The new Land Rover Defender is on the offense.
The first vehicle to carry the name in the U.S. since 1997 is a thoroughly modern machine that’s very different than recent retro reboots like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the upcoming Ford Bronco.
Unlike the original Defender, which was a body-on-frame truck with solid axles that was sold in other countries through 2016, the new one features an aluminum unibody and fully independent suspension. That doesn’t mean it’s gone soft, even if its standard air springs are. The midsize premium SUV was engineered for extreme off-road duty.
(Note: We tested a 2020 model due to its late availability, but the 2021 version is identical.)
It’s launching as the four-door Defender 110, while a two-door Defender 90 will follow later this year. In the old days, the numbers indicated the lengths of the wheelbases, but the new versions are each a good bit longer.
The previous Defender was a body-on-frame truck.
The Defender borrows its flared fenders, a bulging hood, round headlights — now under angry eyebrows – and a raised safari roof with alpine windows from its forebear, but has hints of the LR4.
Inside it presents a more utilitarian style than Land Rover’s other models, with lots of storage cubbies, power outlets, easy-clean composite flooring instead of carpet and an optional center front jump seat, but has just enough of an upmarket feel to justify its $51,850 starting price. A small two-seat third row is available to fill the large 34-foot cargo area but can’t be combined with the jump seat.
Three-across front seating is available.
The Defender’s standard engine is a 296 hp turbocharged four-cylinder, but there’s a much more interesting option at a $64,050 entry price. It’s the Jaguar Land Rover family’s new mild-hybrid 3.0 inline-6-cylinder, which will likely go down as one of the last great powertrains of the internal combustion age. Along with a small electric motor for instant response when you hit the accelerator, it has an electric supercharger and a turbocharger to keep the power coming across the rev range and provides a V8-like 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque while getting 19 mpg combined, which isn’t impressive but is 1 mpg more than the four-cylinder’s rating. An 8,201-pound tow rating is a nice consolation, though.
The great-sounding power is sent to the ground through a full-time all-wheel-drive system with center and rear locking differentials, plus a low range setting for the really rough stuff and a rogues gallery of Terrain Response traction control modes that cover every surface from snow to sand to rocks and help it manage slippery slopes as steep as 45 degrees, according to Land Rover.
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The Defender has a nominal ground clearance of 8.5 inches, but the air suspension can jack that up to 11.5 inches, which is more than any of its competitors, including the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, and allows it to wade through 35.4 inches of water. It can also drop to 5.5 inches, however, so you don’t need a step stool or gangplank to disembark.
On pavement, where many Defenders will spend much if not all of their lease durations, it’s comfortable and composed, but just vague and tippy enough to remind you that you’re in a tall off-roader. The boxy body and all-terrain tires conspire to make a little more wind and road noise than you’d get in a Range Rover, but after several hundred miles I was never worse for wear.
The Defender can be equipped with a full suite of driver aids for the street that includes automatic emergency brakes, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control, and has just as many electronic features for off-roading.
In addition to hill descent control and low-speed cruise control that operates at a walking pace, the Defender offers a 360-degree camera system that creates a virtual view of what’s under the front of the vehicle so you know exactly where to place your tires among the ruts and rocks. It can also be ordered with ultrasonic sensors in the bottom of the side mirrors that can determine the depth of the water you’re driving through and display it on the central touch screen. It can’t predict what’s ahead, but at least you know when things are getting too deep and need to reverse course. I had to do that once when I got stuck in a deep and sandy mud puddle that came up to the doors but didn’t find its way through them.
The Defender is also fitted with full underbody protection and an exhaust system tucked up as safe as can be inside of it. I didn’t get to challenge it with any boulders, but the coverage is extensive that when I was done with a long day of mudding in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the engine bay was clean as a Land Rover dealer’s waiting room. The last time I took a Jeep Wrangler to the same spot, its V6 was so caked with dry mud when I was done that it looked like it was made out of clay.
The Defender seems to be of much stouter stuff than pottery. While Land Rover doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for reliability, and the new Slovakian factory where the Defender is built alongside the Discovery much of a history to go by, my example had been inflicted to 5,000 miles of testing by automotive journalists and there wasn’t a screw or line of computer code out of place.
Rear and side visibility could be better, especially with the tailgate-mounted spare tire and oversized square vanity panels that extend past the roof pillars behind the rear doors, but a digital rearview mirror with integrated video feed helps.
Perhaps my main complaint about the Defender is that none of its many cup holders, including the slots in the door, are large enough for big water bottles. There is one sized for a can of Red Bull in the center console, however. This is an important topic, because the Defender is the kind of vehicle you’ll want to drive until you get thirsty.
It’s not hard to option a Defender up over $90,000 if you get crazy with the leather and lengthy list of accessories, which includes a roof rack and ladder, air snorkel, air compressor and exterior cargo boxes that sit on the side windows like motorcycle panniers, but they’re not just for show.
This SUV is ready to take on the world. Literally.
Land Rover Defender 110
As tested: $72,780
Type: 4-door, 5-passenger all-wheel-drive SUV
Engine: 3.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged hybridize inline-6-cylinder
Power: 395 hp, 406 lb-ft
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
MPG: 17 city/22 hwy