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2020 Land Rover Defender review: five-star performance on the road and in the mud

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2020 Land Rover Defender - tested 20/03/20
Can your car do this? The eagerly awaited new Defender is every bit as good as Land Rover's off-road pedigree might suggest - and it's no slouch on the road either Credit: Alex Tapley

Cometh the hour cometh the car. Land Rover might be struggling to launch its eagerly awaited new Defender in the current climes, but was any car ever more pertinent to its epoch? Tough as teak, up to seven seats, capable of climbing sheer mud slopes and fording waist-deep waters. As the four horsemen of the apocalypse saddle up, the new Defender looks like just the thing to keep one hoof print ahead…

Or is it? A £56 grand, 2.3-tonne, seven-seat SUV with a healthy thirst and an off-road capability that almost no one will ever use is perhaps a statement of overkill and excess that we don't need right now, particularly if it's parked on the more chi chi streets of Kensington and Alderley Edge. 

As one Land Rover dealer pointed out: “Work for these vehicles will be more about surfboards on the roof than spring lambs in the back; farmers these days have tractors which can do 60mph and six-wheel-drive Gators to get on to the high hill tops.” Indeed, Japanese rivals have pulled out of this full-size, go-anywhere SUV market, saying the numbers just don’t add up.

But unlike them Land Rover doesn’t have a range of road cars to fall back on; off-road excellence is what it does, right from 1947 when the famous sketch of the original in the sand at Red Wharf Bay set the Wilkes brothers on a path that resulted in the vehicle parked in front of me at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon in Warwickshire. 

On the road, the Defender rides and corners better than an accomplished off-roader has any right to Credit: Alex Tapley

And what a thing it is. All five metres of it, reminiscent of the old Defender’s style, liveried in a subtle play on the military drab green of that 1947 original, with a white roof that’s also a nod to the past along with thoroughly modern 20-inch wheels wearing huge off-road tyres. Look out boondocks; we’re on our way…

Why didn't they just update the old model?

While it was much loved, the old separate-chassis Defender was coming to a natural end of life. It didn’t pass diddly squat in terms of modern safety requirements and was surviving on waning legacy permissions.

Look familiar? The new Defender with a Series 1 Land Rover, which survived amazingly unchanged through two other Series cars then the first Defender from 1990 to 2016

Moreover it couldn’t be sold in vital US markets, with military and public utility contracts also coming to an end and a market worth no more than 25,000 a year, which scarcely washes its face in modern car-making terms.

So what's under the skin of the new Defender?

D7U is the name of the aluminium monocoque frame that sits under the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Discovery. The new Defender's underbody is called D7X with the X standing for Extreme, which tells you pretty much all you need to know. 

With no shared panels with any other model and reinforcing everywhere including the front and rear steel subframes, the new Defender is ready for anything. The off-road geometry is the most extreme Land Rover makes, with ground clearance of 291mm compared with 207mm for the current Discovery, approach angles of 38 degrees (Discovery 34 deg), ramp breakover angles of 28 deg (27.5 deg Discovery) and departure angle of 40 deg (30 deg Discovery). If all this seems like Greek to you, rest assured the Defender will go pretty much anywhere you dare point it.

English at work. You sit high in a Defender - and it's light years ahead of its predecessor in all respects, especially comfort Credit: Alex Tapley

Gone are the old model's antediluvian solid axles, replaced by an all-independent wishbone front and integral link rear set-up. All the 110, long-wheelbase five-door models have air suspension and the short-wheelbase 90 three-door comes with a choice of air, or coil-sprung steel suspension.

Engine choice comprises Land Rover's 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel with 197bhp or 236bhp; a 296bhp 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo petrol unit; and a 394bhp, 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbo petrol with a mild hybrid system. A full plug-in hybrid will be introduced soon. All the cars are permanent four-wheel drive with the only transmission option the ZF eight-speed automatic and a set of low-ratio crawler gears.

