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The Good Life

The Return of the Great Defender

Land Rover’s classic SUV takes on contemporary conveniences, but never forsakes its tough-as-nails heritage
| By Paul A. Eisenstein | From Brian Cox, November/December 2021
The Return of the Great Defender

Call it the “there’s only one way back down” vehicle. The Land Rover Defender is the two-ton machine you want to be encased in when you find yourself wedged at the peak of a wooded summit and the lone way out is a treacherous descent down a steep incline with nothing but solid ground to greet you 100 feet below.

With a checklist of state-of-the-art equipment—automatic-locking differentials, terrain-response control, hill-descent control, even a front camera—it can make the most perilous climb seem simpler than negotiating the typical hill in San Francisco.

But for all its many 21st-century conveniences, the reintroduction of the Defender traces its root to a quality that has been part of Land Rover’s inception more than 70 years ago: ruggedness.

It’s easy to overuse the phrase, “automotive icon,” for only a handful of vehicles truly qualify. The Land Rover Defender is one of them. The Defender is the direct descendant of the 1948 Land Rover Series I, but had been missing in action for some time. Before the recent resurrection, it had been nearly five years since a model bearing that badge was made and fully two decades since a new Defender appeared in U.S. showrooms.

Its return marks a critical step for parent Jaguar Land Rover. The SUV side of the company has crafted a marketing strategy that it likens to a three-legged stool: such mainstream models as the Discovery;  high-line offerings (the Range Rover Sport, Evoque and Velar); and, with the return of the Defender, the go-anywhere off-roaders that built Land Rover’s reputation.

Lore has it that what became Land Rover was born in 1947 on a Welsh beach when Maurice Wilks, the chief engineer for Britain’s Rover Company, sketched out a rough silhouette in the sand. Britain was still under severe rationing following the end of World War II. The automaker’s main plant in Coventry had been bombed to rubble. A “shadow” plant near Birmingham was running at minimal speed. Wilks’ idea was meant to be an answer to the Willys Jeep, a familiar sight during the war. He imagined it serving multiple duties and being widely exported to help the country rebuild its foreign exchange.

What became the Land Rover Series I debuted a year later at the Amsterdam Motor Show. It was an ungainly beast with few creature comforts. But it quickly earned a reputation for being able to go practically anywhere with even the vestige of a trail, scrambling
up rocky hillsides and pushing through the deepest sand and snow, with its high ground clearance and a 50-horsepower engine sending torque to all four wheels through a four-speed gearbox with a two-speed transfer case. “For the farmer, the countryman and general industrial use,” Land Rover boasted.

It didn’t take the company long to see that plenty of buyers wanted to travel in comfort, even off the beaten path. The British marque added the Station Wagon, with room for seven and such amenities as leather seats and even a cabin heater.

In the decades that followed, the original Land Rover SUV went through a series of updates—and name changes. The Defender badge first appeared in 1983 on a new version that offered more powerful engines, a new, full-time four-wheel-drive system and coil springs. Three different body styles included the short wheelbase Defender 90, medium-length 110 and the stretched 127. The timing couldn’t have been better. The SUV market was widening beyond hunters, farmers and explorers to include suburban housewives and eventually half of all new vehicle sales in the United States.

The agile Defender became a media darling. The ute has appeared in nearly 1,400 separate films and TV series, taking a star turn in many of them, such as The Gods Must Be Crazy. It returned in the delayed release of  No Time to Die, the latest James Bond adventure.

Its fan base includes British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, who has been photographed behind the wheel of various versions. She obtained her first Land Rover Series I in 1952 and has been a fan and owner ever since. Other owners of  early versions of Defender models include Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro, Sean Connery and Paul McCartney.

That Land Rover itself survives, however, is almost serendipitous. Its original parent, the Rover Company, went from British Aerospace to BMW in 1994. A few years later, Ford Motor Co. acquired the off-road side of the company and combined it with Jaguar as part of an effort to create a European luxury division. But, as it prepared for what would come to be known as the Great Recession, Ford sold off both of those brands to Indian industrial giant Tata—which renamed the enterprise Jaguar Land Rover.

By the time the last Defender rolled out of the Solihull plant in January 2016, two million had been sold. But with more and more buyers demanding SUVs easier to drive on-road, as well as with more luxurious fittings, the automaker had shifted focus to newer products. That said, not everyone was ready to see the Defender badge go. The challenge was meeting stringent global safety, fuel economy and emissions standards (the inability to satisfy the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had forced BMW to stop selling Defender in the U.S. in 1997).

Even before the plug was pulled, Land Rover hinted at what might be coming in the form of the 2011 DC100 Concept. But it would be another eight years before it would have a new model ready to show off. Part of the holdup was giving a new look—and a major technical upgrade—to an aging icon.

“The new Defender is respectful of its past but is not harnessed by it,” Gerry McGovern, chief design officer for Land Rover, said ahead of its debut at the November 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show. “Its unique personality is accentuated by its distinctive silhouette and optimum proportions, which make it both highly desirable and seriously capable.”

