It’s not often we have the chance to test two of the most venerable off-road vehicles known to man, let alone at the same time and on some of the best trails our planet has to offer. But luckily for us, the stars aligned to put a 2021 Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Edition and Land Rover Defender in our driveway at the same time, and the Colorado wilderness was calling.
The current Land Cruiser, nicknamed the 200 Series, is on its way out the door, but not before heralding the return of the new Defender, which arrived for the 2020 model year. It’s the perfect time to hit the trail and see who’s king of the off-road domain.
Editor's Note: Thanks to our friends at Out of Spec, we can bring you this rock crawlin' comparison between two off-road heavy weights. Check out the Out of Spec channel on YouTube for more great content.
Fort Collins, Colorado: 8:00 AM
As someone who has owned 60 and 100 Series Land Cruisers, I could barely get a wink of sleep the night prior to executing our planned comparison test. Naturally, I would be piloting the Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Edition, and Kyle Conner, our resident Land Rover guy, would be behind the wheel of the new Defender. Our chosen battlefield was IronClads, an in-and-out trail in the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. It offers a few good obstacles, some places to crawl, and plenty of off-camber situations that will test both vehicles’ capabilities.
As someone who daily-drives a 100 Series Land Cruiser, the new model feels decidedly like home, and while the two are almost 20 years apart, there’s no denying the similarities. The 5.7-liter V8 and eight-speed automatic make highway driving no issue at all, though Kyle’s Defender proved to be much quicker getting up to 65 miles per hour.
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It makes perfect sense, as the Defender now has a turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that features an integrated starter-generator and an electric compressor to spool the turbo almost instantly. While it only makes a little more power than the Cruiser’s V8 (395 horsepower versus 381), turbo lag is non-existent and it makes better use of what little air is available at Colorado’s 5,000 feet of elevation. No worries, though; they’re Land Cruisers and Land Rovers, not Land Racers.
Bunce School Road Trailhead: 10:00 AM
There's no feeling like making it to the trailhead, and as we neared our entry point I was seriously excited to get after it. Before starting, though, we stopped briefly to talk about initial impressions of our rigs and give each other a few jabs, mainly about Land Rover reliability and how frankly outdated the Land Cruiser’s 14-year-old chassis has become. Typical Land Cruiser versus Land Rover banter – I wouldn’t have it any other way. We then jumped into our rigs and began to push onward.
IronClads Trailhead: 10:30 AM
It’s good practice to stop at the trailhead and make sure your vehicle is ready for the abuse that off-roading presents, and seeing as these weren’t our rigs, it made even more sense. We checked all four tires to make sure everything was good, specifically with my Land Cruiser, which comes with tame Dunlop Grandtrek AT20 all-terrain tires that leave something to be desired.
This is actually my first gripe about the Heritage Edition: Given the deleted running boards, one would assume Toyota would go all out in making it a more worthy off-road vehicle. Using 33-inch all-terrains would have gone a long way with looking the part, providing extra ground clearance and offering a stiffer sidewall for crawling, on top of additional grip from a more aggressive tread pattern. We had no disappointment like that on the Defender, as it was fitted with optional Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac mud-terrain tires.
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Despite its age, the Land Cruiser does have some trick off-road tech for when the pavement turns to dirt, sand, mud, rock, or snow. Fitted with Toyota’s ATRAC traction control system, the big Land Cruiser uses signals from four wheel speed sensors to simulate locking differentials at the front and rear, collaborating with a limited-slip and locking center differential. Even so, I really wish the Heritage Edition brought mechanical axle lockers back to the Land Cruiser, as it’s something we have not seen available in the past 20 years.
Crawl Control is another nifty tech feature for the Land Cruiser, more or less acting as a cruise control for slow speed situations and controlled by a knob on the center console. I opted not to use this when wheeling because I prefer to have as much control as possible. So I put my Cruiser in Low, locked the center differential, and selected Rock and Dirt for the ATRAC setting before seeing how Kyle set up his Defender.
While the Defender doesn’t have a live rear axle (read: less articulation), it has plenty of other bells and whistles to make up for it, including a real locking rear differential. Both the center and rear locker on the Defender will engage automatically, and while it sounds like a recipe for electronic fussiness, in practice it works rather well.
The Defender also comes equipped with an air suspension and has 11.0 inches of ground clearance on its highest setting, as opposed to 8.9 inches for the Land Cruiser. That said, air suspensions are generally considered a no-no for off-road applications, as it’s incredibly stressful on the system at maximum height when the bags are at full pressure. Time will tell if the Defender’s system is up to snuff for long-term use, especially once the warranty has expired. For longevity, it’s best to run an air suspension in its normal ride height, using the max lift to traverse large obstacles, then airing back down afterward.
While the Defender doesn’t have a live rear axle (read: less articulation), it has plenty of other bells and whistles to make up for it, including a real locking rear differential.
Like its Japanese competitor, the Defender also has a unique terrain management system called Terrain Response 2. Though it has selectable modes like the Land Cruiser, you can leave it in Auto and it will figure the rest out for you, running 500 tests per second of its surroundings and traction scenarios, changing traction control, throttle, response, and more. Kyle chose Rock and Dirt mode and we set off.
