When Jaguar Land Rover launches the reborn 2020 Defender SUV, it will be the most capable off-road vehicle ever built by the company, according to executives.
How it achieves those credentials will likely vary dramatically from the past version, Trucks.com discovered in an interview with Joe Eberhardt, chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover North America.
The 2020 Land Rover Defender will be a versatile and comfortable SUV compared with the spartan and rugged design of the original, Eberhardt told Trucks.com. Its off-road ability will come from advanced technology rather than heavy-duty components.
“The new Defender will retain some of the original appeal,” Eberhardt said. “But it’s a vehicle you can drive every day for as long as you want as opposed to the old Defender.”
BIG SHOES TO FILL
The original Defender, built from 1983 to 2016, is a rugged utilitarian vehicle with a notoriously boxy design and few amenities. It has live front and rear axles. A leaf spring – and later coil spring – suspension helped the body-on-frame chassis bounce around. Power from a range of torquey engines traveled through a four- or five-speed manual transmission.
The SUV gained a reputation for its ability to traverse any terrain in the worst conditions. It became beloved by adventurers, explorers and Queen Elizabeth II. Land Rover built armored versions of the Defender for the British Army.
By comparison, the 2020 Defender will have far more in common with the current crop of off-road-capable crossovers from rival manufacturers. Spy photographers captured prototypes of the future Defender using an independent suspension, which improves fuel economy and ride comfort. It also moves away from its trucklike roots: Its unibody chassis is more commonly associated with crossovers.
Judging from current Land Rover vehicles, the 2020 Defender’s steering, braking and throttle controls will likely be electronic instead of hydraulic. Electrified powertrains, an advanced automatic transmission and intelligent traction-control systems are also possibilities.
Eberhardt is not ready to discuss such details, but he said the 2020 Defender will wear more hats than past versions of the vehicle.
Making the new Defender “more livable” will attract a new customer base beyond dedicated off-roaders, he said. These buyers appreciate the Defender’s rugged image and heritage but don’t want the trade-offs such as poor fuel economy and ride quality, attributes associated with the previous version.
“The vast majority of people are living with this car day-to-day so it needs to be refined and comfortable but also live up to that Defender name,” said Nathan Hoyt, spokesperson at Jaguar Land Rover.
“I’ve driven the early prototypes, and they are so refined,” Hoyt said. “I think everybody will find something to enjoy.”
STILL AN OFF-ROADER
The new Defender will bank on off-road credentials to set it apart from the current crop of luxury SUVs.
Traditional off-road metrics such as a high ground clearance, durable components and good approach and departure angles will be core to the future Defender, according to executives and engineers. But modern off-road vehicles also rely on advanced technology to climb over obstacles.
“It’s a combination of the basic physical things as well as having the right technologies,” said Pete Simkin, vehicle program director at Jaguar Land Rover. “You need both geometry and the clever technology to support it.”
Current vehicles from Land Rover feature a wide array of off-road gadgets. A 2018 Land Rover Discovery tested by Trucks.com used adaptive air suspension, various traction modes and hill-descent control to scale a tight and challenging mountain trail.
The recently unveiled 2020 Range Rover Evoque offers a mild-hybrid powertrain and a virtual display called Clearsight Ground View that shows an unobstructed view of the road ahead as if the front end of the vehicle were invisible.
Features such as these may also appear on the Defender. The increasing application of off-road tech does not detract from the ruggedness of the vehicle, Eberhardt said. Instead, it adds to it.
“You want to be able to scale something safely,” he said. “The new twist is you should be able to do that as comfortably and unassisted as possible.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Jaguar Land Rover needs the Defender to succeed. The company has closed plants, cut jobs and reduced its budget to offset huge losses stemming from trade uncertainty and slowing demand in China. Tata Motors, the Indian company that owns Jaguar Land Rover, reported a loss of $3.8 billion in the quarter that ended in December. The quarterly loss, thought to be the biggest in Indian corporate history, stemmed from the problems at Jaguar Land Rover, especially its sales plunge in China.
The company does well in the U.S., where sales across the Land Rover brand rose to 92,100 units in 2018, a 23 percent increase compared with 74,700 vehicles sold the year before.
The British automaker needs continued growth from its SUV brand to offset slowing international demand and eroding interest in Jaguar sedans. One way JLR may boost Defender sales is by broadening the Defender lineup.
“There is potential for other vehicles,” Eberhardt told Trucks.com. “We’re launching the first one, and there might be others coming.”
Land Rover is currently testing Defender prototypes in two-door and four-door versions, and more variants could be in the works. Just as Land Rover offers the large Discovery SUV and smaller Discovery Sport, the Defender could expand into a family of models across segments.
The company also expects Defender customers to add accessories at a high rate, Eberhardt said. Because of the vehicle’s adventurous heritage, buyers could opt for cargo carriers, tow packages and rooftop tents. Automakers chase those sales because they raise the transaction price and roll into the customer’s monthly payment.
The upcoming Land Rover Defender may not be the uncompromised conqueror it once was. It will adopt new approaches to adventure and exploring than the rugged models that came before it.
But the return of the nameplate, combined with traditional abilities and a more welcoming approach to interior comfort, could introduce a new generation to the fun of exploring and off-road adventure.
“Something about the Defender connects with customers,” Eberhardt said. “We want to capitalize on that.”