Land Rover Defender review: Gavin Green drives the new 4x4

Published:25 March 2020

Land Rover Defender: the full CAR magazine review (pics by Nick Dimbleby)
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

► We drive first all-new Defender in 72 years!
► 
The first new off-road Land Rover in decades
► Join us
 on a three-day Namibian adventure

Finally, after much talk and many aborted proposals, here is the new version of the car that started the Land Rover legend. And it looks unlike any other recent Land Rover. It’s a tough, chunky, boxy Land Rover that looks ready to conquer the world. The new Defender counters years of urban drift and luxury leanings from Britain’s best-known maker of 4x4s (as SUVs used to be known).

Land Rover, of course, forged its reputation in Africa. So, it made sense to undertake the new Defender’s first big adventure in the world’s wildest continent. Even better, we did it in one of the most remote parts of Africa’s most deserted country, Namibia.

Read on for our first proper new Land Rover Defender review.

Is the new 2020 Land Rover Defender a proper adventure vehicle?

It certainly looks the part with its squared styling. Off-road credentials look impressive, including low range, adjustable height air suspension (standard on the 110, as tested) and auto locking centre and rear diffs.

The best SUVs: CAR magazine's guide

Author Gavin Green reviews the new Land Rover Defender D240

The pleasingly functional design extends to rubber flooring, grab handles in the front and back, and a chunky exposed magnesium crossbeam that’s part of the dash and body structure. 

Our test cars had ‘expedition’ roof racks, raised air intakes for wading rivers, roof ladders and a side-mounted ‘gear’ carrier. They used chunky mud and snow tyres. The diesel D240 had steel wheels.

I suspect these will all prove popular options in West London. They were also perfect for our Namibian adventure – a 420-mile loop in the far north-west of the country.

New Defender interior and cabin

Fewer than 10 miles were on tarmac. The rest was a mix of rocky mountain passes, hard-packed sand, dunes, gravel and dry (and occasionally very wet) riverbeds.

Is it as good off-road as the old Defender?

In some areas, it’s clearly better. Wading depth is 900mm versus 500m on the old Defender (thank the height adjustable suspension). Land Rover says this is the best vehicle, off-road, it’s ever made. 

More significant than the extra capability, is the ease with which the new Defender can go anywhere. Its electronically controlled 4x4 system delivers maximum grip, effortlessly. It makes it more surefooted going cautiously and more comfortable going fast. It’s easier to drive off-road than the old Landie, if less fulfilling.

The toughened D7x aluminium monocoque is the perfect platform: it's three times stiffer than the old Defender’s chassis. 

On fast gravel or sandy roads, the new car is also much faster and more comfortable. There’s none of the beam axle bounce, body-on-frame shudder or slow steering response that made the dear old Defender a very analogue, very involving but occasionally very uncomfortable drive. All-round cameras make all-terrain prowess even easier. 

It’s early 2020 technology versus mid last century smithery, and it shows.

What about on the road?

The new Defender may look designed for the Serengeti rather than the city. Yet most buyers will be wealthy urbanites who live in the West or in China or Japan. That is the sad, unfulfilled fate of the modern 4x4. 

Will it cope in the urban jungle? Easily. Its square style and relatively compact dimensions (the 110 is a touch longer than a BMW 3-series) make it easy to thread through town. Ride comfort is excellent. Those big air springs and vast wheel travel mean it can ride the broken urban blacktop as imperiously as the QE2 conquers ocean swells.

The ride is a little busier than a Discovery’s or a Range Rover’s and there’s more wind noise too, but it’s not excessive. On the other hand, the Defender is more fun and involving on a winding B-road than its posher brothers.

Best 4x4s for when the going gets tough

The new 2020 Land Rover Defender review

Our vehicle had the D240 237bhp diesel engine (although I also sampled the top-of-the-range P400 straight-six petrol). It's the perfect engine for the car. It’s gutsy and refined, the smoothest and quietest iteration of JLR’s Ingenium diesel to date. The torquey diesel also suits the Defender’s tough off-roader image well.

