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The 2020 Land Rover Defender.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Before you read any more of this review, of what will prove to be an exceptional vehicle, remember this context: The Land Rover Defender I drove had a total price of $90,805. That’s after $13,105 of options were added and included the mysterious $1,700 Delivery charge, but before all taxes.

Jaguar Land Rover is a premium brand. Its vehicles are not supposed to be cheap. Yet the Defender has historically been a utilitarian vehicle, built to be bashed up and dented, muddy and scratched. It’s been a favourite of British farmers and soldiers for its ability to get through absolutely anything, anywhere. They don’t want supple leather seats – they want locking differentials and tall ground clearance.

My friend Neil was anxious to go for a drive in the new Defender. It’s finally arriving in Canada after its release this year was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s a transplanted Brit who is nostalgic for the original Defender, which ended production in 2016 and hasn’t been sold in North America for more than 20 years.

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“I don’t know,” he said, after we spent an hour plowing through mud and clambering over rocks. “I was expecting something more – utilitarian. This isn’t what I thought it would be.”

Land Rover will be selling a “commercial” version of the new Defender with stripped-down features soon for a lower price, and perhaps that’s what Neil would expect. It’s also taking orders for the still-expensive two-door Defender 90. For now, however, the only Defenders available in Canada are costly competitors to the Range Rover Sport and the German SUVs.

If you’re okay with that, then boy, does Land Rover have a vehicle for you.

Despite its luxury price-point, the Defender is at home on backwoods trails.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

  • Base price/As tested: $65,300 / $90,805
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four cylinder turbo (P300); 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder turbo 48-volt hybrid (P400)
  • Transmission/Drive: 8-speed automatic / Four-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): P300: 14.2 City, 11.7 Hwy, 13.0 Comb.; P400: 13.5 City, 10.8 Hwy, 12.3 Comb.
  • Alternatives: Range Rover Sport; Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Mercedes G55

Looks

By pushing the wheels as far to the front and back of the vehicle as possible, Land Rover has improved the Defender's off-road clerance angles.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The Defender grows on you. I thought it looked too soft when it debuted at last year’s Frankfurt auto show, with curves where there should be edges, but it retains the boxy shape of the original.

This is important. Pushing the wheels as far to the front and back as possible improves the SUV’s off-road clearance angles. If you raise the active air suspension by seven centimetres, which is done with the simple push of a console button, then it can tackle an approach angle of 38 degrees and a departure angle of 40 degrees. That’s extreme, with regular tires. The breakover angle between the tires is 28 degrees. These are far greater than the Range Rover Sport and pretty much everything else, including the standard Jeep Wrangler, allowing the Defender to drive over bumpier ground.

Interior

A central display in the practical cabin handles most of the controls.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The cabin is both practical and gorgeous, which is not easy to achieve. Two crossbeams across the front fascia help add stiffness while also creating a small parcel shelf and an always-useful grab handle – also known as an “oh-shit handle” in off-roader parlance. A central display touch screen handles most of the controls, from climate adjustment to active cameras to apps, but there’s so much to choose from that it can take several steps to whittle down through the menus – not always easy when the vehicle is moving.

The Defender uses the same touch controls on its wheel and console that are found in Range Rovers, which appear to be a blank, black surface until the ignition lights it up into a selection of varied switches and buttons. This is unique to Jaguar Land Rover and one of the best features of the brand, and it’s very welcome here.

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The seats are comfy and spacious, though the optional two-seat third row is too cramped.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Exposed torx bolts look rugged, while the seats are comfortable and spacious, available in “suedecloth” or optional leather. There’s an optional third row with two more seats, but don’t bother spending the extra $1,300 – there’s just not enough space back there for probably 95 per cent of the population.

Most importantly, the floor mats sit on a rubberized surface that’s easily wiped clean of mud and detritus.

Performance

The Defender's stiff chassis means it handles well around corners but also that it braces itself well over rocks and ridges.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There are two engines available. A four-cylinder turbo powers the least expensive Defender P300 (at $65,300) and creates 296 horsepower with 295 lbs.-ft. of torque; it’s shared with the Range Rover Evoque and Jaguar E-Pace. There’s also a new inline-six, turbocharged mild hybrid that powers the Defender P400. That’s the test vehicle driven here, and it creates 395 hp with 406 lbs.-ft. of torque.

