From £40,4009

It promises unrivalled off-road performance with on-road niceties. But does it deliver?

Now for the real test, then. We’ve already tried the new Land Rover Defender in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth, in off-road locations where its mechanical credentials were taxed to the extreme. But not anywhere as harsh as those that really show up a car’s character: the relentless, thoughtless daily grind, the urban jungle and motorway schlep, family abuse from morning till night, the get-in-and-drive as mechanical process.

The kind of use, in short, that the Defender will undergo as any other versatilte luxury SUV would as it filters into customers’ daily lives, takes the strain of providing family transport, and sets about answering just about any need you might demand of any new car in the world. "The best 4x4 by far" really must do it all.

Although a commercial Defender 90 starst from around £44,000, it’s also possible to spend more than £100,000 on a range-topping V8 five-door before you've added options.

The new Defender is available in 90 and 110 forms, with the former only emerging into showrooms early in 2021. The engine range, which was only four options strong at launch, has expanded to encompass seven motors in all, although some are only on offer in models with starting prices above £80,000.

The meat of that engine range is now comprised of three six-cylinder, 3.0-litre diesel options (D200, D250 & D300) which offer between 197- and 296bhp, as well as a four-cylinder, 2.0-litre, 296bhp P300 petrol and the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid P400e (which adds in electric drive motors to help out that same four-pot petrol turbo engine, and to boost real-world running efficiency).

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Those with the means can also consider the Defender X P400, a mildly hybridised straight-six-cylinder petrol engine, complete with both a turbocharger and an electric supercharger, developing 395bhp and 406lb ft of torque: this is the Defender we elected to test, in tandem with the extended 110 body. And, if you've got even more niche appetites, there's also the top-of-the-line, £101,000 Defender V8 to lust after, with its 518bhp 5.0-litre supercharged V8, and advertised 0-60mph sprinting capability of little more more than five seconds as well as all of the other trademark Defender offroad capabilities.

The Land Rover Defender line-up at a glance

Grades are base, S, SE, and HSE - but if you commit to the richer and more expensive end of the Defender's engine spectrum you can also choose between Land Rover's X-, XS- and X-Dynamic editions, as well as the range-topping V8 and V8 Carpathian editions if you so choose. Base cars gets steel wheels, fabric trim and analogue dials; S adds part leather, alloys and digital dials; SE has different wheels, full-powered seats and a camera in the rear-view mirror; and HSE means full leather, sunroof and heated steering wheel. Sound systems and driving aids take a walk upwards through the range, too. Land Rover's XS edition is mostly about adding standard equipment, whereas the X- and X-Dynamic models mostly add interior and exterior styling kit.

The 'hard top' commercial versions of the car, meanwhile, also come in both 90- and 110 bodystyles, but they have lesser equipment specification and can only be had with Land Rover's mild-hybrid diesel engines.  

X and the P400 engine are exclusive to each other; kit is closest to HSE. The D200 can’t be an HSE. The base trim can only be a D200.

MORE ON THE LAND ROVER DEFENDER

Land Rover Defender 90 V8 2021 UK review

Land Rover Defender 110 SE D300 2021 UK review

Return of the V8 Defender: Supercharged Land Rover Defender V8 video review

First drive: New 2021 Bowler Defender Challenge racer

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DESIGN & STYLING

Land Rover Defender 2020 road test review - hero side

An old Defender, like a classic Mini, would have looked novel to our eyes once but is as comfortable as old slippers now. So reinventing such an icon is a fraught business. Certainly, Land Rover didn’t know how to do it for quite some time.

But as with the Mini or Fiat 500, the time has come. The basics that served the original Land Rover well have, to an extent, been maintained on this new model. The windscreen is as upright as crash regulations and aerodynamic efficiency will allow (the Cd is 0.40), and there are relatively flat flanks, a low window line and a bluff rear end with side-hinged door, on which the full-sized spare wheel is mounted.

Box on the side can carry 17kg and is meant for grim things you wouldn’t want in the cabin. You can have none, one or even two if you don’t want steps to the roof (although we would).

And the body is still aluminium. Beneath the Defender sits a variant of Jaguar Land Rover’s D7 architecture, which provides the basis for all of its longitudinal-engined vehicles (and the electric-only Jaguar I-Pace).

There are shared modules with other JLR products, then, but with the D7x suffix, here the platform is more rugged than ever. The Defender’s bonded and riveted body-in-white is unique to this car and, with steel subframes front and rear, it sits higher than any other Land Rover.

