First Drive: 2020 Land Rover Defender Evolves Ruggedness

Land Rover's off-road legend returns as a refined and practical—but still tough—SUV.

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Land Rover

Trailed by a mile-long wake of dust, the Land Rover Defender cuts an unmistakable silhouette across the African landscape. Land Rover brought us here—to Namibia, specifically, but also directly into the Technicolor wanderings of a brand marketing manager's wildest dream—to put the new Defender to work on roughly 500 miles of wilderness, rocky passes, sand, gravel, mud, and muck. And so, work we did. Saw a bunch of giraffes, too.

HIGHS: Modernized driving experience, plenty of off-road capability, generous passenger and cargo space.

The 2020 model is the first Defender to be sold in the United States since 1997. It retains the 90 and 110 designations of its predecessor, but the numbers no longer even remotely correspond to the wheelbase length. Today's mid-size SUVs are large, and a 23-year hiatus didn't make the Defender immune to growth. The two-door Defender 90 now has a wheelbase that's longer than its name implies while the four-door 110's wheelbase spans 119.0 inches. At least the extra length is put to good use; the 110s have a generously roomy second row and an available third row. If five seats are too few and seven too many, Land Rover allows you to split the difference with an optional front jump seat in two-row Defenders. The 110 starts at $50,925 and will arrive this spring. The 90 lands a few months later and will sticker for a couple grand less.

Land Rover

Boxy Styling Remains

Plenty of Defender styling cues are present on the new one. It shares its forebear's characteristic bulging hip line that defines the lower and upper parts of the body, and the roof has portal windows on its rear edges. Kudos to Land Rover for the available steel wheels that set off the retro-inspired look. Emissions are critical now, so the previously bluff body sides have a subtle taper toward the rear to improve aerodynamics. But nothing toughens up the look and draws it closer to its predecessor than a generous coat of mud.

What's underneath the new Defender is a complete departure from the original body-on-frame stick-axle setup. Built on a unibody, the 2020 model has an independent suspension at both ends. Lest you think this Land Rover has gone soft, however, know that a two-speed transfer case is standard and its ground clearance and departure angle—thanks to the height-adjustable air springs—exceed its predecessor's and those of the Jeep Wrangler. Engine options are a 296-hp turbocharged inline-four and a 395-hp inline-six, both of which far outgun the previous model's Buick-derived 182-hp V-8.

Land Rover

LOWS: Laggy inline-six, extremely touchy brake pedal, non-defeatable stability control occasionally stifles off-roading.

On the often-brutal washboard roads we encountered, the Defender's beefy structure proved itself. Even with a cacophony of impacts resonating through the cabin and one side of the second-row bench violently rattling in its latch, there's only a modest buzz coming through the steering column and the driver's seat. Ride control is excellent; sufficiently compliant, the suspension soaks up the kind of nasty lumps that sprout from ungroomed dirt roads while never feeling too soft or wallowy. And the seats are firm enough for all-day comfort but forgiving enough when bashing about. Some of the credit for the solid structure goes to the exposed magnesium beam that spans the dash. By not enclosing it behind a panel, Land Rover made its unfinished look an interior-design element and freed up some space for storage nooks across the front of the cabin.

That we experienced a few (mostly electrical) glitches on these preproduction vehicles wasn't nearly as surprising as the elephant we found snacking on a tree near a riverbed. Most of the warning lights were extinguished by a simple restart. Washer fluid poured from the reservoir on a particularly steep decline, but Land Rover promises a better-sealing cap will fix the problem.

Land Rover

A High-Tech Makeover

Inside and out, the Defender comes loaded with tech. A bevy of cameras provides views tailored for on-road, off-road, or hooking up a trailer. Plus, there's a camera feed for the rearview mirror, and the ultrasonic sensors on the bottom of the side mirrors can measure water depth. What's more, the Defender's electrical architecture is new to the brand and can update over the air. Two separate modems ensure that software can be downloaded without affecting streaming music or data flowing to Wi-Fi–connected devices.

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Illustrations by Pete SucheskiCar and Driver

The electrical overhaul includes a new infotainment system running on BlackBerry's QNX platform, and it appears to deliver on the promise of quicker responses and a more streamlined path to its many features. Land Rover calls it Pivi Pro, which sounds similar but is not at all like what we took to calling "privy pro," a maneuver that entails hanging off the Defender's rear tow hooks to perfect a squatting posture when faced with a nonnegotiable call to action in the great outdoors. At least it gave us a reason to use the shovel we'd been ferrying on our roof rack. Which reminds us: Our cars also had the $780 fold-down ladder to make reaching the roof a cinch; it is available on models equipped with the $4800 Explorer pack, which includes, among other things, the aforementioned roof rack, a waterproof lockable box hanging on the right side, and an intake snorkel on the A-pillar.

Land Rover

But some of the Defender's modernization isn't welcome. The brake pedal is so light and lacking in feel—it's a brake-by-wire system—that it's difficult to modulate. The throttle has the opposite problem; its languid response on six-cylinder models is at odds with the engine's low-speed electric assist. We've found other vehicles with this engine similarly sedate, though part of the Defender's problem is the transmission's reluctance to downshift. The stability-control system allows for some modest pitching and catching, but even in its most reduced setting, it quickly quells the serious sideways action sometimes needed while off-roading.

While Defender loyalists might equate discomfort with capability, the new version has substantial off-road chops yet will likely delight someone who never leaves the pavement. That's most drivers. They'll buy it because it's cooler-looking than the similarly priced Land Rover Discovery as well as whatever it's parked next to at soccer practice, and because it encourages the fantasy of a faraway trek. That strikes us as a successful balancing act for the Defender's revival.

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