Land Rover Defender 2020
launch-review

2020 Land Rover Defender review

International first drive: Namibia

Rating: 8.5
$69,990 $137,100 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    9.9L
  • Engine Power
    294kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    235g
  • ANCAP Rating
    N/A
Beyond those somewhat familiar looks, the 2020 Defender is completely new. Does it carry on the proud traditions of England's famous off-roader?
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The time has come: CarAdvice has been granted special permission to drive the all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender. It’s not just a quick fang around a manicured block, either. We’re sliding into the next generation of this iconic nameplate in the wild, northern reaches of Namibia.

A small selection of international media will have three days' worth of seat time, and there are some challenging conditions on the menu: rivers, rocks, mountains, sand and corrugations. Perfect, then, for Land Rover’s returning off-road legend.

Legend. Icon. Terms one should not use lightly, but this new Defender has got some mighty big boots to fill, too. Since 1948, Land Rover’s original and most focussed 4x4 has carved out an enduring reputation for capability, utility and durability.

Although loved by many, the original Defender was often appreciated from an arm’s length. The design was positively archaic, with parts and design that link it directly to the very first post-war model.

Regardless of how good it was off-road, the original model was an acquired taste on-road. Along with being unsafe for occupants and pedestrians alike, the Defender also ranked low in terms of technology, comfort and refinement.

After a four-year sales hiatus, the Defender is back. And after such a long history of stasis, the 2020 Defender has been comprehensively re-imagined.

The Defender will return to Australia in the middle of 2020 in five-door '110' format, with the short-wheelbase three-door Defender 90 to follow later in the year. Pricing is indicated to start from $69,990 for the 110, with 90 pricing yet to be announced.

There’s no shortage of options and accessory packs to choose from, along with six spec levels: 110, S, SE, HSE, First Edition and X. At the top of the tree, you can blow 135-large on an optioned-out Defender will all of the fruit.

Pricing is certainly higher than the old model, but Australian-delivered models get a generous list of standard specification: air suspension (other markets have coil springs), 10.0-inch infotainment with digital radio and smartphone mirroring, surround-view camera, autonomous emergency braking, keyless entry and push-button start, dual-zone climate control, automatic LED headlights and wipers, lane-keep assist and trick ‘Defender’ puddle lamps.

We’ve got two variants of the new Defender to sample: a diesel 177kW/430Nm Defender 110 D240, and a petrol 294kW/550Nm Defender 110 P400 with a 48V mild hybrid system. These have starting prices of $75,900 and $95,700 each, but both have been outfitted with extra kit.

MORE: Defender 110 pricing and specs

Nothing superfluous, by the way: roof rack, snorkel, ladder, electric winch and side storage case. Plus, they’ve all got Land Rover’s most aggressive tyre option: Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs.

Trying to replace something so targeted, so unique, so loved and recognised, is fraught with danger. The Defender was always 100 per cent about off-road and hard work, but shortcomings spewed forth thick and fast.

Corners demand to be taken precariously in an old Defender, and conversations must be tackled with vigour. Ergonomics? Steering wheel adjustment? Safety? Infotainment? Afraid not, guv'nor.

Open the window, poke your elbow, flick on the crackly radio and start rowing through the gears. I dare you to not grin uncontrollably.

Likeable antique appeal isn’t enough for commercial success, however. The new Defender needs to grow its overall appeal – attack the mainstream and fight its way onto the consideration list beyond rusted-on Roverphiles. That means those things it once laughed at – refinement, comfort and safety – need to be taken seriously.

Can you be truly adept at two polar-opposite disciplines? Can you maintain all of that off-road heritage and cred, while also competing with the broader 4WD and SUV market? Land Rover says yes. A proper attempt at it meant the design needed new ideas, and an injection of hybrid vigour. Land Rover needed to change the recipe.

And boy, oh boy, didn’t it go in guns blazing. While the Defender was once firmly entrenched in that hallowed sanctum of live axles and ladder chassis, Land Rover has torn down that temple and built anew.

Firstly, the steel ladder chassis fell victim to a new aluminium monocoque platform called ‘D7x’. It’s similar to what you’ll find underneath a Discovery or Range Rover (D7u), but it’s beefed up with special steel subframes, stronger suspension components, and multiple uprated driveline parts.

Live axles make way for independent suspension – double-wishbone front and integral-link rear. While coil springs are available in other markets, Australian-spec 110s get the cross-linked, height-adjustable air springs as standard.

Some familiar, key ingredients remain: a low-range transfer case behind the ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox. Permanent all-wheel drive also remains, and the locking centre differential is now joined by a rear locker. While the Defender was once manual only, it’s now the other way around.

In that quest to modernise the icon, the new Defender gets the full suite of Land Rover’s off-road electro-wizardry at the ready. Terrain Response is standard fare, but you can go the full enchilada with newer Terrain Response 2.