With more curves than the boxy old Defender, with its right angles and hard creases, the new model has created some noise among Land Rover fans. If anything, the new Defender appears wider and more solidly planted than the last generation, with broad shoulders giving it a sense of muscularity. The nose, with its distinctive lighting, and the hood, with hidden cut lines, add a sense of modernity even while the overall look is timeless.

Purists were shocked at the modernized version when it returned for the 2021 model year. But the overall reaction has been  positive. “There’s been controversy and that’s to be expected when you mess with an icon,” says Larry Printz, a classic car expert. However, fans “who want the old Defender should go find an old Defender. For those who expected the new one to look like the old one, that’s fantasy.”

One has to look beyond the sheet metal to see the new Defender’s real beauty. Technically, it borrows its underlying platform, known as the D7, from Land Rover’s highline Range Rover series. But it has gone through extensive revisions to deliver go-absolutely-anywhere capabilities. Curiously, the smooth and well-protected underbody actually has a second advantage, improving overall vehicle aerodynamics.

There are two versions of the new Defender: the three-row 110, with its 119-inch wheelbase and the two-row 90, with a 101.9-inch wheelbase, which recently hit the market. With their short overhangs, both have the ability to crawl up steep rock climbs. And the normal 8.5-inch ground clearance can be raised to a rut-clearing 11.5 inches with a touch of a button on Defenders equipped with the optional air suspension. The ute also can ford water as deep as 35.4 inches.

With the new Defender, Land Rover faced some of the same challenges Maurice Wilks and his development team struggled with when launching the original Series I, striking a balance between luxury and practicality. Plenty of buyers will never go off-road, but others will regularly test Defender’s mettle at off-road meccas like Moab and on the Rubicon Trail.

While the Covid-19 pandemic shattered hopes of heading to Britain for several days of serious trail time, the new Holly Oaks Off-Road Park an hour north of Detroit offered challenges to a well-equipped version of the new SUV, with plenty of tough trails, sand pits, rock crawls and an impressively steep cliff.

A test vehicle outfitted with a 3.0-liter six-in-line combined both turbocharging and supercharging, as well as a fuel-saving 48-volt mild hybrid drive. It made a spritely 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque which, on dry pavement will get you from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds, according to Land Rover, or haul an 8,201-pound trailer. (The base engine is a 2.0-liter turbo-four that still punches out a solid 296 hp and 295 lb-ft, and hits 60 in 7.7 seconds, with towing cut to a still-impressive 7,716 pounds.) Power on all versions of the new Defender is sent to all four wheels through an eight-speed automatic and a two-speed transfer case.

One favorite feature is the configurable Terrain Response system. With Defenders past, you needed to know how to adjust any number of settings, including those differentials, the gearbox and transfer case and, where possible, vehicle ride height. The Terrain system lets you pick optimum settings for those and other vehicle functions, such as throttle response, braking and various “nanny” controls, simply by turning the dial to the sort of conditions you’ll face. That includes rocks, mud and ruts, sand, snow and other conditions.

The payoff is spectacular. The Defender intuitively responds to each obstacle, smoothly creeping over rocks and digging itself out of even the deepest, loosest sand. The Hill Descent Control functions like an off-road version of cruise control. It allows you to set incremental speeds for even the steepest climb or descent, no need to worry about either brake or throttle along the way.

On-road handling is equally impressive. Steering was reasonably precise, with a solid road feel. There is a modest amount of understeer, as you’d expect. But the SUV can maneuver corners without an excess of body roll. Much of the credit goes to the optional air suspension that almost magically helps smooth out bumps, both on-road and off, while also allowing a driver to raise or lower ride height up to six inches with the touch of a button.

The new Defender offers a broad range of useful technologies, including cameras showing you what’s going on all around the vehicle, even underneath, a particularly helpful feature on a rough trail. The new Pivi Pro infotainment system features both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and comes with a Wi-Fi hotspot and standard in-dash navigation. Its wide-format, 10-inch touchscreen also can display a variety of useful functions, letting you see the angle of each axle, for example, or the grade you’re trying to climb. There’s also the ClearSight mirror which uses a camera to provide a slightly wider image than your conventional rearview mirror. It’s especially helpful when you have a car full of passengers obstructing your view.

The cabin itself is comfortable, roomy and, depending upon trim level, nicely equipped. While not the lavish luxury alternative of a Range Rover, the new Land Rover Defender will fit in well, whether parked at a country club or a backwoods cabin. The starting price for the 90 and the 110 is $49,900 with the turbo-four engine. The costs run up to $62,250 with the inline-six. And, of course, you can order from a list of options and accessories—including snorkels, ladders and rooftop campers—that will add thousands more to the price tag, with the top tariffs in the neighborhood of $80,000 plus.

This has been an interesting year for SUV fans, especially those who demand serious off-road capabilities. Ford has launched its reborn Bronco family, Jeep the Wagoneer. But those who want a true SUV capable of taking anything you can throw at it—from everyday commuting to serious off-roading (or a Snowbelt winter), it will be difficult to outclass the new Land Rover Defender. This is an icon that fully lives up to expectations. 

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