2020 Land Rover Defender review: paddock prodigy

Road Cars

The fuzzy character of the old Land Rover Defender is gone, writes Andrew Frankel. In its place is an astonishingly capable - and good value - all-round off-roader

2020 Land Rover Defender front

First we must face facts. The old Land Rover Defender is gone, may it rest in peace.

For Land Rover, creating a new one as similar as possible to the original would end only in disaster. Because even if you could engineer a car as structurally deficient and inexactly constructed and somehow make it crash in such a way that made it comply with global legislation, it would not be considered in any way authentic. It would be a fraud, a car that was quite wilfully made far worse than it needed to be. Few if any would buy it, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

It’s why I didn’t like the Suzuki Jimny which seemed to have been made quite deliberately coarse and imprecise, while the original was that way because, like the first Land Rover, it was the best its engineers could do at the time. And it’s why I love the Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, which retains the character of the original, but has done so with modern engineering standards.

From the archive

This is what I had hoped most of all Land Rover would do with the Defender. And to a great extent, it has. No, of course there are no live axles here nor does it sit on a ladder frame chassis as does the G-wagon to this day. Nor is it as characterful as the old Series III I keep in my shed and thank goodness for that, for almost all of that alleged charm derives from how hopeless it is at most things a modern car needs to do, such as ride, handle, stop, steer…

And this is indeed a modern car, as modern today as was Maurice Wilks’ Land Rover in 1948. In this regard and many others, it is utterly unalike the Defender it purports to replace. The long-wheelbase diesel version I drove would make an excellent family hack, with no other car needed.

In one respect however, it is just like an old Defender: it is simply astonishing off road. It is true that the old car would probably get to most of the places the new one will take you (but not all), the night and day difference is that you’d need real off-roading skill and experience if you were to get there undamaged. No longer: I took the new Defender to the toughest parts of the Eastnor Castle estate where Land Rovers have honed their off-road skills for generations, and even with me driving, covered terrain that in the past you’d not have thought of entering without a winch and well thought-out exit strategy.

It has better approach, departure and break over angles than any other Land Rover and the toughest, stiffest structure the company has ever produced, but it was none of these things that impressed me most. It was the way it thought or, to be precise, the speed of those thoughts. I know very well that feeling of momentum being eroded as you try to summit some fiendishly muddy, rock and root strewn path. In other off-roaders you can feel the car trying different things as, bit by bit your precious speed is lost. And you know that if you stop, stopped you will stay if, of course, you don’t start that sickening backward slide. The Defender just figures it out a whole lot faster, so you never slow in the first place.

And it does feel distinct from all other Land Rovers. It feels right that there should be hard plastics in the interior and rubber mats on the floor. Even the exposed screw heads, though contrived, add to the atmosphere. Unlike any remotely similar product, this is a car that leaves you hankering after the base specification model, not the top of the range prom queen. I’ve not driven it yet, but I’d bet plenty an entry spec short-wheelbase Defender 90, with a diesel engine and steel wheels will be the best of the entire range.

Even though I’m not sold on the looks, it would be a very cool thing in which to arrive in a paddock, race car in tow, as and when motorsport resumes. And with prices starting at just over £40k, it’s not even that pricey. You can spend twice that amount of course, but I have no idea why you would.


1956: Stuart Lewis-Evans unloads his Cooper 500 F3 car from a Land Rover Series I

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2020: modern paddock poser?

I still think they could have gone further: I’d have liked a lever or at least a big weighty rotary control with which to engage low range and off road modes, but in fact you control the former with a button, the latter with the same dial you turn to operate the ventilation. And while I don’t mind the TFT navigation screen, I do wish the instruments were proper analogue clocks, not electronic simulations.

But this is still a fine car, better by far than any rival available for this kind of money and closest in character to the G-wagon, but with prices starting at less than half the money, even for long wheelbase models. Old Defender owners may turn away from it, but if what you want is one of the most rugged cars you can buy to use every day, and especially if you loved the old Discovery and hate what Land Rover did to it when creating the new one, the Defender deserves your undivided attention.

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