(A version of this article originally appeared in Wheels Afield, Summer 2020.)

A line from my test notes reads: If you need a quick 90-mph sprint to scoot past a paint-scouring dust devil charging the highway ahead of you, the new Land Rover Defender is eager to oblige.

I’m willing to bet that’s the first time you’ve read “quick 90-mph sprint” and “Land Rover Defender” in the same sentence.

I also could have included in that sentence terms such as unibody construction, fully-independent air suspension, 14-way memory heated seats, photo-darkening windscreen, panoramic sunroof, 400-watt Meridian sound system, dual-zone climate control . . . but you get the picture. Stepping from the last iteration of the Land Rover Defender into the new one is like going straight from an Underwood typewriter to a MacBook Pro.

As a fan (and owner) of the original Defender, I was one of approximately eight aficionados worldwide who weren’t enraged at the re-invention of the world’s most famous safari vehicle. I knew it was never going to be another bolted-together oxcart an owner could rebuild—and might well have to—under a mango tree in Zambia. It couldn’t be. Times have changed, and so has Land Rover. The company tacitly ceded the expedition, NGO, and insurgent market to Toyota’s bulletproof 70-series Land Cruiser a couple of decades ago.

At the same time, they were never going to retire the name Defender like some star ball player’s jersey number—it is marketing platinum. Thus the new Defender.

And what to make of it? In the glacially extended run-up to its actual introduction, JLR (Jaguar-Land Rover) claimed the new Defender would eclipse its predecessor in comfort, handling, safety, economy, and power, while also surpassing it in off-road ability—no great feat on the first bits, but challenging indeed to simultaneously achieve the latter. In early January 2020 I finally got a 2020 Defender 110 SE all to myself for four days to prove or disprove those claims (press launches are interesting, but minutely orchestrated to show off all the strengths of a product and none of its flaws).

The first official photos of the new Defender elicited a collective “Eew!” from traditionalists. Despite JLR’s references to numerous “stirring evocations” of the original two-box design, modern aerodynamics and aesthetics have melted the shape into a generic form more likely to be mistaken for a Kia Soul than a Series II. The rounded edges also have the effect of making the new four-door Defender 110 look decidedly smaller than the old one, despite the fact that it is larger in every dimension except height (and even that with the air suspension fully raised). It’s also heavier.

I got used to the unexceptional styling. I did not get used to the “Martha Stewart sample swatch,” as I called it: the strange body-color square stuck in the middle of the greenhouse. I could picture a couple agonizing over the paint choice on their new Defender. “Okay, how about this one? It’s called, um, Gondwana Stone?” (Don’t laugh—that is the actual name for the color on my test vehicle.) Some gloss black Krylon would fix the sample swatch. At least my ride didn’t sport the bizarre, optional Flintstones-lunchbox “side-mounted gear carriers,” which perform the dual function of hampering rearward vision and compromising aerodynamics.

Any sense of disappointment disappears once you slide into the driver’s seat. The new Defender has what is quite simply the most strikingly elegant dash ever put into a production vehicle. The instrument cluster in front of the driver employs all-LED instrumentation, including the “analogue” tach and speedometer—brilliantly crisp and visible in any conditions, and of course programable to display various functions and gauges. The 10-inch touch-screen in the center of the dash, nestled below an upholstered but structural magnesium beam/grab bar spanning the width of the cockpit, actually looks like it belongs there, in contrast to the stuck-on-iPad look of so many; its graphics are sharp, and function, according to my tech-savvy wife, is intuitive. A pod below houses the stubby shift lever and twin climate control/multi-function knobs. There are a few ergonomic glitches—the gear indicator on the shifter is invisible when you’re actually shifting (although there’s a duplicate next to the tach), the low-range button is oddly tiny in comparison to its importance, and identifying the button to convert one of the climate-control dials to a 4×4 drive-mode selector requires a dive into the 490-page owner’s manual. Quibbles, really—I could sit and admire this dash for hours. (Very recently I tested a new Ford Bronco, the dash of which pales in comparison.)

In back there’s comfortable seating and, more important, a completely flat, rubber-matted load bay with the rear seats folded, perfectly rectangular. It’s considerably more usable than the same area in a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited—and the Defender’s load capacity, thanks in part to manually adjustable rear ride height, is up to 800 pounds greater. Owners under five-ten or so will find it comfortable to sleep side by side as a couple, or solo (diagonally) if you’re taller.

