Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: December 9, 2020
The last Land Rover Defender was a bit of a dinosaur. Think first-generation G-Wagon or Willys Jeep, with no creature comforts and a barely pieced together cabin. Just a solid axle, locking differentials, and all the go-anywhere attitude one could hope for. It was an off-road enthusiast’s dream. But today’s automotive market demands something more. It demands both on-road and off-road credentials. Look at the Mercedes-AMG G 63. It’s off-road ready but basically a pompous and overly luxurious boulevard cruiser that rarely sees dirt. It has become a status symbol, infecting the world with a virulent strain of ruggedness and excess.
Land Rover is trying to do the same with the new Defender but at a lower price point and with a broader audience in mind. Finally available in the Canadian market, its obvious targets are the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco. I’d also peg the Lexus GX 460 and LX 570 as competitors. But we can say without a doubt that Land Rover wants consumers to cross-shop the Defender with other mainstream, non-off-road focused SUVs as well like the BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE, and Audi Q7.
Sitting on top of the Discovery Sport and below the Discovery in terms of price, the Defender is branched out into two trims, 90 and 110, essentially a two- and four-door difference. Each comes with a choice of two different powertrains. The base S model ($65,300) is equipped with a 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four (P300) delivering 296 hp and 295 lb-ft, running from 0-100 km/h in 8.1 seconds. Meanwhile, the SE ($76,000) and HSE ($81,700) models come with the 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six (P400) that mixes in a mild hybrid system. That consists of a 48-volt motor-generator and electrically driven supercharger that aids in low-end pull while the turbo is busy spooling and gathering boost, working much like Mercedes’ EQ Boost. In all, it’s good for 395 hp and 406 lb-ft, and a 0-100 km/h time of 6.1 seconds. Both engines are governed by a ZF 8-speed automatic transmission. If you want to row the gears yourself, check in with Jeep.
Underneath, the Defender ditches the solid axles and a body-on-frame foundation for a more conventional unibody setup with independent suspensions and an all-aluminum monocoque. Yeah, we raised our eyebrows too, questioning its ability to withstand tension and handle off-road excursions but the spec sheet has us relieved. The Defender comes prepared with a two-speed transfer case, electronic rear differential, lockable center and rear diffs (front diff is open), permanent four-wheel drive, optional off-road tires, and more ground clearance than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. They even go so far as to state that the Defender does not share panels with any other product in its portfolio, and that its aluminum construction is three times more rigid than a traditional body-on-frame design. There are modern amenities too such as adaptive dampers, an electronic air suspension, and electric power steering.
And it shows. The Defender doesn’t feel like driving an antiquated four-wheel drive truck. There’s polish in its movements, suppleness in the way it graces undulations, and a skilled drivetrain that harmonizes it all together. The straight-six engine that we tested in the P400 SE is a welcome companion, never struggling to get this heavyweight off its feet. It’s strong, smooth, and surprisingly loves to rev, making a decent exhaust grunt in the process. There’s enough thrust here that we don’t see the need for a V8 - not that this engine is any more fuel efficient. We averaged 15.1 L/100km with a mix of highway and city driving. The 8-speed gearbox is also one of the smoothest we’ve ever tested in a Land Rover. You will never feel it jerking or lugging for a gear, and that mild hybrid system really butters the whole thing up.
The biggest surprise is the ride quality. Forgoing the live axles drastically improved its road manners and as a result, the Defender is exceptionally comfortable. It’s not as composed as the G 63 AMG and a bit rougher around the edges than the Range Rover when negotiating pockmarked roads, but it’s undeniably impressive. Compared to a Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator, this is like riding on a magic carpet.
The Defender doesn’t drive like a flat noodle either, and while it doesn’t convey a sense of athleticism through the numb steering wheel, it relays enough rotational weight and feedback to confidently place the front wheels where you want them. This is the first time I’ve seen a configurable driving mode in a Land Rover as well, where you can adjust individual parameters such as steering weight. Going from its lightest to heaviest setting actually conveys a noticeable difference, and will help cater towards drivers who prefer a lighter touch, or those who want a more substantial rotational effort.
The brakes, more specifically the brake pedal, remains the weakest part of the powertrain. The Defender uses a brake pedal mated to an actuator-controlled piston which applies the braking effort. This makes automated braking via the safety systems quicker, but it means the pedal conveys a hybrid-like, nonlinear, springboard feeling. It’s touchy, overly sensitive, and makes it tough to modulate smooth stops. Sudden hard braking will also give drivers a lesson on why you should bolt down loose items.
The more we look at the Defender, the more we warm up to its soft front end. It’s boxy but a touch too generic. Look at the overhang and proportions of a Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Wrangler. The creases are sharp, not round. Bold, not flowy. More Patagonia, less Nike. They nailed the rear end though, with an overkill of square taillights, a side-hinged tailgate, and a mounted spare wheel. And you should know that this is one big truck. We’re talking bigger than a minivan. The soft contours may hide its true footprint in photographs but you sit higher than a Land Rover LR4, and it makes an Audi Q8 look like a hatchback.
Land Rover also gives you the option to customize your Defender with four packs: Explorer, Adventure, Country, and Urban. All the 170 available accessories can be separately added but the packs simply offer them as a discounted bundle. Ours came loaded with the Explorer Pack ($6000): roof rack, side-mounted gear carrier, wheel arch cladding, spare wheel cover, rear mudflaps, raised air intake, and matte black hood with ‘110’ graphic. Dressed up in Fuji White, these additions give the Defender a much-needed, bolder, almost Jurassic Park-like appeal. The roof rails and gear carrier don’t make a lot of wind noise either, even when going above 100 km/h.
There’s certainly more pomp and circumstance inside the Defender than any Jeep or Toyota could hope for. The way the shifter and HVAC controls are mounted on an angle below the dashboard remind me of the Fiat 500 and ergonomically, it works well. A magnesium alloy beam runs the width, accentuating the interior’s expansive borders, and the cleverly integrated grab handles make for a streamlined look. There’s inherent sensibility in this design, and the recessed dashboard creates a wide array of storage options. They have also cleverly brought some of that ruggedness inside with the exposed screws, powder-coated ceramic-like surfaces, and the car’s paint showing through on the inside door panels, just like how Wranglers (and Mazda Miatas!) do it.
The 10-inch center touchscreen is a proper workforce and a significant upgrade over the current system embedded inside the Discovery. You can tell Land Rover invested a great deal of money to design a user-friendly system. Quick to respond, lag-free, and sporting beautiful graphics, the screen is a joy to use, and reminds me of the one in the Lincoln Aviator.
The Mercedes G 550 houses a gigantic silhouette but its interior space is cramped. That’s not the case with the Defender, with well-executed interior packaging and more than generous rear seat accommodations.The dual-panel rear windows are unique, as are the skylights flanking from behind. The rear seats don’t fold entirely flat but the trunk area is still cavernous enough.
The Land Rover Defender has finally graced our Canadian shores, and it hasn’t let us down. It does not sport as geometric of a face as we would have preferred, but its substantial footprint and bold rear end are dripping in road presence. What surprises us most however is its on-road mannerisms, and how capable it is of being a comfortable and coddling yet incredibly functional piece of kit. The charmingly rugged and ergonomically sound interior seals the deal, making it one of our most memorable and desirable vehicles of 2020.
Model: 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 P400 SE
Paint Type: Fuji White
Base Price: $76,000
Price as Tested: $91,035
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,018 (with spare wheel) / 2,008 (mirrors folded) / 1,967
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six with mild hybrid assist
Horsepower: 395 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 406 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, 4WD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 13.5 / 10.8 / 12.3
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 15.1