Obstacle #1: 11:00 AM
IronClad’s first obstacle is an off-camber rock step with the option to go around it, which still has another small rock step. I went first with the Land Cruiser, opting for the more difficult track. I edged up to it, picked my line, and committed. It took the ATRAC system a little bit of work to figure out what was going on, but adding some skinny pedal helped.
Eventually I was able to power through and made it over the obstacle. Kyle opted to take the Defender on the easier line so as not to risk damaging the Defender, and as much as I’d like to give the Cruiser a win for that, we both agreed the Defender would have made it through the harder line with no problem.
Obstacle #2: 11:20 AM
Shortly, we arrived at a small rock garden, but you are rewarded if you take the difficult line to the far right. Again, I went first. The Land Cruiser had no issue except for getting hung up on its underbody protection. It was reassuring knowing the Heritage Edition has four extra skid plates and that I was not damaging the drivetrain. I dragged a bit of bumper coming down, but it made it through it no less.
Kyle brought the Defender up next and pulled a massive wheel lift in spectacular fashion. While the Defender has a bit more ground clearance than the Land Cruiser, he still dragged some belly. The Defender got through the rock garden better, but both vehicles held their honor.
Obstacle #3: 11:30 AM
Alas, the final obstacle, a rock shelf that is off camber and a bit of a climb. This treacherous section of trail is what I was most excited about the night before.
Due to the lack of ground clearance (most rigs that take this obstacle have at least a few modifications), we took a little precaution and built up the step with rocks to eliminate potential issues. This is a practice called ‘trail building’ that is often very helpful. Much to my surprise, the Land Cruiser walked up with no problem. Kyle’s Defender followed suit.
While Kyle’s Defender did a good job, the DuraTrac tires didn’t handle the ice mix quite as well.
Despite being somewhat anticlimactic, we pushed on through some ice and snow mixed with rock until we reached the summit, where we were rewarded with stunning views of the Front Range that reached all the way to the plains, at a peak elevation of 9,384 feet. After some choice photographs, we started our descent down the mountain.
I was very impressed with how well the Land Rover’s ABS system handled the ice mix on the way down, particularly in shady areas, and while Kyle’s Defender did a good job, the DuraTrac tires didn’t handle the ice mix quite as well. Eventually we reached the first obstacle again on the descent, and I opted to take the Land Cruiser down a more wild line, pulling a huge rear tire lift in the process.
End Of Bunch School Road: 12:30 PM
The snow was pouring down in typical Colorado fashion by the time we reached the end of the trail, and we pulled off to collect our thoughts. Despite some modern amenities, the Land Cruiser is akin to an agricultural vehicle, and its chassis is getting old. The ATRAC system works well, as does the crawl control and everything else, but these aren’t the things that make a Land Cruiser a Land Cruiser.
It does everything it’s supposed to do, but it's missing the charm that original Land Cruisers offered. Maybe that’s because it is a 2021 model and needs to mature like a fine wine for 20 years after racking up a few hundred thousand miles. Surely it will last longer than its initial owner with a little bit of maintenance, but the lack of aggressive off-road tires and a $91,000 price tag left us wanting a little bit more.
On the contrary, the Defender is a new spin on a classic formula, as opposed to a classic formula that has, dare I say, gone a bit stale. The Defender brings a lot of new tech to the table and is packaged in a beautiful modern body that really looks the part and does even better on the trail. It’s awesome we have the Defender back, and its capability is the icing on the cake.
Only One Can Rule
At the end of the day, it’s tough to crown a winner. If I had to keep one of the vehicles for more than 10 years, I would pick the Toyota every single time. Given its track record as one of the most reliable vehicles on the planet, you will likely be rewarded with low maintenance costs and confidence that you won’t be left stranded when off-roading. And like most tools, they get better and more lovable with time.
If I had to keep one of the vehicles just under warranty, I’d take the Defender. It has more tech, and it’s arguably more capable and certainly better looking. As long as I don’t have to pay for the maintenance, especially if the air suspension breaks, it's a more modern and capable vehicle that also costs less – ours was equipped to just over $70,000.
As the day came to an end, we decided to crown the Land Rover Defender as king of the trails. Both SUVs were able to tackle IronClads with no drama, but the Defender has all the new tech, off-road capability to spare, and party-piece styling. There are few vehicles that are as capable out of the box as the new Defender. The new chassis is just as impressive on-road as it is off, as is its nifty turbocharged inline-six. Couple all that with a modern interior that's nice but can still take some abuse and you have the makings of a new king.
|2021 Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Edition||2021 Land Rover Defender 110 P400 SE|
|Engine:||5.7-liter V8||Turbocharged 3.0-Liter I6 w/Integrated Starter-Generator|
|Output:||381 Horsepower / 401 Pound-Feet||395 Horsepower/ 406 Pound-Feet|
|Transmission:||Eight-Speed Automatic||Eight-Speed Automatic|
|Drive Type:||Four-Wheel Drive||Four-Wheel Drive|
|Efficiency:||13 City / 17 Highway / 14 Combined||17 City / 22 Highway / 19 Combined|
|Weight:||5,815 Pounds||5,035 Pounds|
|Cargo Volume:||43.0 / 81.7 Cubic Feet||34.0 / 78.8 Cubic Feet|
|Towing Capacity:||8,100 Pounds||8,201 Pounds|
|Payload||1,570 Pounds||1,940 Pounds|