They used to rivet a plate saying “Solihull, Warwickshire, England” on the back of Land Rovers, but this model is made at the firm’s plant in Slovakia; “Nitra, Slovakia” doesn’t quite have the same ring. Land Rover reckons this won’t be an issue for owners, although it’ll be interesting to see if that’s the case.

Can you really hose out the interior?

To be fair, if you tried that with the old model it would be a static exhibit in no time. What Land Rover is saying is that the cabin is sponge-out rather than hose-out. With standard rubber mats (the carpet options go on top), low sills and lots of bare metal and wipe-clean plastics, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep clean.

Choosing your specification should be fairly straightforward, too, with two wheelbases (90 and 110), three models (Defender, First Edition and X, which is the six-cylinder mild hybrid), then three trim options (S, SE and HSE) and a series of accessory packs: Adventure (with an in-built compressor and rinse system); Country (wheel arch protection, mud flaps and rinse system), Explorer (roof rack and ladder) and Urban (spare wheel cover, scuff plates and alloy trim).

The Defender has the most extreme off-roading set-up of any current Land Rover product Credit: Alex Tapley

You can fill your boots and empty your wallet in the accessories brochure, with winches, raised air intakes, wearable digital keys, on-board wifi and more branded Musto clothing than a middle-aged man should wear. The vaunted commercial versions arrive later in the year with a starter price of £35,000 for the basic 90 model excluding VAT.

Wheel options are myriad, but for the aficionado, the inclusion of cream 18-inch steel wheels in another nod to the original Defender is quite simply marvellous.

Is it as uncomfortable as the old Defender?

It would be difficult to make anything as painful that painful and uncomfortable as the old Defender; thankfully Land Rover didn't try. The new car’s driving position is excellent, the pedal box welcomes welted boots and wellies and the seating and steering are adjustable. 

And if it's not the last word in comfort, the Defender is pretty cosy for a couple of hours at least. There's plenty of room in the second row of seats, although the fold-out rear pair are for occasional use only, which is why Land Rover calls the seven-seat option a five-plus-two. 

The materials are chosen for durability as well as a rugged style

You can also specify a small “jump seat” in the centre at the front (another tradition from the original Land Rover). While it doesn’t come with Isofix child-seat mountings, it’s pretty hard to resist if only for the dog.

Sitting up there, surveying the road through the shallow windscreen, there's a real sense of occasion. The magnesium-alloy dashboard is covered in squashy material like high class plumbers’ pipe insulation stitched into place, the centre of the dash has a high-mounted touchscreen and there's a somewhat confusing switch panel underneath that takes a bit of learning – they could have made a bit more drama out of the 4x4 controls. 

And just like the old Series Land Rovers there’s a useful storage tray across half the facia. It all feels profoundly up-for-it in a way that otherwise only “proper” off-roaders such as the Mercedes G-wagen or Suzuki Jimny can manage.

The optional centre console flips up to form a third occasional front seat. The dog will love it...

In the rear a massive body-supporting hoop runs behind the doors and up through the roof lights, which will preclude a chassis-cab version. This 110 five-door version has a odd-looking square styling element on the side over the rearmost door and side window. It’s optional on the 90). 

In addition there are a few that think the rear view, with its child's-game 'squarial' lamps, isn't as handsome as the front – good looking rear views have gone a bit awol at Land Rover in recent times.

Can I plug in my iPhone?

Borrowing and building on the electronic architecture of the current Range Rover models, the new Defender is indubitably up to date. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, together with a 10-inch touchscreen. It also has Land Rover's new Pivi Software, which allows the connection of two smartphones at once. 

It comes with camera, radar, and ultrasonic safety sensors for the automatic braking, lane-keeping assistance and the plethora of modern driver assistance systems. It can even update its 14 separate modules over the internet when parked. 

Even with knobbly off-road tyres, the Defender rode and cornered well during our cross-country route Credit: Alex Tapley

The facia is an all-digital affair, clearer and less cluttered than most in the JLR canon. As befits a Defender model, the Terrain Response system, which sets up suspension, locking centre and rear differentials and adjusts transmission and throttle response to suit a variety of surfaces, can for the first time be individually set up. Go there if you dare, but I can't help thinking this provides most owners with myriad ways of getting it wrong.

