Motoring correspondent Mark Gallivan tests out the 2020 Land Rover Defender to see if it can match the reputation of the long-serving, classic original.

Consider the Land Rover Discovery. Whatever your personal opinion of the Disco’s offset rear registration plate is (surely you’ve spotted it) or the overtly swish Velar it’s difficult not to commend Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design director. When the thorny challenge of updating the blocky 4×4 Defender workhorse arose it seems he never blinked.

I’m parked up after collecting the all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender 110, climbing down, thunking the weighty driver’s door shut and stepping back. My head is turned this way and that as I’m taking in the new Defender’s exterior design. Tall, square with a fair degree of intimidating menace this is as imposing a new launch vehicle that I’ve driven in some time.

“This is not a sporting SUV by any measure but a luxury 4×4 workhorse that pleases and embraces the driver”

The model I was allocated was the Land Rover Defender 110 2.0 litre SD4 S diesel engined producing 240PS with an automatic transmission (the shorter 90 will arrive later in 2020) at €95,514 (with a Full Explorer Pack €4,220) Prices start at €68,160 for the four-door 110. It will be assembled not in the UK but in Nitra, Slovakia.

To replace and update the classic preternatural Land Rover Defender was an incendiary undertaking for McGovern. Dissecting this 4323mm long 4×4, peering over details here and there and giving the new Defender a subjective appraisal, I’m convinced that McGovern has successfully nailed the brief.

To dilute the ingrained proportions of the cherished 1947 original during multiple design concepts, yet give it a modern take, trouble would loom as far afield as the farm and the wine bar. Hardy folk with pitchforks and the urban smartphonisti would track him down or hashtag him to something bovine.

Design

The new Defender is largely based on the current Discovery platform and the upright stance squares up to its two main 4×4 rivals – the €43,950 Toyota Land Cruiser and Mercedes’ €173,160 G-Class G 350. The Defender’s crisp design looks fresh and causes chin stroking about just how ungainly the Land Cruiser’s proportions appear. Did Toyota really design it in a Hall of Mirrors studio as everyone says they did? Of course not. Because expressed as a cohesive exterior design, Toyota delivered something far worse.

Be in no doubt this is a Defender 4×4 and not an SUV. In Land Rover’s media pack it references the 900kg payload and has a towing capacity of 3,720kg but nowhere will you see the acronym SUV.

Land Rover claims a ground clearance of 291mm and departure angles of 38, 28 and 40 degrees when the off-road height is activated. The water wading depth is 900mm. The Defender 90 will be joined by a commercial Hard Top and mild hybrid version to help fuel economy and CO2 emissions.

Performance

For now the Defender is available as two Diesel and petrol engines. I achieved an average 10.3 l/100km (28 mpg) on this test. The claimed acceleration of 7.7 seconds from 0-100km seemed fairly accurate. There are four grades of specification to pick: S, SE, HSE and X. Standard across the range is LED Headlights, electrical adjustable grained leather seats, 10” Pivi Pro central Touchscreen, 19” six spoke wheels and leather steering wheel and gearshift and central console. The body is made from aluminium sitting on the D7x architecture to house the longitude-engine. Fitted is the essential locking diffs and a two-speed transfer case.

Forget the stress position seating found in the cockpit of the classic Defender. That is banished for good. Step up into the new one and Land Rover’s target of mixing robust utility with luxury and above all ample space has hit the bullseye. It is now possible for the first time to sit comfortably with oodles of space in a vehicle that says Defender on the bonnet.

The fit and finish hovers somewhere in between the Toyota Land Cruiser’s cabin and the outright luxus of a German SUV. Visibility is helped by the upright construction with large door mirrors and while it is 2105mm from mirror to mirror the vehicle remains easy to park in tight spaces. There is still the three abreast option for the front row seats and the side opening rear door with a full-size spare wheel.

Thankfully Land Rover didn’t swap that for top mounted hinges that infuriate owners with the will-you-ever-hurry-on electric closing mechanism. The Defender’s weighty rear door opens up from the left hand side like a domestic fridge.

The controls in the new dashboard are a world away from the old cabin. A stubby auto gear selector is now integrated into a centre pod under the base of the dashboard. Left of the gear selector is two large rotary climate controls and ancillary buttons that reeks of simple functionality and good design. The dashboard houses the main instrument binnacle with digital instruments and the new Pivi Pro infotainment. I’d say it is closer to Volvo’s capability but behind the immediate response of a BMW. Yet this is a solid improvement on past Land Rover systems.

