2020 Land Rover Defender first drive review: The real deal
I never really understood the charm of the Land Rover Defender until I drove a 2007 model to a fifth-place finish in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles in Morocco. When it worked, which was 95% of the time, it was unstoppable, its grunty diesel engine allowing me to keep pace in the dunes and its solid axles making short work of rocky hill climbs.
As Land Rover embarks on one of its most important relaunches, I'm happy to report that the new Defender is just as capable as that old one. On a three-day journey through the wilds of Namibia, the Defender 110 conquers it all: rocks, river beds, mud, water and soft sand. I'm sure it's good on pavement, too, but I'll have to wait to test it at home before making a final call.
My first encounter with the new Defender is in the small town of Opuwo in northern Namibia. All of the test cars on this trip have the optional Explorer Pack with a roof rack, side-mounted gear carrier and a spare tire cover. My car also has a deployable roof ladder and sleek snorkel integrated into the passenger-side engine air intake vent. Strapped to the roof is a second spare tire, a shovel, two Maxtrax recovery boards and five liters of extra fuel. Oh yes, this is going to be an adventure.
The Defender has plenty of nods to its heritage, like the skylights on the roof cap, the Pangea Green paint and the stacked taillights at the rear. Overall, though, the design looks fresh and forward. I like that you can get it with a clear wrap right from the factory to protect your paint, and I love the 18-inch steel wheels. The fake diamond plate on the hood needs to go, though -- it's made of plastic and you can't stand on it. That might seem like an odd gripe, but I've done enough terrain scouting to know that when you're out exploring, climbing on the hood for a better view is a necessity.
Inside, the Defender has been dragged into the 21st century, but still looks and feels true to its roots. The cabin isn't about luxury -- it's rugged, with a tough, rubber-like coating on the dashboard, heavy-duty floor mats and lots of exposed screws and rivets. I like the open storage cubby that extends the full length of the dash, perfect for holding my phone, sunglasses, gum and sunscreen.
Up front, all Defenders offer three seating options. You can get a fixed center console between the driver and passenger, two seats with nothing between them or a third jump-seat in the middle. The longer Defender 110 can even be had with a third row of seats.
The Defender is the first vehicle to get Land Rover's new Pivi Pro infotainment system, housed on a 10-inch touchscreen in the dash. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard, and Land Rover says this new software is easier to use than its past systems, reducing driver distraction. Dual Bluetooth technology means two phones can be connected at the same time, and wireless charging is standard.
My time with Pivi Pro is mostly spent accessing the Terrain Response controls, and honestly, the system still has a lot of bugs that need to be worked out. Land Rover admits this tech isn't quite ready for prime time just yet, so I look forward to taking a closer look when a Defender inevitably makes its way to Roadshow HQ.
As for other tech, blind-spot monitoring, emergency braking, a 360-degree camera, traffic sign recognition with an adaptive speed limiter and lane-keeping assist all come standard. If you want adaptive cruise control, you'll have to step up to higher trim levels, where you can also add a rear pre-collision monitor that flashes the hazard lights to alert other drivers if the Defender detects a car approaching too rapidly.
The Defender will come with two engines in the US. The base P300 model uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 with 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. On my drive through Namibia, though, I've got the upgraded P400 trim with its 3.0-liter turbo I6, producing 395 hp and 406 lb-ft. This engine has mild-hybrid assist for smoother starts and power gets down to a full-time four-wheel-drive system through a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. The gearbox is wonderful -- on long stretches of dirt roads, it never hunts for the right gear.
There is a third engine option -- a diesel -- but we won't get this one in the States. For you overseas readers, the 2.0-liter turbo-diesel I4 is available in two states of tune. The D200 model makes 200 hp and 317 lb-ft while the D240 increases the horsepower to 240 but has an identical amount of torque. These engines are also mated to an eight-speed transmission.
