When the 2020 Land Rover Defender broke cover online in 2019, I was very skeptical of its design. Although it was big and boxy, it didn’t look as traditional as the original off-roader. But after seeing it in person at the Los Angeles Auto Show (remember those?), my opinion changed completely. The SUV stayed true to its heritage, and it added cool elements to modernize it. My skepticism then turned to its drive. “Previous Defenders were bouncy and uncomfortable; this will probably be like that, too,” I thought. Boy, did it prove me wrong again. The Defender manages to deliver amazing off-road capability without sacrificing a smooth ride. We were so impressed with its ride, design, and performance that we named it our 2021 SUV of the Year, shredding any skepticism left in me.
After decades of being absent in America, the Defender returns better than ever. A two-door 90 series will soon be on U.S. soil, joining the 110 series four-door. Before lockdowns and physical distancing measures, we traveled to Namibia to drive the Defender off-road. This time, we drove the 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 primarily on the pavement and took it to the track to learn about its on-road ride, performance, and handling numbers.
2020 Land Rover Defender: Its Performance
Drive the Land Rover Defender for a couple of miles, and you’ll immediately notice how big it is. Especially in California, where lanes and parking spaces appear to be tighter than in Texas, the Defender feels immense. It’s tall and wide, but it responds well to throttle input. The 3.0-liter electric supercharged and turbocharged inline-six is responsible for sending 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Those numbers sound like a lot for an off-road-oriented SUV, and they are. But given the size of the Defender and that it’s available as a three-row vehicle, you need something powerful to pull its 5,719 pounds.
The six-cylinder engine propels the Defender from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, which is pretty quick for an SUV its size (not to mention one that’s a serious off-roader). The quarter-mile run was completed in 14.9 seconds at 93.2 mph, and it took 30.1 seconds at 0.54 g to run our figure-eight test. Although it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara with the 3.6-liter V-6 completed the task in 6.9 seconds. Similarly, a 2017 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro got to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds, while a 2019 Mercedes-Benz G 550 powered by a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8 beat all of them in 5.4 seconds.
On the road, however, the Defender feels strong. The transmission holds gears until it feels right, and the low-end torque gets to the wheels quickly. The engine manages to carry all of the weight without struggling, and the transmission does a great job of downshifting when it needs to. Press down the throttle, and you’ll soon forget about the need for a V-8, as the six-cylinder puts down sufficient force to get the tires moving without hesitation.
The ride quality is most impressive. l know, off-road vehicles don’t tend to offer a smooth ride on the pavement, but the Defender’s four-corner air suspension and monocoque construction help a ton. Although the ride is still a bit stiff, it’s more floaty than jittery and it compares well to the way previous Defenders rode. “All the travel in the suspension and all the squish in the sidewalls make the Defender ride really well,” features editor Scott Evans said. Whether you drive on rough pavement or tight corners, the body is well controlled despite its massive shape.
2020 Land Rover Defender: Inside
Sitting in the driver’s seat, you’ll immediately notice a cabin that’s well appointed for an off-road vehicle. Land Rover designers thought of many details, but one of my favorite features is the exposed bolts on the door panels and dashboard. I also enjoy the body-colored details on the door panels, which add character to the interior and fit perfectly with the rugged, utilitarian vibe that the Defender projects. Another neat feature is the long tray that runs from the front passenger’s dashboard all the way to the driver (these bars, made of magnesium, are part of the Land Rover’s structure), even going behind the infotainment screen—a perfect place to leave your wallet, keys, or even longer items such as an umbrella.
These nice convenience features are not only helpful but also blend in nicely with the overall design. The cabin has a balance of elegance and functionality that we don’t see in many SUVs these days, combining a clean look with exposed hardware. Although there are hard plastics in some parts of the cabin, they were chosen to survive rough use without damage. But Evans wasn’t a fan. “I know we’re going to handwave it away as being durable when you’re out in the bush,” he said, “but it really does feel cheap in certain places, like the lower door panels.”
Whether you’re cruising on smooth or rough pavement, there are too many rattles inside the Defender . Some of us noted one coming from the roof rack; others mentioned some coming from the back seat. Either way, that was probably our biggest complain—our early-build tester had less than 3,000 miles on the odometer.
Given its proportions, interior space is generally good. Headroom is ample regardless of where you’re sitting, and there’s plenty of legroom in the second row. But access to the third row is complicated, as the space between the C-pillar and the seat back is tight. Once you get back there, the seating position is uncomfortable for adults—the floor is too high, and legroom is quite limited. The third row is optional, and we’d choose to skip it.
2020 Land Rover Defender: Customize it Your Way
As a true off-roader, the Defender can be customized in myriad ways. Land Rover offers dozens of options to choose from, including steel wheels and a front bench seat. Our model started off as an SE but added the Driver Assist, Cold Climate, Off-Road and Towing packages. Like its name suggest, the Off-Road package adds grabby tires, a domestic plug socket, and an electronic diff. Besides those packages, we had a black contrast roof, which made the Defender look even cooler. Adding to that outstanding appearance, the $4,800 Adventure Package’s snorkel, roof rack, and the side-mounted gear carrier differentiate the Defender from everything else on the road.
2020 Land Rover Defender: Should I Buy it?
Few vehicles make the whole staff smile like the 2020 Land Rover Defender did. And personally, there hasn’t been a vehicle that has shredded my skepticisms as much as the Defender. The off-roader not only has a good vibe inside and outside but also drives really well on the pavement without sacrificing any of its performance when venturing off the beaten path. We are happy the Defender is back on American soil, and after naming it SUV of the Year, we look forward to spending more time behind the wheel soon.
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