Infotainment is top-notch, the best of any Jaguar or Land Rover. It’s JLR’s new system, soon to be rolled out to posher cars. To old Defender diehards these may be the devil’s work. More important, they’ll appeal to the affluent young sporty types who JLR must target.

Verdict

Replacing an iconic 72-year old car was a tough task. In many ways, it was impossible. Land Rover has judged it well. The new Defender has all the off-roading prowess (and then some) of the wonderful old Landie and mingles that with impressive on-road comfort and everyday usability.

Land Rover Defender prices: the D240 tested costs £52,070

There are enough traditional styling genes to reassure the faithful and yet enough modernity to tempt those fresh to Land Rover. Whether you’re planning an African adventure or, more likely, want a utilitarian everyday car that can carry people and bikes/skis/surfboards/fishing rods/a family etc, the Defender can deliver. 

It’s not cheap. Our test D240 110 cost just over £52,000. So, it’s not a working vehicle like the agricultural old Landie. It’s too pricey. The flipside is that its breadth of capability is astonishing, brilliant off-road and surprisingly refined on it. It looks and goes bush like a tough 4x4, and yet is also well suited to the monotonous family-car life of a modern SUV. 

Even when motoring through Surrey or Shanghai, Silicon Valley or Sydney, there’ll still be a whiff of adventure. You can sense those Serengeti genes that continue to make the Defender the definitive 4x4. In many ways, this is Land Rover’s greatest achievement.

Read on for our earlier preview ride in the new Defender, by Ben Barry back in August 2018 as engineers conducted shakedown tests


New 2020 Land Rover Defender preview

► Riding shotgun in new Defender
► What have we learned so far?
► New 4x4 hasn't gone soft

CAR was the first media outlet worldwide to hitch a ride in a prototype Land Rover Defender. We’re in the passenger seat as Andy Deeks, the new Defender’s durability and robustness programme boss, demonstrates its capabilities. Fear the Defender has gone soft? Deeks is your inside man. Land Rover isn’t just a pay cheque for him - it’s clearly a passion, and he absolutely gets why the old-timer matters.

We’re riding in a heavily camouflaged 110. It looks like a sawn-off Discovery 4 with its set-square two-box simplicity and notably short overhangs for excellent approach and breakover angles. Deeks explains that they’re still working on the wading depth, but it’ll be better than any other Land Rover on sale today, and therefore exceed the Discovery’s 900mm. That's pretty deep.

Deeks describes the new Defender test schedule as halfway between a full-size SUV programme and those used for military vehicles, making a sterner test than for any Range Rover and even the Discovery. They're keen to make sure it's tough as nails.

Keep reading for our first new Land Rover Defender preview…

Give me tech specs – what have you learned about the 2020 Defender?

The new Defender is codenamed L663 and will be based on the D7U aluminium monocoque architecture, as rolled out already for Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Discovery with independent rear suspension and longitudinal engines. You’ll get your Defender in '90-inch' (three-door) and '110-inch' (five-door) wheelbases, though we’ll have to wait for exact dimensions, weights, off-road geometries and all those specifics. No-one is saying if they’ll bring back the 130, but the mention of '90 and 110 at launch’ is perhaps a clue.

Defender prototype rear static

Both air suspension and coil springs will be offered, with the former extending by up to 75mm and lowering by 50mm – air will give the best off-road performance, coils the cheapest point of entry, though you can imagine the simplicity of coils appealing to those wanting a rugged workhorse.

There’s permanent all-wheel drive, a standard low-range transfer case, three auto-locking diffs (front axle, centre and rear axle), with the hardware depending on each engine spec (if ‘not affecting capability’, as Deeks puts it), and a choice of 18-22-inch wheels with all-terrain tyres as standard, though 21s are left off the menu and more aggressive off-road rubber will also be available up to 20 inches.