What’s it like on the road?

The Wolverhampton-built diesel engine goes about its work with a cheerful growl and hum through the pedals, though it’s well installed and that vibration doesn't seem to matter as much in this car as it does in other JLR models. There are no gearchange paddles on the steering wheel, just a large lever on the central tunnel which slots to the left to access manual gear shifting. 

It's well suited to country roads - and many other trails in between Credit: Alex Tapley

Once underway, the most immediate impression is one of shock. Even on knobbly, specialist off-road tyres, the ride quality is out of this world, or at least the world defined by its jolting, jumping predecessor. Sure it clambers a bit and sharp-edged bumps thump through the body, but drivers of the old Defender simply wouldn’t recognise this car – as one journalist said, “It’s really not crap enough.”

Performance from the higher power 236bhp diesel is more than adequate, with 0-62mph acceleration in 9.1sec, a top speed of 117mph, WLTP economy of 29.9mpg and CO2 emissions of 236g/km. It pulls well, there’s power for overtaking and the eight-speed automatic gearbox smoothes out the power peaks pretty effectively, although like in all its application this gearbox doesn’t kick down fast enough and you have to use the lever to stir the drivetrain into a sense of urgency.

I can vouch for the official fuel consumption, as with a distance-corrected odometer we saw 23mpg on B-roads and 32.3mpg at a steady 70mph on the motorway.

Journey's end was Land Rover's fearsome off-road centre at Eastnor Castle near Ledbury Credit: Alex Tapley

We drove a mixed country road route across the Cotswolds to Land Rover’s off-road centre at Eastnor Castle near Ledbury and the Defender felt secure in a way its predecessor never did and corners can be attacked with commitment. 

Air suspension allows the tyres to grip even on slippery, washboard surfaces, which would have the predecessor skating around like an elephant on ice. The general trait is to push straight on in corners, but it turns in to bends much better than it has a right to, with a lovely progression to the steering and superb on-centre response. And the damping control is magnificent, with a bit of initial body roll into the corners, which is ultimately limited.

Large it might be, but placing this car in tiny yellow-stone Cotswold villages is not a problem. You can see the opposite wing so there's an intuitive feeling of where the car sits and then the rest of the body flows through. The brakes, too, are well judged; powerful with a decent grab at first touch, followed by a long-travel progression so you can slow without drama.

And off the road?

Stunning. Motoring hacks often talk about travelling over surfaces you couldn't stand up in, but as you can see from Tapley's photos, Eastnor's fiendish tracks provide not only a surface too steep to stand on, but too slippery as well.

Using the Terrain Response system for mud and ruts and a bare minimum of throttle, the Defender simply rolled up these fearsome slopes, only needing an occasional bit of steering lock to gain traction.

The latest version of Land Rover's Terrain Response electronics package has effectively replaced old-school locking differentials and separate low-ratio gearboxes Credit: Alex Tapley

"These are tracks where I wouldn't be happy putting anything other than a Defender on," said Land Rover lead instructor Martin Gregory as we trundled through near-vertical slime while I searched for The Archers on the radio, where the pub is still open.

Of course the antediluvian old model could do all this, but with a great deal more effort and requiring a fair degree of knowledge and experience.

And our conclusion?

For the last 72 years Land Rovers have pushed and clambered, traversed and forded their way into our hearts. With a cabin smelling of wet dog and baler twine, an anti-tank missile, a sheep or a defibrillator in the back, the heater roasting knees, passengers jammed against the door frames, trapped fingers in stiff catches, and often breaking down at the worst possible moment, these are very special vehicles which often heralded salvation for those in peril.

This new Defender is a different sort of vehicle than that old model. It’s a highly capable SUV rather than the all-terrain utility it replaces, but while it won’t accommodate a special rear body design, I reckon it will suit about 80 per cent of the applications the old model did. What’s more, all those Discovery 4 owners who hate the new Discovery 5 now have a viable alternative.  

