The inherent turbine-like smoothness of the straight-six engine matches well with the well-controlled, serene ride (thanks, standard four-corner air suspension). Driven sedately on a twisty road, the Defender 110 is rather pleasant and predictable, relenting to safe understeer when pressed. Body roll is the order of the day in hard charging, served with a heaping side dish of howling rubber, but let’s be honest. The Defender is a rather tall, narrow box on squishy off-road tires, so it’s not fair to expect go-kart handling from the off-roadiest Land Rover in years.
Inside, “Robust Woven Textile” adorns the seat faces, with leather accents on the bolsters; the combo is surprising and pleasant, and the resilient upholstery feels up to the task of a muddy camping trip (or a spilled sippy cup). Soft-touch plastics abound, except for the cross-car beam, that is. That beefy swath of magnesium stretches the width of the dashboard, finished in a powder coat that shows up again on the door panel inserts. Between the scuba-suit seat material, excellent touch points, and tough metallic accents, the Defender’s cabin, like the exterior, has a simultaneously rugged and upscale appearance.
The 2020 Land Rover Defender is the most single-minded off-roader to be sold by the brand on our shores since, well, the 1997 Defender. Our drive route seemed purpose-built to put the new SUV to task, taking it across deep sand, up and over steep mountainsides, and through dusty riverbeds. Ambient temperatures hovered at 110 degrees Fahrenheit, matching the Land Rover’s model designation as though it was planned. A cloudless sky prevented even momentary relief from the sun’s unseasonably brutal rays, but even against this hostile backdrop, the Defender shone nearly as brightly as our resident star.
The air suspension provides three height settings, with the tallest flexing 11.5 inches of ground clearance and 38-degree approach, 28-degree breakover, and 40-degree departure angles. Such geometry means good things in tight desert confines, and impressively, off-road ride quality and articulation don’t degrade when in the maximum ride height. Often, airing up means killing suspension travel, making most SUVs’ tallest modes suitable only for traversing single obstacles before dropping back down. But in the Defender, the highest setup offers more than enough articulation and a smooth ride for a full day of off-roading.
We proved that by taking this lovely Tasman Blue example through a tight trail that occasionally serves as a flood zone during Anza-Borrego’s rare rainstorms. The Defender traversed the rutted tank traps, rivulet washes, and narrow confines very well, lifting a wheel only on a particularly seesawing stretch that had us bucking forward and back diagonally with the crossed-up trail. In this extremely aggressive situation, the Land Rover’s excellent off-road traction control and locking center and rear differentials made all the difference in preserving forward momentum, even when teetering on three (or two) wheels.
Those same tools came into play out in the open desert, which saw our convoy of Defenders tossing rooster tails of dust at 40 mph. Even in the soft-packed dunes with tires at street pressure, our tester enjoyed abundant traction and performance, thanks in part to the optional Terrain Response 2 system’s sand mode. That said, the experience felt somewhat “digital” in that we could hear and feel the SUV’s traction control, braking systems, and differentials shuffling power around to keep us moving. It wasn’t necessarily obtrusive, but it did shatter our delusions of grandeur realizing the Defender was doing more work than we were.
Diamond In The Rough
Vehicles that don’t demand compromises are rare, and the Land Rover Defender is no exception. A narrow body means tight footwells that force the driver and front passenger’s legs to rest at an uncomfortable, offset angle. That’s rather unfortunate, given the otherwise spacious and airy interior and supportive seats.
The clean and attractive center stack layout also forces certain switches to share functions. For example, pressing a button on the console turns the driver-side climate control temperature dial into the Terrain Response 2 selector, which wouldn’t be a problem if the new-for-2020 Pivi Pro infotainment system were more responsive. As lag-prone as it is, setting the right drive mode is a challenge – we frequently thought that maybe we didn’t turn the dial correctly, but turning it again resulted in selecting the wrong terrain. And if we waited too long to pick a mode, the dial would default back to its temperature function.
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And then there’s the price. The 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 already starts at a highish $49,900, compared to $45,195 for a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon eTorque or $50,470 for a top-of-the-line Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. Optioning the much more powerful inline-six requires a jump to $62,250 at minimum, a price that more closely matches a loaded Lexus GX 460 Luxury ($64,365).
Our tester also bundles a $735 Advanced Off-Road Capability kit (All-Terrain Progress Control, Terrain Response 2, and Reconfigurable Terrain Response), a $1,345 Off-Road pack (torque-vectoring differential, all-terrain tires, and a 110-volt outlet), and a $700 combo of heated seats, washer jets, windshield, and steering wheel. Adaptive cruise control requires $1,020, and a handful of other niceties add a few hundred bucks here and there. With a $1,350 destination charge, the total damage for our admittedly posh machine comes to $71,025. There’s no denying that’s a whole lot of money for an off-road SUV with a few unpleasant compromises.
But while many would consider the Defender 110 an expensive alternative to the Wrangler or Toyota, we might be more inclined to think of it as a discounted Mercedes-Benz G-Class. On-road, the 2020 Land Rover Defender is composed, quiet, and well-behaved, exhibiting the body roll one should expect of an SUV but also telegraphing a sense of confidence to the driver. Off-road, it’s capable and comfortable, adroitly dispatching a wide variety of obstacles with no drama. And its understated style helps it stand out in any environment, safeguarding its passengers all the way. It feels special, and that might be enough to make it worth the price.
2020 Land Rover Defender 110 SE P400