The legendary Land Rover Defender is back, and badder than ever

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles – If the mind-engine Corvette was this year’s most anticipated sports car, the Land Rover Defender is the most anticipated sport utility.

The all-new 2020 Defender — a rugged off-road icon missing from U.S. shores for more than 20 years — roared onto the stage here surrounded by celebrities, bright lights, and loud music.

The Defender is no stranger to Hollywood, having starred in countless films since its birth in 1948. Movies like "Jumanji," "Lara Coft: Tomb Raider," "The Da Vinci Code" and "Born Free." But the new Defender may seem a stranger to the owners of these previous four-wheelers.

The 2020 Land Rover Defender will make its motion picture debut in the 25th official James Bond film, "No Time To Die."

Like the Corvette C8, the new Defender is a technical tour de force: a brawny, brainy SUV as stylish as it is fearless. It is the latest in a torrent of all-new legends to hit the market as manufacturers take their brands to new international markets and new model spaces.

Fresh off the set of the latest Bond movie, "No Time to Die," the 2020 Land Rover Defender made its U.S. debut at the LA Auto Show.

The Jeep Wrangler received a complete makeover in recent years as the Jeep brand took its SUV-heavy lineup on the road to countries all over the world. The result has been the most-sophisticated Wrangler ever – and an explosion in Jeep sales. Ford this week introduced its first Mustang SUV as the Dearborn company leverages its muscle car badge to sell EVs against Tesla.

Yet, at the Mustang Mach-E reveal, plenty of voices were overhead asking when the wraps would come off another storied Ford nameplate: the rugged Bronco SUV. Few vehicles provoke passion like off-road warriors. The Defender, with roots dating back almost as far as the World War II Jeeps, is one of the originals.

The new Rover, which will wade onto U.S. shores early next year, bears signature Defender features like 38-degree approach angle, 11-inch ride height,and the  ability to ford 43 inches of water and climb 45-degree rock faces. Its boxy shape stands out in a crowd.

2020 Land Rover Defender

But that silhouette – “a shape so simple a child cold draw it” in the words of chief designer Gerry McGovern – has been sculpted to precision like the rest of a Rover lineup that boasts lookers like the Velar and Discovery. Its minimalist lines and glowing LED lights are reminiscent of Apple iPhones and Tron Light Cycles. Its compact proportions and round headlights also bring to mind Bronco sketches, including the spare tire mounted on the rear tailgate.

Its hard to imagine Jeep without Wrangler – yet the Bronco is being resurrected by Ford and the Defender by Land Rover.

Struggling with a small lineup and smaller sales in the late 1990s, Land Rover couldn’t afford to update the Defender to tightened U.S. regulatory specs. That has changed with the acquisition of Land Rover (and sister Jaguar) by deep-pocketed Indian conglomerate Tata and a SUV-mad market that craves everything Land Rover.

The Rover lineup now consists of seven SUVs including the Defender; that's one more than Jeep. Defender slots right into the middle of them with the traditional 90 three-door and 110 five-door configurations. Like its peers, the Defender has outgrown its original 90-inch and 110-inch wheelbase proportions (thus the trim badges) and now stretches to 110 and 119 inches respectively. A suite of formidable tools come standard: four-wheel drive, dual transfer-cases, air suspension and aluminum floor-plating.

Unlike the off-road legends Wrangler, Bronco and Mercedes G-wagen,  the Defender is cut — not from a ladder-frame truck chassis — but an aluminum unibody that chief engineer Mark Wilson says is three times stiffer than the best ladder frame.

Engine options are two: a torquey turbo-4 and a turbocharged and supercharged inline 6 with 395 horsepower capable of hitting 60 mph a full 8 seconds quicker than the last-generation 12.7-second rhino. The inline-6 is assisted by a 48-volt battery system to manage electronics and mpg.

“It is the toughest, most dependable off-road vehicle ever,” designer McGovern says confidently. Enthusiasts are already salivating to take it to Utah’s Moab outback to back the claim.

The interior features bold lines hung with the latest digital equipment. Exposed industrial screws border door inserts. An optional middle front seat can be flipped over into a console. A horizontal magnesium dash spans the width of the car, with a state of the art touchscreen backed by Land Rover’s latest QNX electronic architecture.

Like the Wrangler, off-road accessories on the Defender number into the hundreds, including an air snorkel, roof ladder, even a tent.

With standard features galore, a five-door Defender 110 — starting just north of $50,000 — can be nicely configured for less than $60,000. That’s just a few thousand more than a loaded Wrangler Rubicon.

At the Los Angeles reveal, the Defender was welcomed by American celebrity and skiing superstar Lindsey Vonn. It will star in the forthcoming James Bond movie, "No Time to Die."

Some things never change.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.