2020 Land Rover Defender goes off-road, and upmarket

It's no secret that die-hard Land Rover fans have been asking for the defender to return for years. When it became known that the Defender would return after 22 years of absence in the US, the anticipation and hype in the auto world was of course not in the charts.
The brand new Defender for 2020 looked great in pictures, with an updated look and feel that still included many elements of what makes a Defender a Defender. The two-door model "90" with a white roof and Steelie wheels even offers a traditional look.
I'm one of those old school Defender fans and I finally got the chance to ride the new one - both on and off road - during a weekend of testing. But the price isn't exactly as high as the old all-purpose defender. It's upscale.
The new Defender shape follows function
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
Before we get into the looks, let's start with the representation of the defender. According to Land Rover, the Defender reflects what it calls overarching branding characteristics such as "design", "ability" and "durability". These are the qualities that designers and engineers focused on in creating the all-new Defender.
The Defender's design echoes the other qualities Land Rover heralds - performance and durability - that you can see from a cursory point of view when you look inside and out. The refinement, however, another Land Rover feature, is saved for the high-end Range Rover.
Personally, the first thing you notice is that the Defender has a high stance with not much of the chassis or suspension components sticking out from underneath. The neat packaging at the bottom and the short overhangs front and rear give the Defender a 30-degree approach angle (and a 40-degree deviation), as well as the ability to negotiate 45-degree inclines and impressive water wading 35 inches deep. These numbers are the same for the Defender 110 (4-door) and 90 (2-door).
I was surprised to hear that the Defender is not a body-on-frame SUV (as many hardcore off-roaders are), but a unibody or monocoque chassis construction made of aluminum. This gives the car more rigidity, stronger sheet metal, and generally better safety and crash test numbers.
Ability is the name of the game
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
While the design gives the Defender some notable perks (approach angle, fording depth, etc.), much of the Defender's capabilities come from inside.
The Defender is available with two engines in the US. The base engine of the standard Defender and Defender S models is an inline 4-cylinder turbocharged engine that delivers 296 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The upgraded engine, available on the taller Defender fairings (SE, HSE, X, and First Edition), puts out a healthy 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. This enables the Defender to pull an impressive 8,200 pounds.
Most impressive, however, is that this power can be transferred to the wheels: the transmission and all-wheel drive. And this is where the test drive comes in.
The on- (and off-) road test
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Pras Subramanian)
Land Rover offered journalists individual, socially distant drives to test the Defender this fall. I picked up my Defender (a fully loaded Defender X model) from JLR's headquarters in New Jersey and made my way to the Land Rover Experience Center in Manchester, Vermont, where we would drive the Defender off-road.
My Defender X has been tricked out with dark gray wheels, black contrast roof, black hood, smoked taillights, and some great off-road features like configurable off-road response that I'll get into later.
I've already detailed my impression of the outside, but the inside is also remarkable. Land Rover really emphasized durability and design elements here; The interior of the Defender is unlike any other Land Rover.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Pras Subramanian)
Inside you will find a very clean and sparse dashboard. This is triggered by two digital displays, one under the instrument panel and the other in the center stack. For the most part, that's pretty much it. Yes, it's pretty sparse there, but that's the vibe Land Rover expects here - just the basics.
The materials in the cabin are all made up of a range of “durable interior pads,” which are materials that can be wiped off and misused by those weekend adventures. Even the floor is a tough rubberized material that seems to withstand abuse.
Don't get me wrong - it's still a nice place to be, especially in Defender X moldings with open-pore walnut veneer and comfortable seats wrapped in Windsor leather. But you won't confuse the Defender with a Range Rover.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
The shift knob is located below the touchscreen of the center stack, along with a sophisticated set of two digital buttons that control everything from climate control to heating and cooling the seat to driving modes.
With no running boards or bars, it's a small step to get into the Defender, but once you're on board you'll have a clear, commanding view through the large windshield.