Along with the usual mix of driving modes (Grass/gravel/snow, mud/ruts, sand and rock), the more advanced system gives you configurable terrain response, wade aid, all-terrain progress control and an auto function.

While certainly reminiscent of the old design, the look of the new Defender is very much its own. It’s a bold and modern take on that iconic silhouette, with smatterings of historical cues: alpine lights, a flat back, rear-mounted spare, and that hip line.

Without burdening you with my own opinion (I'm sure you've made up your mind), I’ll say it is much more impressive to behold in the flesh than in pictures.

This new Defender is gunning for a five-star NCAP (and ANCAP) safety rating, and the team seem confident they will get it. That means advanced active safety, consideration for pedestrians, crumple zones and driver warnings all need to be included in the design. The old Defender literally had none of those. If it were tested to today’s standards, it would probably get minus five stars.

The drag coefficient of the old Defender is a relatively brutal 0.62. New, on the other hand, starts from 0.38. That's much slipperier thanks to a host of tricks and tiny details. Sure, they could have done more, but they still needed to keep that Defender look intact.

Sliding into the interior, the first thing you notice is the dashboard design. It’s simple, uncluttered and dominated by the one-piece magnesium plate right across the front. It’s a structural piece, by the way, and very reminiscent of pre-1971 interiors.

No mean feat when you consider all of the safety they need to pack in. The long parcel shelf, terminating in grab handles at each end, also screams Tdi and Td5 vintage Defender to me.

The 10.0-inch infotainment display is very un-Defender, as are the dual-zone climate controls and electronic gearstick mounted onto the dashboard. It’s an enticing mix of old and new – paying respects to the past, while also getting with the times. Pared back, but also premium-feeling.

That infotainment unit, by the way, is a completely new system that debuts in the new Defender. It’s got maps, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, digital radio and software updates over the air. It’s a nice clean design, as well, fast to respond and easy to use. There’s a huge amount of features packed into it, however, and many of which are hiding behind menus and buttons. Take your time to get to know it.

Both petrol and diesel engines fire into life almost unnoticeably from inside, the modern Ingenium power plants and active engine mounts emitting nowhere near the rattles and vibrations of previous iterations.

Chuck on the seatbelt, shift that eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox into D (the electric park brake releases automatically), and you’re moving.

Before we get on to the driving, a few notes on interior practicality: storage is good, with the entire dashboard acting like a shelf for your bits and bobs. Depending on your configuration, you’ve got two-storey storage fore of the decent-sized centre console.

If you opt for the jump seat up front, there’s less overall storage, but you still get two cupholders. The door bins are decent, and there is a litany of power outlets – 12V, USB and even USB-C.

The relatively long wheelbase (3022mm or 118.9 inches, despite the 110 label) affords good space and comfort in the second row, with good head room and leg room. There are additional power outlets here, as well, along with air vents and controls.

Behind the second row you've got a good-sized load area, almost square in dimensions and measuring 1075L up to the roof. Drop the second row down (they go almost flat) and you've got 2380L. The Defender is a long unit at 5018mm, and you can feel it through the amount of available space.

The first thing you notice about driving the new Defender is, for the breed, an utterly ridiculous level of refinement. Beyond that, its refinement levels easily equal other high-end offerings.

The powertrains remain quiet, with barely any engine noise getting into the cabin, even under heavy loads. The lightweight electric-assisted steering feels easy and responsive, and visibility from the driver’s seat is good.

Both powertrains we drove were effective in their own way. The petrol engine wins on outright power and urgency, revving happily and hard for an indicated 6.1-second 0–100km/h time. The diesel is no slouch either, as peak torque arrives at 1400rpm. It's a surprisingly happy revver, as well, with frequent visits to 4000rpm no problem for the oiler.

In both instances, the ZF eight-speed gearbox provides familiarly smooth and painless operation. It's a popular choice amongst high-end applications for a good reason: it's a top-shelf gearbox.

It was hard to get a good gauge on fuel efficiency during our time, mostly because we spent plenty of time either crawling in low-range or churning through sand. Although, it's worth noting during this that the petrol-powered Defenders were using almost twice the amount of fuel in comparison to diesel.

Our experience of on-road driving was extremely limited, as blacktop is in short supply around northern Namibia. We got multiple servings of rough, rocky, corrugated and undulating unsealed roads punctuated only by sweeping bends, harsh washouts and goats.

In these conditions, the Defender’s steering and suspension proved to be superb. The steering has sharp reactions from off-centre inputs, which is quickly followed by a responsive and playful rear end. You quickly gather confidence behind the wheel, regardless of the fact you’re piloting pre-production units in remote areas with a hideously high price tag.

The suspension is even more impressive. You’d be fooled into thinking the roads only looked bad, because the ride was so adept at handling potholes and corrugations.

