First Drive: Land Rover Defender Makes Off-Road SUV Segment Competitive

October 11, 2020 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

The Land Rover Defender sold in the U.S. for just five years more than two decades ago, yet the rugged SUV remained relevant because of its prominent placement in film and its storied history as an off-roader.

Jaguar Land Rover reintroduced the Defender to the U.S. market earlier this year. It’s an excellent choice for drivers who will venture into the dirt. 

SUVs now account for about 50 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. There are many great offerings. Some, like the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade, are spacious people movers. Others, such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4, are excellent suburban utility vehicles and with all-wheel-drive work well in inclement weather.

Until now, only the Jeep Wrangler outshone all others off the pavement, whether cresting sand dunes or crawling up a rocky hill. But even after its recent redesign, the Wrangler is not a great vehicle for long road trips. Jeep has dramatically improved the interior and many amenities, but there’s still too much cabin noise. And the suspension – optimized for off-road driving – tosses up a few too many bounces on the highway.

The 2020 Land Rover Defender, however, fills the gap. tested the vehicle recently over almost 300 miles of driving on remote mountain roads, busy highways and trekking in the California desert just north of Mexico. The Defender did everything well.

Land Rover has engineered a suspension that provides a decent, smooth ride on the highway and can also inch its way up a rocky chasm. The vehicle drives through twisty mountain curves with an acceptable touch of body roll and snakes equally well across dunes.

Still, it is not the SUV for everyone. Don’t buy this car for the Defender badge. Buy it if you have the combination of the following needs. You will drive it off the pavement and you want a decent ride for commuting and hauling your family around.

It’s so common to see Range Rovers – the Defender’s upscale sibling – Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUVs and tricked out Wranglers cruising the streets of Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Miami and other cities. That’s all they do. People purchase these vehicles to make a statement but they never once venture off the blacktop. Why waste money on great off-road capability you are never going to use?  

Sadly, the Defender also is likely to become a favorite of posers – people who want to look cool but don’t have the slightest idea why their vehicle’s transmission has a low setting.

But for those who do want to hit the dirt, the Defender makes it easy. tested a 2020 Defender 110 SE. The starting price is $62,250 plus another $1,350 for the delivery fee. The model came with an additional $9,000 of options, most of which you don’t need. One is a must – the Advanced Off-Road Capability pack for $750. Another $1,345 Off-Road Pack includes an electronic active differential and off-road tires to help drivers get the most out of the vehicle. The Wrangler Rubicon is close to this configuration, but less expensive. It has a sticker price of $42,440 plus a $1,495 delivery fee.

The advanced off-road pack provides six different settings to match driving conditions. Each makes it easier and safer to drive. There’s Comfort for everyday driving. The other settings are Grass/Gravel/Snow for slippery conditions, Mud and Ruts, Rock Crawl, Sand and Wade for water fording. Wade was the only setting did not test because there was no water in the desert, but the vehicle can ford water 35 inches deep.

The new Defender has other features critical for off-roading. The air suspension adjusts the vehicle from normal ride height to a higher off-road setting. The transfer box allows drivers to switch from high range for daily driving and special situations like sand dunes to low range for most off-road driving.

The test Defender was equipped with a 6-cylinder gasoline engine that produces up to 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a well-executed 8-speed transmission. The Defender has a tow rating of 8,200 pounds. Land Rover also offers a 110 with a smaller 4-cylinder turbocharged engine that produces up to 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.

For the 2021 model year, Land Rover will sell a 90 model, which will have a shorter wheelbase and come standard with the smaller engine. It starts at $46,100 plus a delivery fee. The line increases in price to more than $80,000 depending on configuration and options. 

A third player is about to come into the market — the reborn Ford Bronco. Like the Defender and the Wrangler, the Bronco is designed to shine in the dirt. These vehicles’ resurgence highlights how one segment of auto consumers see their vehicles as equipment for an active lifestyle rather than mundane transporters. The Land Rover Defender is a good choice for those buyers. Competition from Jeep and Ford will make the offering in this segment even better.

Jerry Hirsch July 29, 2019
The redesigned 2020 Subaru Outback is sure to please previous owners of a versatile vehicle that is capable on pavement and off-road.

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