A Victory & Reseda review of the 2020 Land Rover Defender
This new SUV wears two of the classic names in off roading.
First, the name Land Rover evokes images of the British Commonwealth. Of Series IIA 110-inch wheelbase models traversing the Tanzanian countryside or stationed at a Royal Air Force base as a troop carrier. These machines wore the badge proudly as the ambassador of the UK to its far flung lands discovering new territories.
The other is Defender. The successor to the old Land Rovers. It was as unpolished and unapologetic as the ones described above. While its stablemates were more civilized, the Defender became a fashion accessory – just like a Jeep and a Hummer. Instead of working on a farm in the Cotswolds, the Defender paraded down Chelsea – or, in our case, Rodeo Drive – with shopping bags full of expensive ham and Prada shoes.
These two names have joined together in a modern SUV. One that promises a similar experience to almost every Land Rover since 1948, but in a very 21st Century package.
The 2020 Land Rover Defender debuted at the 2019 IAA show in Frankfurt after teasing us for years. The reality is a design that combined the legend of the original Land Rovers with some of the more modern ones in the recent past and a massive modernization of all of the above. It claims to be as capable as all Land Rovers before it – with impressive wading depths, four-wheel-drive systems, and a legend to live up to.
Imagine the surprise when I was informed that I would be getting a Defender to work with for this website. To have it arrive here in V&R Headquarters in Robbinsdale as Minnesota dives deep into winter. A perfect vehicle review subject to kick off the site’s 10th anniversary.
So, yes, I consider the Land Rover Discovery a very special vehicle. Not because of the name, the heritage, and the intended demographics. It simply represents a more genteel alternative to other trail masters, such as the Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota 4Runner, and the upcoming Ford Bronco.
Or, should I even include them in the conversation?
In this case, I have to take the Defender on its own merits. Because it deserves to be examined on its own.
When you look at the Defender, I immediately imagine crossing a previous generation model – the one that harkened back to the original Land Rover – with a first generation Discovery and a Range Rover. All of these represent points on Land Rover’s historic map in terms of design, capability, appointments, and performance.
The overall exterior design combines these points on the Land Rover map into a very modern off-roader for civilized people. Customers have one choice to make: Either the two-door short wheelbase model called the 90, or the long-wheelbase four-door model called the 110. Once you make that choice, you get a lot of the square-ish design elements you will find on the Defender series.
The square-ish design is the bridge between the original Land Rover and this new Defender. The exterior was enhanced by a two-tone color scheme in Pangea Green with a white roof. The roof also had a small window pane on each side above the wide c-pillar applique. Those small windows harken back to the “safari roof” of the Land Rover Series 2A and the original Discovery.
This SE tester was finished off with a set of five-spoke 20-inch alloy wheels wearing Goodyear Wrangler all terrain tires. Not to mention some plastic skid plates sitting on top of each front fender – more for aesthetics than purpose.
In all, I have to admit falling in love with this design. With the sum all of icons before it, it has the marking of a new icon for today’s off roaders.
Stepping inside of the Defender feels like you stepped into a civilized atmosphere that runs counter to the Defender’s heritage. Still, you will find some utilitarian touches, such as the deep parcel shelf on the passenger side and the big center console with a large lower storage. The exposed bolt heads also add more tough-as-nails style in contrast to the technology that is at your fingertips.
That technology includes a full screen customizable instrument cluster that is easy to read. I just wished they had a brighter setting for night driving, however. Most controls are found on the steering wheel and the center stack. Climate controls are centered on the two knobs/digital readouts dominating this control center, along with several functional buttons. You control the Terrain Response system is controlled from a switch in the middle of the control panel and to the knob on the left.
Above this control panel is the 10-inch PIVI Pro infotainment screen that houses all of the connected and entertainment functions. This where you also find out which mode you can choose from the Terrain Response system. The screen will require some learning to master. Once you do, it becomes quite fluid to work with. Once you settle in on your radio presets and connect your smartphone to your integration software, your ears will thank you. The 10-speaker Meridian audio system emits a very sweet sound.
The khaki-colored leather/woven textile front seats are a bit firm. They will relax as you get comfortable behind the wheel. You do sit high, which is great for command and vision. Rear seat room is excellent in this two-row version. There are options available for a “5+2” seating package, where two more can sit behind the second row. You can also opt for a center seat up front that folds down as an armrest.