The first day of the trip doesn't really challenge the Defender, and what impresses me most is the remarkable ride quality. I mean, it's no Rolls-Royce Cullinan, but the four-wheel independent air suspension is really something. Skipping along at a good pace, bounding over some bumps and whoops, my body doesn't move around too much. The Defender has supportive seats, and after a long day of driving across the dirt, I arrive at my overnight camp with nary a vertebrae out of place.
The next day, however, shit gets real. I start by going over Van Zyl's Pass. Considered to be the toughest pass in Namibia, Van Zyl's can be traversed east to west only, and is made up of mostly steep downhill sections, although a few times, it's so steep that I can only see sky through the windshield. The route is littered with sharp rocks embedded in the trail, and there are plenty of opportunities to get one or two wheels off the ground.
Much to the horror of many off-road purists, the Defender uses unibody construction. Long considered to be weaker than traditional body-on-frame architecture -- like what you'll find on a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota 4Runner -- unibody construction is generally better suited to crossovers that won't see much off-road use beyond an occasional dirt road. However, Land Rover insists the new Defender is three times more rigid than its predecessor thanks to this new design. Furthermore, the unibody bones allow for a fully independent rear suspension, which on an off-roader like this, might sound like heresy.
There are a lot of reasons to bemoan this 'upgrade.' Solid axles are stronger and more durable, and they are easier to fix in the field. But that's not really what Land Rover is all about anymore. Land Rover makes SUVs with independent suspensions that absolutely excel across the roughest terrain. The Range Rover is totally modern and totally unstoppable. Why would the Defender be any different?
Van Zyl's Pass makes me question everything I thought I knew about off-roading. Sure, the Defender doesn't have the same kind of articulation as a Wrangler Rubicon, but that doesn't mean it can't successfully conquer the rough stuff. Full-time four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, plenty of traction control algorithms and locking center and rear differentials mean that even with one or two wheels up in the air, the Defender can keep scooching along. In its highest suspension setting, the Defender 110 has 11.5 inches of ground clearance. Its maximum approach angle is 38 degrees, breakover is 28 degrees and departure is 40 degrees -- all of these numbers are very, very good. The shorter-wheelbase Defender 90 has the same approach and departure, but the breakover angle is slightly better, at 31 degrees.
Even without airing down for better traction, there is enough of a contact patch on the 32-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires to maintain grip on the slippery sections of the pass. The Defender has no problem scaling the steepest parts of this trail, and the whole time, the ride quality is excellent. Even with lots of rocks and holes, I'm incredibly relaxed and comfortable.
I'm not usually a fan of hill-descent control -- a skilled off-roader, I like to manage this myself -- but the Defender's tech is pretty great. The SUV maintains a slow, steady pace across Van Zyl's Pass, though the seat belt locking across my chest is annoying.
Cresting a hill is super easy thanks to the Clear Sight Ground View system, which uses a camera in the front to display video of what is directly ahead but normally obscured by the hood. And again, while I prefer to be in charge, the Defender is available with a very cool All-Terrain Progress Control, a kind of off-road cruise control that keeps drivers at a steady speed.
In the Terrain Response system's Auto setting, the Defender makes its own decisions about shifting, throttle response and traction intervention. Thing is, this mode is kind of hard to find. The touchscreen displays Sand, Grass/Gravel/Snow, Mud/Ruts, Rock Crawl and Comfort, the latter of which is the default setting. Instead, you have to manually toggle over to find Auto. Land Rover says the Defender is configured this way so the driver knowingly selects Auto, but really, shouldn't this automatic programming be the default?
On second thought, though, maybe that's a good thing. The electronic nannies kick in an awful lot in Auto mode. There's a custom setting where you can tailor the throttle, transmission, steering and traction control to your liking across three different settings. That said, even when the traction control is "off," it's never fully disabled. Here I am, in a dry river bed that's perfect for throwing up some huge dirt roosts, and I can't get the Defender to break loose and play.