Its towing limit is 3500kg (3700kg in the US) and its wade depth is up to 900mm on air springs. JLR says this car is a 4x4 and not an SUV, and although it’s not a distinction we tend to make ourselves, we know what it’s getting at.

What the new Defender cannot do and the previous one did so ably was to have exceptionally compact dimensions: crash regulations and a technology overload – plus deigning to make its occupants comfortable – have put paid to that. In this long-wheelbase 110 form, the Defender is a 5018mm-long car. The 90 takes half a metre off of that, making it a similar length to an old 110.

We also expect a 130, with more body behind the rear wheels, and commercial versions of all three, with a 900kg payload. Land Rover admits that a pick-up would be “technically possible” but one won’t come. The Defender departed the trad pick-up market long ago, JLR is too small to re-enter it and the Defender is a premium vehicle. Prices for 110s start at £45,000, but this X-trim-only P400 model starts at all but £80,000.

INTERIOR

Land Rover Defender 2020 road test review - cabin

It feels like Land Rover has aimed for an interior that straddles both luxury and utility. No easy task, but it has pretty well nailed it. That there are exposed sections of body colour and star-head bolts, a big broad slab of dashboard with grab handles and a dinky instrument binnacle all evoke the original Defender, but that wouldn’t recognise the material quality and the fit and finish of its construction.

There are fewer obviously plush surfaces than you’ll find in a Range Rover or Land Rover Discovery, or the most luxurious among its SUV competition (say, an Audi Q7 or Volvo XC90), but material choices lift it above a Jeep Wrangler, even a Toyota Land Cruiser, and it feels airy and spacious instead of basic.

Instead of you buying rear-seat entertainment built in, Land Rover gives the option of a tablet holder and a USB power socket, so you can bring your own. Much more sensible.

As well it might. At 2105mm across the mirrors, this is a wide car, with a cabin spacious enough, if you spec it, for a middle jump seat between the two regular front chairs. They’re as broad and welcoming as it isn’t, but for kids or short hops, it’d do a job – although we imagine it’ll spend most of its time folded flat, where it creates a broad centre console.

The driving position is upright and accommodating, the steering wheel huge and visibility fantastic. You can see to the extremes of the bonnet, and big windows and large door mirrors make side visibility strong, although rear vision is hindered mildly by the tailgate.

Rear passengers get as good a deal as the driver, with big seats and masses of head and leg room. Behind them is a boot with a narrower opening than top-hinged rivals, but there’s plenty of space in there, and you can specify two seats in it, too, although we haven’t had a chance to sit in them.

Land Rover Defender infotainment and sat-nav

When Land Rover tells you it has created a new-generation infotainment system, you’d be forgiven for being concerned. This is a company whose entertainment, information and communications systems have routinely not just been second best to almost everyone else’s but also more prone to bugs and the whole ‘turn it off and on again’ routine. No word yet on the reliability of this new system but, for the first time, we’re able to tell you that it’s now really, honestly, as good as anyone’s.

The climate controls remain as physical dials (praise be) and frequently used systems can be accessed via haptic-feedback, variable-function steering wheel buttons. The rest are accessed via a touchscreen that responds quickly and is laid out sensibly. Or it will mirror your phone and do what you need that way

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The Defender offers a number of internally combusted drivetrains, with a plug-in hybrid to follow next year. For now, though, there are D200 (197bhp) and D240 (236bhp) 2.0-litre turbo diesels, a 2.0-litre P300 (296bhp) turbo petrol and this, the P400 (395bhp), which has a mildly hybridised inline six-cylinder petrol engine. All are from Jaguar Land Rover's Ingenium engine range and all drive through an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox to all four wheels, although there’s a low-ratio final drive, too.

The P400’s combustion is augmented by a twin-scroll turbocharger, then, plus a gentle 48V hybrid system. It never drives on electric power alone, but a starter/ generator assists take-off, and an electric supercharger torque-fills to minimise turbo lag below 2000rpm and ease some of the 3.0-litre straight-six’s burden.

Among the aero-friendly features, the headlight surrounds and tail-lights contain little indents and shelves where, appropriately, dust and grime can accumulate

It’s an exceptionally smooth engine, with solid response and a hefty dose of torque, too. The claim is that the hybrid system reduces CO2 by 6g/km, although given a P400 will still only officially return between 23.3mpg and 25.2mpg on the WLTP cycle and just about matched that during our on-road tests, it’s not setting the world alight.