Want a look inside? The Defender’s dashboard and door casings are draped with fabric to thwart prying eyes, and the (unrepresentative) four-spoke steering wheel is disguised to look like a three-spoker. We’ve already papped a Defender’s interior here.

What did you experience as a passenger?

The rough dirt road we’re driving on wouldn’t come close to troubling an old Defender’s off-road prowess, but one thing is immediately obvious: how serenely the new Defender sails over the pockmarked surface, and how casually Deeks can twirl at the electrically assisted steering. The old car would rattle and shake, its slower steering would demand more work, but bar the odd thunk in the really gnarly stuff, the new Defender mostly glides over the bumpy surface.

As you’d expect, Deeks says the 110 rides more comfortably and is more stable thanks to its longer wheelbase, while the 90 has the better off-road capability, ‘purely down to its geometry.'

The speed at which the new Defender can cover rough ground places even greater demands on durability. ‘It’s given us a bit of a headache to be honest,’ admits Deeks, ‘because the more capable and refined the vehicle, the faster people are going to drive, and the more durable it has to be - so all our durability targets and standard requirements have been uplifted.’

Defender prototype front cornering

When asked where they’ve gained the most, on-road or off-road, without hesitation Deeks replies there are leaps across the board. ‘Versus the old car there are huge improvements in NVH [noise, vibration and harshness], off-road capability and on-composure, but without losing that core DNA of Defender,’ he says. The Defender certainly handles the ragged B-road section of our test very ably, feeling composed and comfortable where an old Defender would shimmy, bounce and clatter.

Notably, this is the first Defender to be tested at the Nürburgring. And that tells you a lot about the changing brief for next decade's new Landie.

We’ve had the standard Terrain Response system in Auto for the entire drive, and as we pass over one particularly fragmented if very short section of tarmac, it feels like the road surface has changed, only it hasn’t – the continuously variable dampers have quickly processed the surface, and adapted to smother the ripples.

New Land Rover Defender: first impressions

It’s impressive, but much work remains to be done. At the time of our ride in late April 2019, some 200 test hacks had covered around 750,000 miles.

We’ll be putting the production Defender through its paces as soon as we can after its debut later in 2019, but on this early prototype evidence it certainly looks like there are large objective gains, both on- and off-road. Undoubtedly diehards will understandably continue to mourn the old body-on-frame icon, but it must make the new Defender’s debut a little easier to stomach knowing someone as passionate as Deeks is helping guide its replacement’s development.

Check out our Land Rover reviews

Specs

Price when new: £52,070
On sale in the UK: March 2020
Engine: 1999cc turbocharged 16v four-cylinder turbodiesel, 237bhp @ 4000rpm, 317lb ft @1400rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Performance: 0-62mph 9.0sec, 117mph, 199g/km CO2 (NEDC)
Weight / material: 2133kg/aluminium
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm): 5018/2105/1967mm

Rivals

Other Models

Photo Gallery

  • We've driven the new 2020 Land Rover Defender on road and off
  • The new 2020 Defender is a five-star car in our book
  • Gavin Green drove the new Land Rover Defender in Namibia
  • Ingenium engine is a 2.0-litre turbodiesel putting out 237bhp and 317lb ft of torque
  • New Land Rover Defender interior in six-seat guise
  • Land Rover Defender dimensions: the 110 is 5018mm long, 2105mm wide and 1967mm high
  • The Land Rover Defender 110 in adventure spec
  • Defender: it's Land Rover's first new one in 72 years
  • Land Rover Defender aerial view
  • Land Rover Defender D240 review by CAR magazine UK
  • Land Rover Defender review: Gavin Green drives the new 4x4
  • Land Rover Defender review: Gavin Green drives the new 4x4
  • Land Rover Defender review: Gavin Green drives the new 4x4
  • Land Rover Defender review: Gavin Green drives the new 4x4
  • Should you buy the new 2020 Land Rover Defender? On this evidence: yes!

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience

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