The initial acceleration is reasonable for an SUV, but even with the turbocharged 6-cylinder you won't blow the truck's doors. Shifting the gear selector to sport mode gives you more aggressive shifts and accelerations. The steering is a little numb and did a little too much for my liking, but makes it relatively painless to get the Defender around town.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
With my Defender X with air suspension, the ride was surprisingly smooth for such a capable off-roader, and with those comfy seats and high seating position, I devoured the highway miles on the way to Manchester with ease.
And that's the most important thing for those 90% of buyers: yes, they like the ability, but what they really care about is whether they can run errands and commute to work and not feel like they are driving a tractor with 33 inch tires on it. The Defender is also suitable for on-site sets and offers three-row seating for 7 passengers or even double-row 6-person seating if you choose the ingenious seat in the middle first row that doubles as a console when not in use.
After a three-hour drive, mostly on the motorway, we reached the adventure center, where the fun really began.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
Land Rover knew at its core that the Defender had to be a capable off-road beast. So they threw the sink on it. And that starts with all-wheel drive.
Now, the new Defender introduces a configurable version of Land Rover's Terrain Response system (standard on X-Fairings and optional on others) that allows you to select modes that suit specific off-road conditions. At first glance, that doesn't sound particularly fancy. Many competitors have similar driving modes.
The Defender system is much more than just driving modes, however, and the off-road modes are fully adjustable. For example, in typical off-road vehicles, drivers can manually lock (or unlock) the differentials and use low gears to control power and grip. In the Defender, drivers can prevent slipping by using the CenterSlip Limited and Center and Rear Slip Limited options on the touchscreen controller to manually enter how much “slip” you want in the differential. It is continuously adjustable and, according to Land Rover, this is the world's first application of this technology.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
If that sounds like a lot and you only want to focus on the drive ahead and don't want to optimize any differentials, Land Rover's Terrain Response 2 system can do all of this automatically, i.e. the system detects the driving surface and configures the vehicle for optimal setup without any input of the driver. The system continuously and variably unlocks and locks the differentials, adjusting traction and power to get you through virtually anything.
And to be very clear, we were faced with a variety of obstacles and rough terrain on Land Rover's off-road circuit. From deep ruts, uneven and muddy terrain and hard boulders, the Defender got through even in difficult places that really surprised me.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
The air suspension helped a lot and gave the Defender more space and the ability to really squeeze the corners together if necessary. And as we drove over slippery mud and stones as smooth as porcelain, the tires engaged and I could watch the differentials shown on the center screen go from unlocked to fully locked and in between, as the system did held necessary.
Really remarkable stuff and very cool technology. The Land Rover instructors, who knew the terrain inside and out and who guided us through the really tricky parts from outside the vehicle, kept pushing us to test the defender's outer limits. Steep inclines, steep inclines, paths that the Defender was driving lengthways at a 45 degree angle, we basically saw it all. And the Defender delivered and then took us straight from the off-road course back to Main Street without complaining or rattling the chassis.
The final result
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Pras Subramanian)
Yes, the defense attorney's name is back and includes some serious hardware. Land Rover struggled to ensure the truck delivered its legacy of overpower but also updated it for the modern day. The only downside is one that comes as no surprise and that is the price.
The two-door Defender with a 4-cylinder turbo engine starts at $ 49,900. There are no options, not even the cool side-mounted gearbox or the foldable stepladder. You definitely get a ton of options for the price, albeit in a spartan looking package. Add in higher trim levels and features like a bigger engine and the advanced terrain response system and you top the price rubicon for $ 80,000 like the Defender X I tested.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
It's a lot of money, but the Defender name is legendary and one that fans are willing to pay for to get into the latest and greatest version. Fans and knowledgeable buyers alike know what you're getting: extreme performance and durability, all in a pretty unique design. There is nothing like it in this segment.
I may have some pricing issues, but with older versions of the Defender showing massive value in the pre-owned market and buyers getting more and more into socially distant outdoor activities, this may be the price tag for the brand new, adventurous Defender really reflects what the market will carry.
2020 Land Rover Defender (Image credit: Land Rover)
Pras Subramanian is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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