The Defender is both what you wanted and what you feared.
Around this time last year, I was all set to fly to England for the first drive of the 2020 Land Rover Defender. I had a plane ticket and even bought a pair of English Wellies, expecting a muddy good time. Then the pandemic happened, I returned the boots, and by some cruel twist of a fate I'm now the last person on staff to experience Land Rover's latest Defender, a vehicle that's been at the top of my must-drive list since 2018. All I can say at this point is “finally.”
Rugged, handsome, capable, questionably reliable, occasionally unpleasant, and expensive. These are all fair descriptions of the new Defender. But despite the random wart, this SUV's character – what it represents and how it makes the driver feel – is impeccable. I didn't want to wait three years to drive the Defender, but had I known it'd be this damn lovable, I'd do it all over again.
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I get that the Defender might not be everyone's cup of tea, but the company faced a Herculean task in modernizing such an old-school design, and to my eyes, Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern and his team nailed it. The Defender looks spectacular from every angle. But what's really great is how well the designers transitioned iconic Defender traits to a modern shape. Specifically, the taillights and their plastic housings are a perfectly inspired translation of yesteryear's look.
The cabin, too, is a gorgeous place. Material quality is both high and highly durable, with plenty of real metal and solid-feeling plastic. It all contrasts neatly with touches of wood and ample leather. Whether you're inside or out, I'll hear no arguments that the Defender is anything but a stunner.
With off-road parks closed for the season here in Michigan, most of my opportunities to get the Defender dirty meant bombing down dirt trails and wooded paths. It laughed at these paltry challenges. But while I tapped into just an inkling of the Defender's abilities, that was enough to get a great idea of how capable this thing really is.
Land Rover's Terrain Response system is arguably the best, most impactful set of drive modes on the market. But it's also geared for novices – the Auto mode manages everything smoothly, adapting the car based on the conditions. Users that need more direct control of things like ride height, throttle response, and the status of the active differential can select individual modes. That said, I dislike that Land Rover hides the controls in the two dials that sit below the touchscreen.
Beyond the actual mechanical functions, the Defender goes out of its way to keep the driver apprised of the conditions. The comprehensive suite of off-road tools in the Pivi Pro infotainment system relays every iota of detail a driver could possibly ask for.
One Comfortable SUV
Say what you will about the Grand Tour trio (and there's a lot you can say), but they do occasionally come up with some good arguments. And Richard Hammond was spot on when he said the new Defender is the best Discovery ever. In terms of being an SUV, the Defender excels. The ride is comfortable on paved roads, the cabin is quiet and easy on the eyes, and you can seat five people in comfort (or up to seven in... less comfort).
In particular, the second row is something of a revelation – there's a huge amount of legroom and the tall windows provide excellent visibility to passengers. At the same time, the cargo hold is expansive, and thanks to the swing gate, is convenient to access. It's easy to get wrapped up in the Defender's off-road credentials, but even if you never put a wheel into the dirt, you'll find a very good SUV here.
British cars have a well-earned reputation for mechanical issues, but electric woes marred my time with the Defender. On half a dozen occasions, I received a warning in the instrument cluster about the active safety systems being unavailable. A restart would solve the issue, only for the warning to reappear a few miles down the road.
In all but one case, the errors popped up when I wasn't using the adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping assist – the one time they appeared while I had the systems engaged, the car gave me ample warning to take control of the car. I alerted Land Rover to this frustrating and recurring issue and was told a few weeks after my loan that my tester’s Driver Assistance Domain Controller needed an update.
Six-Cylinder Engine Sounds Lousy
The Defender's turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six and the accompanying mild hybrid system are a dynamic and exciting pairing, providing plenty of power. But unless you're playing around the engine's redline, the setup sounds like it runs on diesel fuel. It's a coarse and unpleasant-sounding engine at anything south of 4,000 rpm, which is where most drivers will spend their time. So while the performance is ample, we're eager to see if the Defender's base four-cylinder will sound better.
X Trim Is Way Too Expensive
I'll entertain $50,000 Defenders all day long. I'd even consider a $60,000 or $65,000 model, because that's not much more than a very high-end Jeep Wrangler. But this four-door X trim starts at $80,900, and as-tested, the price sits at $85,750. I adore the Defender, but you're a lunatic if you're dropping that kind of coin on this thing.
I believe Land Rover is going this route because the Mercedes-Benz G-Class starts at $131,000. By offering a higher-end Defender, Land Rover can appeal to people that want a rugged, boxy luxury SUV with but can't pony up the coin for a G-Wagen, of which there are probably many. But folks, there are better ways to spend your money. A Defender SE will wow you in all the same ways as this X, and for about $20,000 less.
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