On the way back to Gaydon I felt quite proud of the old firm. It has taken too long over the new Defender and this is possibly the worst time in living memory to launch a vehicle, but as Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design head (who doesn’t normally hide his light under a bushel), says: “A lot of people have put their hearts and souls into it.”

And the result is not only an important and highly capable machine, but also a beautifully judged and very British car.

THE FACTS

2020 Land Rover Defender D240 S 110

TESTED 1,999cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive

PRICE/ON SALE £40,290 to £79,655 (£56,000 as tested)/now

POWER/TORQUE 237bhp @ 4,000rpm, 6,500pm, 317lb ft @ 1,400rpm

TOP SPEED 117mph

ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 9.1sec

FUEL ECONOMY 29.9mpg (WLTP Combined)

CO2 EMISSIONS (WLTP) 5 seat: 234g/km, 6 seat: 235g/km, 7 seat: 236g/km

VED £1,815 first year, then £145

VERDICT A sensational debut for this vehicle should not blind us to the shared technology under the skin. But being a beefed-up Range Rover Sport understates this car’s brilliance which lies in its combination of design, ride comfort, accommodation and go-anywhere ability. The Defender is much more expensive than the car it replaces but it’s a much more capable and versatile vehicle. Land Rover’s reliability record isn’t exactly peerless but we’ll have to give this car the benefit of the doubt - and it’s got to be better than its predecessor. And at last Discovery 4 owners will have something to replace their vehicles with; mine’s a 90 SE 240 diesel on steel suspension with steel wheels, if that’s OK…

TELEGRAPH RATING Five stars out of five

THE RIVALS

Toyota Land Cruiser, from £35,295

The all-terrain vehicle of choice for UN peacekeepers and pretty much everyone else, though we don't get the full-size Amazon version any more. If you want to go into the outback, the Aussies say, get a Land Rover, but if you want to come out again get a Land Cruiser. £35k gets you a three-door on steel wheels with 310lb ft 2.7-litre four-cylinder diesel and a base cabin festooned with huge, simple buttons. A five-door seven-seater with the same drivetrain and snazzier trim and wheels is £59,000. Pug ugly, with an old-fashioned body-on-frame construction, but super reliable and brilliant off-road, the Land Cruiser is a formidable rival to the new Defender.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class, from £94,065

Undertaking a complete redesign of the car that up to last year was largely unchanged since 1979 was similar to the task which Land Rover faced with the Defender. That Mercedes-Benz kept closer to the roots of the hand-built, military-derived Geländewagen says much about the differences in approach and resources of the two companies. Still awesome off-road and now much better on Tarmac, the G-class is very expensive and very capable.

Mitsubishi Shogun Sport,from £39,840

They closed the Shogun production line and delivered the last 700 European-spec models last year. While they mull a replacement, and this is what we get to fill the gap. It's smaller than the full-fat Shogun, tows only 3.1 tonnes and shares its body-on-frame underpinnings with the company’s L200 pick-up. Mitsubishi says that the market for full-size working SUVs is a dwindling one, although I can't help thinking the Defender might prove them wrong.

Bollinger Motors B1, from $125,000

Looks like a Defender scanned at 150 per cent in the photocopier, the B1 SUV is built in Detroit, Michigan. Two electric motors, one in front and one rear, have a total output of 614bhp and 668lb ft, which with a 120kWh lithium-ion battery pack gives a range of about 200 miles, with eight to nine hours of off-road duty. Each motor has its own gearbox, which gives a high and low range: and even in low range these beasts are capable of 68mph and 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds. Also available as a pick-up and a chassis cab. Forget Tesla's Cybertruck; if you want a working battery SUV, this is what you need.

Read more: 2020 Land Rover Defender revealed, with video

Read more: Loved by the Queen and farmers, the illustrious history of the Land Rover Defender

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