Neither may its performance. As we write, we can’t get into a Defender to attach our timing gear to it, but while we’ve previously found JLR products will match their claimed 0-60mph times – 6.1sec in this case – they don’t do it so easily or repeatably as, say, Porsches or Audis, and they don’t feel as quick as the numbers suggest, and that’s true here. The quoted 2388kg kerb weight, before options, won’t help.

RIDE & HANDLING

Land Rover Defender 2020 road test review - on the road front

A full five-star rating in this section, because Land Rover has absolutely nailed the way the Defender drives.

As is the norm, JLR’s engineers benchmarked all sensible competitors before developing this new car. That included the original Defender and they concluded that, for all of the old car’s faults – and they were no less aware of them than anyone else – and even though the ride was a disaster, it remained a relatively engaging drive. Ditto the Jeep Wrangler was not a great road car but had a likeable honesty. So one of the elements they tried to keep intact was a car that’s both capable on and off road yet honest and characterful to drive.

Ask engineers what their choice version is and they will often go for the lightest variant with the simplest mechanicals. With the Defender, more seem to pick a 110 with air springs over anything else.

They’ve got all traits sorted. The steering is smooth, linearly responsive and well geared at 2.7 turns between locks. Pedals are easily modulated and the driving position, being high, means there is no pretence of sportiness, and nor should there be. But nevertheless, the Defender has an exceptionally flat and composed ride, a terrific capability of both body control and yet ride compliance for a car of this size and height.

Around town, you might think the Defender’s girth stands against it but its visibility makes parking it as easy as a car of this size is going to be, and that you can easily judge the sides makes it more manoeuvrable and confidence-inspiring than, say, an Audi Q7.

As the road opens and speeds rise, there’s some roll evident, clearly, but its rate is pleasingly controlled and the body deftly damped when the Defender is leaning, so there’s actually a degree of fun and no small amount of engagement to be had.

Off road, all of these traits make the Defender not just a very capable car but also a supremely easy one to drive. The Terrain Response system adjusts things like throttle response and the effectiveness of the stability control, but most of the time it doesn’t matter too much what mode you put it in. With myriad external cameras and even wade depth detection depending on which Defender you pick, its driver can challenge terrain with more confidence and with less getting out to inspect the surroundings.

Its 38deg approach, 28deg breakover and 40deg departure angles, and up to 291mm of ground clearance with the air springs extended, see it around the top of whichever class you like. With the caveat that, like sports cars, different off-roaders can specialise in certain obstacles, Land Rover is not kidding when it says the Defender is a 4x4.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Land Rover Defender 2020 road test review - hero front

All of this capability comes at a price. Choose a base Defender 110 at £45,000 and it is not poorly equipped but, by the time you have a strong engine or pick from one or two choice options set-ups, it’s rather easy to be looking at a bill that starts with a six, seven, or worse. At once, that makes it expensive but also puts it into an area where obvious rivals are more difficult to find.

More concerning, Land Rover is accustomed to performing poorly in customer satisfaction surveys (it finished 31st out of 31 in the 2019 What Car? Reliability Survey), although Land Rover does say – as it would – this time it’s different. It’ll be some time before we know for sure, but until then you can know it’s an expensive car that uses a lot of fuel.

Depending on tax circumstances and mileage, we’d have a D240 or a P300. A base S model with a few choice packs – the extended off-road one and a towing kit, plus a few other niceties – can still come in at under £60,000.

 

VERDICT

Land Rover Defender 2020 road test review - static

We have tested the new Land Rover Defender’s capabilities both on road and off road and at no time has it been found wanting. Its brilliance as a 4x4 is without question. The ease with which it performs in the wild makes it almost feel like it’s built for people who don’t like off-roading. It’s like using a pneumatic nail gun rather than a hammer: it wants to make the task as straightforward as possible.

But remarkably, while a Toyota Land Cruiser or Jeep Wrangler or Ford Ranger Raptor can feel compromised on the road as a result of their adventuring capabilities, the Defender remains quiet, pliant and, in short, good fun to drive.

World-class capability. Brilliant on and off road, at a price

That’s what marks it out as an adventuring vehicle. Whether your adventure comprises a day trekking through forests, traversing your farmland or a building site, or is just a solid day of school run followed by motorway schlep to a meeting, you’ll get out of it less tired than you would any of its rivals. Draw up a list of the most broadly capable cars in the world and the Defender would sit comfortably in the top three. It costs and it’s thirsty, especially in this form, but it’s a triumph.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Land Rover Defender First drives