Throughout the cabin are cubby holes with crevasses in the dashboard and centre console and all doors. If you’ve a family or business and need places to store items the Defender 110 offers seating in second or third row configurations including 40/20/40 and 60/40 splits. Rear capacity is enormous with the rear seats folded.

Verdict

Deciding where the Defender sits in between the Japanese and German rivals isn’t difficult. For the first time I’d choose the new Defender over the formidable Toyota Land Cruiser. Whereas the Mercedes G-Class 4×4 which is hand-built by Magna Steyr AG would have strolled this comparison, price withstanding, today – right now- the new Defender wins my vote.

“The Defender’s ace card is a ride and handling compromise that is a world beater. No Land Cruiser, Jeep or G-Class matches it for impressive wafting ride composure”

The Brit’s design looks more contemporary with a more spacious interior festooned with clever practical touches. You are also saving yourself a pile of money. It will be almost possible to buy three entry priced Defender 90s for the price of one single Mercedes G-Class with a number of options added.

Sliding into a sea of superlatives throws up the problem of reliability with a capital R. Land Rover’s attempt to build vehicles that work day in and day out with watertight reliability has proved porous.

In the influential UK’s WhatCar? Reliability Survey 2019 the Range Rover fared badly with a bottom of the class 69.3pc rating for vehicles aged up to five years old. Disappointingly, the Discovery and Velar models didn’t fare much better. Analysts predict this one challenge is central to the Defender’s long reputation for durability. For the gremlins that claw at the rest of the range to surface here such as engine electrics and non-engine electrics – both accounting for 16pc of the Range Rover’s maladies is a concern. The new Defender is stuffed with them.

Land Rover’s Irish marketshare is small but defies the yo-yo results of other brands selling 957 units from January to July in 2020. In 2019 it managed 969 during the same period. The Discovery Sport is the most popular vehicle selling 365 units in the first six month of the year. In a capital county hardly awash with gorges or rivers, it’s Dublin where new Land Rover sales do best.

The gestation of the Defender is traced back to 2012 and the DC100 concept when McGovern a veteran designer of the pert MGF roadster and Land Rover Freelander and gave the closest hint of the new Defender L663 we see today.

Climb up into the driver’s seat and any SUV driver will be surprised how higher you sit off the road. A BMW X5 is 69 inches tall yet the Defender sits around 10 inches taller still. In traffic you look down on the square front bonnet ahead of you. Another boon in traffic is seeing over the roof of the car in front.

The Defender’s ace card is a ride and handling compromise that is a world beater. No Land Cruiser, Jeep or G-Class matches it for impressive wafting ride composure. The steering (2.7 turns lock to lock) is smooth and progressive with uncanny ability to steer the vehicle like you might a small yacht. Sudden inputs are repaid with good response but the oiled feedback flows and compliments the driver.

This is not a sporting SUV by any measure but a luxury 4×4 workhorse that pleases and embraces the driver. Ditto the suspension.

My memory of the test drive was how well the Defender mimicked a hovercraft smoothing over road imperfections that would jolt any saloon car. Adjusting the suspension ride height is as simple as pushing a button. I tried the Terrain Response in a field with hollows and soggy ruts. The big Brit scoffed at it.

The verdict? The new Land Rover Defender is a brilliantly designed and executed 4×4. No current Defender owner should be concerned that Land Rover has ruined the core values of the old workhorse. The new Defender goes far further updating the classic by adding relentless terrain capability with luxury.

Gerry McGovern and the engineering team’s work is done.

They have produced an outstanding new Defender for our times not the old times. I hope the existential villain of patchy reliability does not become an unwelcome saboteur.

The Defender has the potential to unseat the Discovery or the more expensive Range Rover as the must-have luxo 4×4 in 2020. Assuming the reliability is above the class average there now is a Land Rover Defender that truly does it all.

You’ll like: Mercedes G-Wagon for significantly less. Unstoppable progress irrespective of terrain. Successful exterior redesign inside and out. Exceptionally practical. On road comfort a revelation.

You’ll grumble: Land Rover’s reliability rating.

Published: 2 September, 2020

Recommended