Don’t expect frugal fuel economy from this more powerful 48-volt electrified engine. It’s still hauling more than 2,360 kg of unladen weight, though it’ll accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in a claimed 6.1 seconds. I saw an appalling average of 15.5 L/100 km over several hundred carefree kilometres. However, it’s still almost 1 L/100 km better than the conventional four-cylinder.

On the road, you sit as tall as in any full-size pickup truck. The ride is smooth and quiet, and there’s not a lot of rock and roll. Close your eyes, and you could be in a Range Rover. Compare this to the serious off-road competition of the noisy, bouncy Jeep Wrangler (and upcoming Ford Bronco), and there is simply no comparison.

Compared to its best off-road competition, the Jeep Wrangler, the Defender's ride is remarkably quiet and smooth.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The monocoque tube chassis is very stiff – 10 per cent stiffer than the Range Rover Sport and apparently 10 times stiffer than the old Defender. This means it handles well around corners but also that it braces itself well over rocks and ridges.

Of course, it’s off-road where the Defender must prove itself. My test vehicle was hindered by its 20-inch Michelin Latitude tires, which were fine on asphalt but slipped and slid through the deep mud I kept aiming for. It was like in the movie Blades of Glory, where Will Ferrell and Jon Heder chase each other through a Montreal shopping mall while wearing ice skates on the laminate floor.

However, I set the Defender to its drive mode of Mud Ruts, which locked the centre differential and allowed for plenty of wheel-spin, and made it through every time. Once, I was so sure I’d get stuck that I rigged up a tow strap beforehand, ready for my Wrangler-driving friends to pull me out, but it was never needed. Impressive indeed.

Technology

The Defender's most impressive tech features pertain to its off-road capability, such as cameras that offer a comprehensive view of the vehicle's surroudings and the ability to customize your own drive settings.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Whatever you want for comfort and convenience and safety is available – it’s just a question of whether you have to pay extra for it as an option. Active cruise control was an extra $1,020. My tester had a refrigerated ice box under the centre armrest that cost $640. If I’d preferred, there’s a narrow seat available in its place for an extra $950 so three people can sit in the front.

There’s full and simple-to-use connectivity, and the standard Navigation map uses Google Earth imagery to show a satellite image of where you are, if you prefer. Onboard cameras will show you everything around and even beneath the vehicle. The fully-digital instrument gauges can be set to several different configurations, including a full-width map.

The really clever stuff comes with the off-road capability that is the Defender’s forte. A knob on the centre console selects eight different drive modes: Eco, Comfort, Grass Gravel Snow, Mud Ruts, Sand, Rock Crawl, Wade and Configurable, which allows the driver to manually set the responses of the powertrain, steering, centre and rear differentials, and traction control.

Range Rovers do this stuff too, but the Defender can take on steeper slopes and bigger bumps, and do it more comfortably thanks to its stiffer chassis.

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The question is, do you really want to do such serious off-roading in a $90,000 vehicle? Probably not. Dents will be expensive to fix.

Cargo

With the rear seats up, the standard cargo space is limited, but Land Rover offers several options for increasing the Defender's utility, including a roof rack and side cargo box.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s not much space in the back without flattening the rear seats, and the cargo floor is very high, but Land Rover has you covered. The optional locking cargo box on the side ($1,295) is designed for dirty boots or wetsuits – anything you don’t want to carry inside. The optional roof rack ($2,259) can carry up to 88 kg, and a unique optional folding ladder ($1,071) allows for easy access.

The back is too high for most dogs to jump into easily, but Land Rover’s even thought of that, too. There’s a $2,291 pet care and access package that includes a ramp and a showering-off system, or you can buy the official ramp on its own for $613. Or do what I did and go to PetSmart to buy a similar, non-branded ramp for $150.

The verdict

The Defender is very comfortable and extraordinarily capable. It’s also very expensive. If you want to go rock crawling with your off-roader friends, you’re probably better off with a highly-articulated and well-scratched Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but if you want to take on anything else, the Defender will probably get you there. If I had to drive tomorrow to Tuktoyaktuk or Chiapas, and I could afford a Defender, it would be my easy, No. 1 choice.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Shopping for a new car? Check out the new Globe Drive Build and Price Tool to see the latest discounts, rebates and rates on new cars, trucks and SUVs. Click here to get your price.

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