Cargo space is very good. It all starts with a 34.0 cubic feet space behind the second row. With the second row folded down, expect up to 78.0 cubic feet of square space for many items to haul home with. This cargo space is accessible from a side-hinged upright door out back, with a real spare tire attached to it. As great I like the aesthetic of the exposed spare tire, it does impede rearward vision. The rear glass is large, but that spare tire covered about half of my rearward view.
Defender customers have two engines to choose from depending on which model you select. The 296-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is found on some models. On my 110 SE tester, a 395-horsepower 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine resides underneath the hood. This engine features a 48-volt mild-hybrid electrification system that transfers low-end performance between the electric system and the engine. The result is astounding performance and response. This engine feels stronger than most truck and SUV engines I’ve encountered in the past several years.
There is a flip side. The stop-start system is connected to mild hybrid system. I noticed a bit of a pause before the engine takes off when I am at an intersection or to do a multiple-point turn. Once the pause is over, the Defender will take off rather quickly.
This engine is channeled through an eight-speed automatic transmission to a two-speed transfer case. Shifts are smooth, as is the axle performance. The Terrain Response system stores preset information to whichever mode you dial into. Snow mode enhances the traction to all four wheels, even with the all-terrain Goodyear Wrangler tires. I found there was grip at all four corners keeping me in my lane of traffic and not anywhere else.
For this driveline, I averaged 18.2 MPG in terms of fuel economy. I was told this was considered "good" for a vehicle of this type. If that is the case, I'll take it.
Considering my experience with some off-road ready SUVs over the past few years, the Defender is a revelation. This vehicle has the smoothest and most confident ride I’ve experienced. No bucking, no diving, no soft and long shock absorption. Just smooth and well-balanced. Something I can get used to.
Cornering is mostly flat through the corners, but it will let you know when it hits the limit. Still, some gentle control will enhance the experience you have through evasive and necessary maneuvers. These brakes are very powerful, and you will feel them from the brake pedal. With that said, I found stops in normal, panic, and winter situations to be sharp and precise. The pedal feel is very good overall. It helps to have large rotors – 14.3 inches up front; 13.8 inches in the rear – and substantial calipers on this Defender to bring this 5,035 pound vehicle to a complete stop every time.
As for the steering system, I was a bit disappointed by the larger-than-usual turning radius. It is actually tighter than some other off-road ready SUVs, but I was hoping for a bit tighter. Steering feel is very good, with minimal play in the system.
It is also worth noting that this Defender can tow up to 8,201 pounds when equipped. That’s better than a lot of vehicles I can name off the top of my head – even those that compete with the Defender.
As for pricing, my 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 SE P400 tester came with a sticker price of $72,180. The base price of this specific model was $62,250 ($62,700 for 2021 model year units). There are less expensive Defenders available, such as the 2021 "base" two-door 90 starting from $46,100, as well as a "base" 110 from $50,500. You do get the turbocharged four-cylinder engine on those two models as standard.
There is no question that the new Land Rover Defender is ready to tackle the great unknown. It does so very well and presents itself as a tough mudder, river crosser, and master of the Rubicon Pass. However, it is also a genteel ride with a ready-for-anything attitude.
The one thing that delighted me about the Defender was how well Jaguar Land Rover executed this vehicle. You heard the stories about quality issues and such. I did not experience anything negative other than my impressions above. In fact, this particular tester was very well built and exuded quality all over. The “negatives” weren’t as bad as you think, truthfully. I found a lot more things that made me smile than the few things that made me cringe.
Of course, we must talk about the other elephants in the room. Sure, you can get a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Toyota 4Runner, or the upcoming four-door Ford Bronco for less money. Or, you can spend a fortune on a Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Perhaps get one of the last Land Cruisers sold on these shores for almost $10,000 or more above this Defender. Somewhere in the middle of these points on the off-road ready SUV map is a legend reborn. Why must it be in the middle when it is really a vehicle measured by its merits? Well, because the Land Rover Defender is truly worth those merits.
In all, I really liked the Land Rover Defender. Full stop.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Jaguar Land Rover North America LLC
All photos by Randy Stern