At the end of a 10-hour drive day, I exit the Defender without a twinge in my back or neck. This thing can go off-road all day long but still leave you feeling fresh as a daisy at the end. This is a huge testament to the Defender's ride quality -- something you can really only get thanks to the unibody construction.
The last day of the trip takes me to Skeleton Coast National Park, and it's here on these gritty roads that I realize the Defender's interior is pretty much dust-free. After several days of driving, the interior is remarkably clean. This SUV is extremely well-sealed and protected against the elements.
A drive through soft sand brings me to a few low-lying dunes. Even with the tires set to street pressure, the Defender handles it with ease. One person in the group gets waylaid, but a quick reverse and another run up the dune with a bit more speed gets the Defender over the crest. No need for Maxtrax here.
From there, I head inland and drive up a dry riverbed, which is first surrounded by dunes that soon give way to stunning cliff faces. I come around a corner to see a lone elephant coming out of the brush. This is real Defender stuff, folks.
A bit further upriver, I'm in full mud-slinging territory and it's great. Mud splatters up the sides of the Defender and covers the hood. Another half mile later, more water is factored in, and the Defender happily plows through the filth. And when someone in the group does get stuck in some really deep mud, the guides hook up the factory-installed, 10,000-pound winch and pull the Defender out without issue.
I'm still a little leery of driving the Defender on fully inflated tires, so I keep the momentum up, adhering to the old off-roading adage, "When in doubt, throttle out." The Defender does everything I ask it to without issue. I wish the automatic windshield wipers were a bit quicker to respond when the muddy water hits, but that's small potatoes considering the terrain I'm in. This is by far the most thrilling drive I've done all year.
At the deepest part of the river, I activate the Wade Sensing program, which modulates the throttle, locks the center and rear differentials and raises the air suspension to its highest setting (if it isn't already there). The Defender can ford 35.4 inches of water, and it handles this section with aplomb, splashing its way across like a golden retriever going after his favorite ball. Once out of the water, the Wade Sensing tech automatically drags the brakes to dry them off.
Which brings me to a small note: It's worth mentioning that the Defenders tested on this trip aren't without some electrical faults. On one car, the Wade Sensing tech held the brakes too long and resulted in a brake pad warning light. The electronic shifter in my car often took three or four tries before actually engaging Drive and the infotainment system presented a number of little glitches. Yes, these are preproduction test cars, but I hope everything gets sorted before the Defender starts rolling into dealers.
In addition to its outstanding capability, the long-wheelbase Defender 110 is extremely practical. You'll find 34 cubic feet of space in the back, expanding to 79 cubes when the rear seats are folded. Those numbers are pretty average, but the payload rating is outstanding. You can cram nearly 2,000 pounds of gear in there, and secure it with eight different tie-downs. (You'll be thankful for the rear camera mirror should you totally load up the back.) That's way more weight than a Jeep Wrangler, Lexus GX , Mercedes-Benz G-Class or Toyota Land Cruiser can handle. The Defender out-tows them all, as well, with a maximum rating of 8,201 pounds.
The 2020 Land Rover Defender starts at $50,925, including $1,025 for delivery, for the base 110 with the 2.0-liter engine. If you want the 3.0-liter I6 you have to move up to the SE and spend at least $63,275. The top-level Defender 110 X starts at $81,925. If the two-door Defender 90 is more your style, that one starts at $66,125, as it's currently only available in First Edition trim with the 3.0-liter engine.
I'll be honest: I was really skeptical about the 2020 Defender's abilities going into this drive. "Unibody construction" and "independent suspension" are cringe-worthy phrases to an off-roader like me. But it turns out that kind of thinking can really limit your view of modern SUVs. All said and done, I'm walking away from this experience a believer.
Would I change anything? Sure. I'm not sold on the drive modes, I want more wheel articulation and I'm crossing my fingers that the electronic issues don't make their way to the production cars.
But is the new Defender a proper Defender? Absolutely. It's endlessly capable for any kind of adventure, only this time, you'll arrive in comfort.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.
First published March 24.