Die-hard fans of the all-conquering Land Rover Defender are hoping the new-generation vehicle coming next year won’t sacrifice ruggedness for luxury and comfort.
Jaguar Land Rover is in the final stages of developing a new version of the robust Defender SUV. It is currently testing prototype vehicles on various terrains across North America.
Executives at the British automaker insist that the redesigned Defender will be its most capable off-road vehicle ever.
But some of the iconic Defender’s die-hard fans aren’t convinced. They worry the new model will gloss over the Defender’s hardcore roots with fancy technology and posh features designed to attract wealthy buyers. Think Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon.
“I am sure that the new Defender will be very capable on and off road,” said Dennis Yard, owner of a 1993 Defender 110 and a member of the Land Rover Club of San Diego. “However, there won’t be much excitement.”
Land Rover has revealed little about the 2020 Defender. But images of prototype vehicles and interviews with executives disclose some of the expected changes.
The shape and design of the new vehicle do not appear to be exciting when compared with the in-your-face original, Yard said. And while the 2020 Defender will be packed with off-road technology and advanced powertrains, it could place too much emphasis on luxury, rather than hardcore capability, he said.
Defender fans worry the focus on luxury and technology will push the price of some 2020 Defender trims to $70,000 and up. That would exclude serious off-roaders who expect the SUV to take a beating like the original did. The Defender last sold in the U.S. in 1997. It had a starting price of about $32,000.
“It will attract those otherwise drawn to a Mercedes G-Wagen, but is not likely to flutter the hearts of die-hard Land Rover fans,” Yard said.
The 2020 Defender will differ from the previous version in many ways. Modern safety regulations, such as the need for more airbags, require the SUV to tone down its stripped-out refrigerator shape. Today’s luxury buyer expects a more comfortable ride than the bouncy, heavy original provided.
As a result, the 2020 Defender will switch from a body-on-frame truck architecture to a carlike unibody platform. Spy photographs show the prototypes use independent suspension rather than traditional live axles. The goal is to make the Defender more livable and civilized, according to Jaguar Land Rover executives and engineers.
That creates problems for off-roaders. To take the 2020 Defender on remote adventure trips requires that the SUV have high ground clearance, good wheel articulation and tough protection from rocks and boulders.
Land Rover will equip the 2020 Defender with a litany of electronic features, possibly including its Terrain Response 2 traction system, found in the Range Rover and 2020 Evoque, that enhance off-road capability. But there are also physical challenges that are difficult to navigate.
The dual radiators positioned low behind the front bumper worry Defender owners, said Keenan Alexander, owner of a gray 1987 Defender 110 in Denver. The position of the radiators makes them prone to damage from rocks and boulders. It also limits owners’ ability to modify the front bumper.
“It blows my mind,” Alexander said. “What are you supposed to do – relocate two radiators? You can’t just pull the stock bumper off and put on an aftermarket version anymore.”
Fitting heavy-duty equipment to accessible mounting points is a key component of owning a Defender, fans said. Without that option they will be restricted to less demanding routes to avoid damaging the bumper and radiators. Land Rover is working to assuage such fears. Off-roaders recently captured video of Land Rover testing Defender prototypes on difficult boulder trails in Moab, Utah.
But while the 2020 Defender may adopt an impressive air suspension similar to that of a Land Rover Discovery tested by Trucks.com, the system is not foolproof. It limits wheel articulation. There are also a number of sensors that can fail, and the suspension airbags sometimes leak.
Defender purists would prefer solid axles instead of independent suspension. They would also opt for coil springs instead of the air suspension. Defender fans hope Land Rover will replace the fancy, large wheels on prototype vehicles with smaller wheels and off-road tires more suited to the wilderness.
Alexander often takes his Defender off the grid in nearby Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. He considered adding locking axles to enhance its off-road performance but found that they simply weren’t necessary. The basic solid axles are more than capable and easy to maintain. He isn’t sure that 2020 Defender owners will be able to say the same of their vehicles.
“I’m excited to see what the new Defender looks like,” Alexander said. “But I’m not going to line up to buy one.”
A NECESSARY CHANGE
There is a vocal group of Defender purists who oppose the new direction. But every enthusiast interviewed by Trucks.com expressed excitement that the nameplate is returning. And some recognize that times have changed.
Jaguar Land Rover’s parent company, the Indian automaker Tata Motors, reported a loss of $3.8 billion in the fourth quarter of 2018. The automaker is relying on the 2020 Defender to appeal to a wider range of customers than just off-road warriors to boost sales.
“I see that they’re in a tight spot,” said Chance Geurin, a Colorado Springs, Colo., owner of a white Defender 110.
Migrating the Defender to a global unibody platform will reduce costs. So will a more streamlined production line rather than the hand-built process used for the old models. Along with the independent suspension, they are changes of necessity that shouldn’t bother Defender purists, Geurin said.
“Yes, it’s not going to be like it was,” he said. “It can’t be. But you’ve got to keep an open mind about it.”
Geurin owns a Defender 110, one of the rare original North American models produced from 1993 to 1997. He has also owned the two-door Defender 90 and the Series II and Series III predecessors. He describes himself as a dedicated fan of Land Rover. Geurin said he is trusting the automaker to do its best with the new Defender.
“If they have a decent-looking design and can prove reliability maybe they’ll take some of Toyota’s market,” Geurin said. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll get one.”