There’s some serious trust involved in jumping a car. You can watch the videos, read the marketing materials, and scope the landing. You can tell yourself that it’ll be fine. You can find comfort in someone having done it before. When the time comes, though, you have to trust that the machine itself can really do it, that the airbags won’t deploy, the suspension won’t free itself of its mountings, the whole thing won’t crack in half. You have to believe that what you’re driving is serious.
That’s harder when months of forum postings have decried the vehicle in question as a phony, an imitator. Defender fans, fans of the genuine boxy original, say that it’s gone soft, too tamed to handle wild work. They were never going to be happy. There was no way that the crowd responsible for turning the slow, loud, unreliable, uncomfortable Original Defender into a $75,000 Nantucket status symbol would accept the new one as kin. When you’re putting daylight under all four wheels, though, you don’t have the luxury of high-minded moralizing. You either believe in the product or back down.
There wasn’t much to it. Maybe two feet of free space under the front wheels, a foot and a half under the rears. There was nothing but a dirt mound to launch off, with a wind-up that was effectively 50 feet straight down another pile of earth. Probably 30, 35 mph tops with a flat foot, if I could keep it pinned. The first time I couldn’t, being not so much worried about the jump as I was about the harsh approach to the mound ripping the bumper off. The second one was the full-speed test run. By the third run we had the cameras set up. Five jumps in, the Defender thudded onto firm soil with the same cast-iron thunk as the previous four. It had now been captured from multiple angles, still-frame proof that the 2020 Defender is a real one.
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Off-Roading the Mercedes-Benz G550 4×4²
And the Defender reinforced that conclusion throughout my day of off-roading. Armed with a loaded-up $77,775 Defender 110 SE press car and access to Monticello Motor Club’s sprawling rally and off-road course, I forded streams, bombed down loose-surface hills, and summited mud-slicked slopes. Problems here were immediately apparent, though minor. First, you can never fully defeat stability control, so while the chassis itself and the turbocharged 395-hp inline-six are quite capable of epic slides, the computers will sometimes nip the brakes and spoil the fun. Those brakes are also nigh-on impossible to operate smoothly. Whether on the track or prowling through Manhattan traffic, the twitchy, high-strung pedal was hard to predict and harder to modulate. Last, those who want to do serious off-roading should opt for knobbier tires than either of the standard Goodyear Wrangler options Land Rover fits from the factory.
SEE PHOTOS2021 land rover defender off road test
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Even with its clearly road-biased tires, the Defender used multiple computerized off-road gizmos and its true four-wheel drive system to dispatch rutted trails of slick slime and hop rocks, logs, and roots that littered the paths. It got stuck only once, when after kicking up a massive aquatic shockwave blasting through a puddle, I was asked to do it again so we could catch it on camera. Turning around in the worn-down trenches carved by other off-roaders was an amateur mistake, as became clear when I landed both sets of wheels in straight-walled mud depressions. I rocked it for a solid 10 minutes, eventually triggering a transmission overheat warning. Head down in shame, I called in Chris Duplessis, Monticello’s Director of Fun. The former factory rally driver and current Tank Experience leader/rally teacher took the wheel and broke it free in about 15 seconds, proving the failure was a one of skill and not machinery. I loosened it, he assured me. At least he didn’t have to pull me out with the old-school Defender he uses to navigate the motor club’s trails.
Looking at Chris’ rig, it’s easy to see why classic fans have been so hostile. That vehicle was defined by its right angles. This one is rounded off in service of aerodynamics, safety, and general assimilation to Land Rover’s modern lineup. The long-serving old-school one was simple, two axles and an engine. The new one has air suspension, a 360-degree off-roading camera, computer-controlled differentials, and sonar. The workhorse old Defenders were spartan inside. This one is rugged yet pretty, kitted out with the latest infotainment and convenience options. The original was built for the bush, a proper military off-roader still serving in harsh climates the world over. Its spawn will mostly trawl for parking spaces and manage daily errands in upper-class suburbs. All in all, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Land Rover had made it as soft as it looks.
SEE PHOTOS2021 land rover defender
On first impression, it seemed the company had. Despite the Tonka-truck chunkiness and the overt references to its adventurous aspirations, the high-priced off-roader comfortably settles into quiet suburban subservience. You wouldn’t know it from the slatted roof rack or the external side-mounted gear carrier, but the Defender is just as civilized and livable as its price tag suggests. In high-speed cruising it’s perhaps more unsettled than the German competition and certainly less precise in the corners, but the tradeoffs are far smaller than you get with a Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Wrangler. Even passing references to the Wrangler may sound absurd, but remember that top-spec Wranglers are notching $63,000 and bottom-shelf Defender 110s go for $50,000 on up.