Plow too hard into a washout (like we did a few times), and you’re greeted by a flat and composed bump control unfazed by the big event. It’s seriously good, and right up there with the Ranger Raptor for these kinds of conditions. I can't think of another 4x4 wagon that rides as well.

These are all attributes absolutely alien to the original Defender, I think you’ll agree. It's thanks mostly to all of the underbody technology and complexity that is equally foreign. Land Rover has done a brilliant job dialling in an enjoyable drive that feels so engaging. The only real negative about this new Defender is that it loses that outright mechanical simplicity of the old model.

Off-road, a 4x4 needs a handful of things to be good: clearance, traction and stability. And when you read through the specs, like 291mm ground clearance, 38° approach, 28° rampover and 40° departure angles, locking rear and centre differentials, and cross-linked air suspension with half-metre articulation, all of the ingredients are there.

In our testing, the Defender proved to be very good. Van Zyl’s Pass, near the Angolan border, is your textbook rutted, rough and shaly mountain track where you can only alter your line slightly, and you need to let the car do the hard work. The Defender ate this up calmly and comfortably, exhibiting all of those trademarks of a good off-roader.

Land Rover pioneered Terrain Response back in 2005; a specialised and configurable off-road traction-control system that has since been copied by many. Land Rover’s latest iteration is noticeably effective in the new Defender.

Sand mode, for example, sees the Defender hold its gear right up to the upper rev range, and stability control takes a longer time to kick in. The throttle tightens up, as well, giving you that surging momentum you often need in soft sand.

Conversely, rock mode dulls the pedal right off and clamps down on wheel spin aggressively, allowing you to slowly crawl through obstacles much easier. Also controlling the two locking differentials, Terrain Response 2 is one of the best, if not the best, off-road traction-control systems out there.

The only real negative that turned up was the overzealously tuned brakes, which proved difficult to feather in technical, low-speed crawls. The pedal felt too switch-like, making smooth progress tricky.

When our path to camp was blocked by a surging river fed by record rain, we were forced to improvise the plan. Backtrack on a massive loop on dirt tracks? Bugger that, let's cut a new track in a narrow tract of land between said river and a tall and barren mesa.

Soft rocky hills slowly evolved into steep ravines, where we tacked like a yacht trying to find a passable route. The sun went down and our ETA of 5:30pm quickly turned into 9:30pm.

Classic, right? Normally this sort of thing happens on my own hare-brained trips, but it’s a rare occurrence on press events. Typically, these kinds of first-drives are premeditated, planned and executed with numbing precision, meaning nothing outside of the plan has a chance of happening.

Not this time. We had no track to follow, or any idea of what lay ahead. Dougie our trip leader told us there was 27km between us and a G&T (naturally), and we had to take it on whatever lay ahead.

There were some hairy moments and proper challenges. Cars churned against rock, dragging up clouds of soft, silty dirt around them. Reverse back, adjust your line, add a pinch of momentum, and try again.

The terrain got steeper, forcing us right down to the river bank at one point. Other than back-tracking, our only option was clambering into a washed-out ravine, and hard on the throttle for momentum and traction.

I wasn't sure the convoy would be able to do it – a rare feeling on press events. I was proved wrong.

All of this driving really put the Defender to the test. We weren’t babying the cars – we had no choice.

And although some carried wounds of flat tyres and heavy bush pinstriping, we all made it into camp grinning like kids and congratulating each other. I dodged the gin and grabbed a beer. Damn, it tasted good.

Although it’s inevitable, you can’t spend too long comparing the old and new Defender against each other.

While the old model holds a special place in many hearts, the cold light of day shows the next-generation Defender is significantly better across the board. In fact, this new model puts many other new 4WDs on notice in terms of overall ability.

If you still want an old Defender, that's fine. It’s off to the classifieds, and don’t forget to set aside some coin for the required repairs and refurbishments. Not that it's a bad thing; I still love the old Defender. More than I probably should.

Old has something that new will never have, and that’s rugged mechanical simplicity. Simple suspension components, old-tech drivelines, and significantly fewer sensors and inputs needed to run properly.

It's a much more straightforward proposal to modify, as well. In that sense, the old Defender will never be completely replaced.

And if old-school is still your jam, don't forget options like the Jeep Wrangler, Gladiator, LandCruiser and Jimny still exist.

The world has moved on for the Defender, however, and this new model is able to plonk itself right at the pointy end of the class as a modern take on a rugged off-roader.

It has all of those elements required to sell and compete in over 160 markets around the globe, and is future-proofed as well. It carries on the spirit of the old Defender without stepping on its legacy.

Doing that, while bringing it back in a new and modern form, is no mean feat. Perhaps, it’s one of the toughest challenges out there. I'm thankful that Land Rover took this challenge head on, with a bold and definitive take on its legendary off-roader.

While many will lambaste the new Defender simply because it's a new Defender (and not an old one), I challenge them to keep an open mind. And wait until you drive one, because it's bloody impressive.

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