With the power seat adjusted every way to Sunday, and the tilt/telescope wheel positioned, the promised massive improvement in comfort becomes plain. “Land Rover elbow” is officially an affliction of the past. Push-button-start the 395bhp/407lb.ft. Ingenium 3.0-liter inline six, both electrically supercharged and twin-scroll turbocharged, and backed by ZF’s excellent eight-speed transmission, and it’s also clear no Defender owner will ever again be beaten from a stoplight by a furniture-delivery truck. Zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds puts it level with my old 1982 Porsche 911SC. Yet on a 300-mile mixed highway/dirt road trip we managed a bit over 21mpg on the required premium fuel. (Base models come with a four-cylinder 2.0-liter with a mere 300 horsepower.)

That highway experience would have been sheer fantasy to any early Defender owner. In “Comfort” mode the all-independent, air-sprung suspension lends the ride of a—dare I say it?—Range Rover, with interior noise levels nearly as quiet. At an 80-mph cruise normal conversation is, well, normal. Passing semis in a vicious side wind elicited not a twitch in the steering wheel. Short of JLR’s own premium models it was the most comfortable on-road experience I’ve ever had in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

So: Full marks to Land Rover on transforming the Defender’s comfort, handling, safety, economy, and power. What about off-road performance?

The Defender is built on a new, aluminum-intensive platform called D7x. Engineered to pass something called, alarmingly, the Extreme Event Test (part of which involves driving repeatedly into a six-inch curb at high speed), it also raises the body of the Defender slightly higher that that of Land Rover’s other models. With the air suspension at its tallest setting, ground clearance below the nearly flat underbody is a full 11.5 inches. Approach and departure angles of the 110 are excellent at 38 and 40 degrees. (I much prefer a departure angle greater than the approach angle—if the front end clears you know the back will.) Breakover angle is also good at 28 degrees. These specs all compare favorably with the corresponding Wrangler and Bronco models, and the Defender’s wading depth of 35 inches beats them both. Put the Defender’s Terrain Response selector in Wade Mode and it raises the suspension to its maximum, locks the driveline, displays the water depth on the center screen, and, last but not least, lightly drags the brakes to dry them once you emerge.

I dialed in another Terrain Response mode—Rock Crawl—for a day in Redington Pass east of Tucson, along the same route I’d earlier taken a Jeep Gladiator Rubicon diesel. With a 119-inch wheelbase instead of the Gladiator’s 137, the Defender didn’t kiss a single rock, and otherwise went everywhere the Gladiator had gone with its dual lockers and disconnected front anti-roll bar. (I did wish the Defender had the Jeep’s 17-inch wheels rather than the supplied 19-inchers, which reduce sidewall height and don’t allow airing down as much.) Rock Crawl mode locks the center and rear diffs; however, the front is left to make do with brake-actuated traction control, so those tires scrabbled a bit on steep climbs before grabbing. Nevertheless it was clear that the new Defender decisively eclipses the old one in this sort of terrain. The original’s admirable coil-spring compliance simply wouldn’t be able to overcome the lack of any cross-axle locking function. I should note that fuel economy dropped precipitously near to single digits for this run—not unexpected but roughly half what the Gladiator’s turbodiesel managed in the same circumstances.

The Defender has other tricks: ClearSight Ground View, which magically makes the hood disappear in dicey terrain, additional camera modes that lend close-up views of the front wheels or a bird’s-eye perspective. All-Terrain Progress Control allows the driver to dial in a walking pace and concentrate on steering rather than throttle management. And all the while the suspension and silky transmission continued to coddle us. At the end of the day Roseann and I agreed that neither of us had ever experienced a vehicle so comfortable on pavement and at the same time so capable in the backcountry.

Of course the 800-pound gorilla lurking in the cargo compartment of the new Defender is the question of reliability. The legendary original was not, shall we say, legendary for this, and the new one is orders of magnitude more complex (quite literally a Macbook Pro versus an Underwood). Time will tell if the new, dedicated plant in Slovakia can exceed the quality of the venerable works in Solihull. One early YouTube saga involving a complete engine failure made a splash for some time, and others have surfaced detailing lesser issues. Only time will give us statistically valuable data.

In a way the baggage of that legendary name is unfortunate. If JLR had named this vehicle anything but Defender, it would have been greeted rapturously by Land Rover fanatics. The rest of us can greet it for what it is: a supremely accomplished 4×4 that is also comfortable for 600-mile freeway days, and capable of carrying nearly a ton of passengers and camping gear, or pulling four tons of trailer. I wouldn’t recommend trying to disassemble it under a mango tree with a hammer and a few spanners, but by every other objective measure the new Defender is a vastly better vehicle than the old one.

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