Land Rover Defender review: first UK drive

Published:03 August 2020

Land Rover Defender (2020) front view
  • At a glance
  • 4 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Keith Adams

Devout classic Citroen enthusiast, walking car encyclopedia, and long-time contributor to CAR

By Keith Adams

Devout classic Citroen enthusiast, walking car encyclopedia, and long-time contributor to CAR

► First UK drive of the Land Rover Defender 110
► 
Highly capable 4x4 is brilliant on- and off-road
► Is it good enough for Defender die hards? Does it need to be?

Pity poor Land Rover. Just days before the wider world's media gets it hands on one of its most important new cars in years, the world goes into lockdown, and everyone's attention is diverted to rather more pressing matters. The frustration at JLR's Coventry HQ must have been enormous – knowing it's sitting on its best product in a generation, and very few people were actually going to find out.

Fast forward five months, and with Defender sales already ramping up, the long-awaited and delayed first drives can actually take place, and we can finally answer the question that's been on everyone's lips: is the much-hyped new off-roader worthy of the Defender name, and can it really replace one of the industry's most recognisable cars of the 20th century? No big task then, eh Land Rover?

But for those who don't want to read the entire review, here's the plot-spoiling verdict summary. In material terms, Land Rover has built a vehicle with all of the off-road ability you'll ever need, and combined it with an impressively capable on-road package. In both respects, it's hit the bullseye... but then, you'd expect it to be better than the old one, given the last Defender was launched in 1990, and was a light facelift of the 1983 Land Rover Ninety/One-Ten.

The more pertinent question for enthusiasts, is whether this one has true Defender DNA coursing through its veins. Read on to find out.

What you need to know about the new Defender 

Before we get too deeply into how it drives, it's worth catching up on a little Land Rover Defender technology. Project L663 was based on JLR's D7 Premium Lightweight Architecture (PLA) aluminium platform. But for the Defender, it's been developed into the D7X (X for Extreme) monocoque, which is claimed to be three times stiffer in terms of structual rigidity than its rivals. In real terms, that means the Defender should withstand serious loadings – reflected in its off-road ability and on-road poise.

Land Rover Defender (2020) off-road view from rear, driving

It has serious off-roading covered. Approach angles are 38 degrees front and 40 rear, and it can climb a 45-degree angle and descend a 47-degree one – better numbers than the original. Wading depth is up to 900mm deep, compared with 500mm for the old Defender, and the electrical system is tested to IP67 standard – they should be able to be submerged in water for up to an hour without damage.

There's bags of tech, too, as you'd expect. Land Rover's latest electronic architecture is significantly faster than before, and now features such delights as over-the-air software updates, and an infotainment system that's swift and responsive to use. It has 85 ECUs, and they're constantly talking to each other at up to 100Mb/s – a major step forward.

If you want a Defender, you're looking at a three- to four-month wait, especially if you've been choosy with the configurator. And that's taken as read when you consider there's the base-spec Defender, S, SE, HSE, First Edition and Defender X to choose from, and each can be specced with four lifestyle packs: Country, Adventure, Explorer and Urban. You can also choose between a 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel of varying output, a 2.0 petrol and a 3.0-litre, six-cylinder petrol, all driven through an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission and dual-range 4x4. As well as that, there's an unending options list to truly personalise your Landie. 

What's it like inside? 

Land Rover Defender (2020) interior view

Inside, the Defender mixes elements of the original's functionality with the tech and equipment you expect of a modern car. There are exposed screw heads and ruggedised surfaces on the one hand, and classy-looking aluminium panels on the other. It's a well-judged mix, and if anything, is a more successful new-age reboot of the franchise than the exterior. We'd fight shy of calling it premium, but it has an aura of quality, but with a dash of ruggedness, and that strikes the correct balance.

There are some very un-Land Rover Defender-like touches now, such as padded armrests and some soft-feel surfaces, as well as the joy of that optional central front seat, which you can have in place of a very capacious central storage area and cupholders. There are storage areas everywhere inside, with deep door pockets and a dashboard shelf that'll take most of your gear on the move.  

The new Pivi Pro infotainment system is a cinch to use, being both quick and intuitive. It also – hooray! – syncs up and works with your smartphone seamlessly, too. No more wrestling with it to get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to work. Other nice touches are the ClearSight rear-view mirror for when your Defender is loaded to gunwales and the ClearSight camera set-up that allows you to see 'through' the bonnet via the infotainment screen for super-tough off-roading sessions.

In short, it'll be great for expeditions and is completely family-friendly. The ruggedised interior should shrug off anything the kids throw at it, and while it's short of being hose-clean inside (when was the last Land Rover that was?) it has a boot that'll swallow a couple of sheep, should the mood take you. Boot space goes from 231 litres with all three rows in place to 2233 litres with all the seats folded.

Best 4x4s for when the going gets tough

What's it like to drive? 

Land Rover Defender (2020) front view, driving

Our car is a D240 S stacked with around £10k of extras, none of which should affect the way it drives. Being the more powerful of the two diesels on offer, there's little wrong with the way it goes – it develops 237bhp and 317lb ft – which goes a long way to overcoming its hefty 2248kg kerb weight. On paper that translates to a 0-62mph time of 9.1 seconds and a maximum speed of 117mph – but on the road, it's more than adequate.

That's the tedious issue of performance figures out of the way – but how does it actually feel on the road? A bit of a revelation, actually. The first thing that surprises is the agility of the thing, and although it's no GTI, direct and well-weighted steering give it a positive relationship with the road, while the air suspension fitted to this model gives it a compliant ride and excellent body control. Okay, it could be argued that this is shouldn't be a Defender priority, but we're in a new world now, packed with car-based SUVs pretending to be off-roaders, and the Defender will need to swim in that pool to satisfy its owners.

Beyond that, it corners with an accuracy that will surprise you. It's easy to place, tracks bends faithfully, and we'd go as far to say as that if the road is reasonably sized, it's an enjoyable steer. Sadly, our first drive took place in the Cotswolds where the roads are cramped and packed, so we couldn't really explore too much – but it did emphasise how confidently you can place the Defender when the going gets tight.

At speed it's restful enough – there's not too much wind noise to concern yourself with, it doesn't seem to be affected by crosswinds, and the Ingenium diesel is hushed and responsive. In all, a very impressive effort, leaving us with only one question – why would you buy a full-sized Land Rover Discovery now?

Land Rover Defender (2020) rear view, driving

What's it like off road? 

We tested the Defender at Eastnor Castle, the home of Land Rover off-road development since the original Series model in the lead-up to its launch in 1948. The place is steeped in LR history, and as you'd expect, it was always going to perform strongly on its home turf. Full disclosure: it was running on semi-off-road tyres and was being tested on a course purpose-built by LR engineers, which looked impressive, gave it a decent work-out, and comprised of rutted, muddy tracks, steep, slippery inclines, and the stickiest of mud. 

The toys are all there – height-adjustable air suspension, low-range transmission, locking centre and active rear locking diffs, all mated to the company's well-proved Terrain Response and Hill Descent technology. What this means is that Land Rover says the new Defender is more effective than any other LR product, and should prove near unstoppable in the English countryside. 

And so it proves. Toggle Terrain Response and Hill Descent and then just steer and go. The Defender's electronics and hardware make expert off-road adventurers out of the most hamfisted drivers. The steering, throttle and visibility leave you feeling confident that you can get from one end of the Darrien Gap to the other without real hardship – although Eastnor, we guess, could flatter to deceive. A proper off-road test will no doubt confirm our suspicions that this will live up to the Land Rover strapline, 'Best 4x4xFar'.

Land Rover Defender (2020) off-road view, driving

If you'd like more confirmation of its off-road prowess, scroll down to read Gavin Green's off-road adventure in a Defender in Namibia.

Verdict

So, the new Defender is good. We already knew that. It is good to confirm that verdict on UK roads, not just in the countryside, but in towns and cities and on the roads that criss-cross our land. As a car to take on adventures, it certainly seems tough enough, and its off-road ability is peerless at this price point. Land Rover would never live it down if it were any other way. But most importantly, and for the toughest test of all – working out for the family – it passes with flying colours, offering space, tech and cool appeal to work on so many levels.

What it does that no Defender before has managed is to work so comprehensively well on the road. It sits comfortably on the motorway, it is playful on B-roads, and is happy in town. Specify it on air suspension, and you're invited to a world of comfort that's alien to any other Defender, while ticking the 237bhp diesel box on the configurator makes it accelerate effortlessly.

We'll not comment on the looks – that's down to your preference – but judging from the number of heads it turned on our first drive, it looks like the UK loves it and LR has nailed it. The only thing left to do is answer the question posed at the beginning: is this worthy of the Defender badge? Based on its Swiss Army Knife approach to everything life could throw at it, the answer surely is yes – as a tough off-roader that can turn itself to anything, it really is brimming with Land Rover DNA.

But is it the vehicle that so many Land Rover Defender enthusiasts ached for? Possibly not – the affordable, rugged workhorse of old, patched together with binder twine and usually with a pair of shouty Border Collies in the back is now the stuff of legend. For those of you who don't live in the countryside, here's a newsflash: Land Rover abandoned that market years ago, leaving the working replacement for so many beloved Defenders a battered Ford Ranger or Mitsubishi L200.

It's now time to move decisively on to the next chapter of the Defender story…

Read on for Gavin Green's adventure drive of the the new Defender in Namibia, back in March 2020

Land Rover Defender (2020) rear view

Land Rover (2020) driven in Namibia

► 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

  • Land Rover Defender (2020) rear view, driving
  • Land Rover Defender (2020) front view, driving
  • Land Rover Defender (2020) rear view
  • Land Rover Defender (2020) off-road view, driving
  • Land Rover Defender (2020) off-road view from rear, driving
  • Land Rover Defender (2020) interior view
  • Land Rover Defender: the full CAR magazine review (pics by Nick Dimbleby)
  • 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: first UK drive
  • Land Rover Defender review: first UK drive
  • Land Rover Defender review: first UK drive
  • Land Rover Defender review: first UK drive
  • Should you buy the new 2020 Land Rover Defender? On this evidence: yes!

By Keith Adams

Devout classic Citroen enthusiast, walking car encyclopedia, and long-time contributor to CAR

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