The Car Connection Land Rover Defender Overview
The Land Rover Defender is a tall-riding SUV known the world over for its capability and durability.
The Defender name dates back to the 1980s, but the SUV goes back much further. The Land Rover Defender's spiritual successor, the Series I, dates back to the 1940s when it was developed after World War II as an agricultural utility vehicle. The vehicles that follow included the Series II and Series III, and it was renamed Defender in the early 1980s. The Land Rover Defender 90 and Defender 110 names applied to two- and four-door SUVs, respectively. The Land Rover Defender was sold in the U.S. until 1997 when safety regulations prohibited the spartan SUV from sales Stateside.
In 2020, the Defender returned with a new, more aerodynamic design and updated safety systems that complied with U.S. regulations. The new Defender debuted only as the larger 110 model, but the shorter 90 model arrives for 2021, along with a new X-Dynamic trim level.
MORE: Read our 2021 Land Rover Defender review
The new Land Rover Defender
The new Land Rover Defender made its debut at the 2019 Frankfurt motor show and arrived as a 2020 model. Like its predecessor, the new Defender is available in two- and four-door configurations, named Defender 90 and Defender 110, respectively.
Its exterior shape stays largely true to the boxy, upright look of its predecessor, although most of is body is smoothed over in comparison to the old, brick-like Defender and Series SUVs. The new Defender has a squared off face and shoulders, with a tall front end and short overhangs that are a boon to off-roading. The profile is chunky and butch, like the original, with high window sills, big wheels, and rear-mounted spare tire. In back, the new Defender departs from tradition with square LED lights that replace the small bulbs from outgoing versions.
Under the hood of the new Defender are two engines that stray further from the thirsty V-8s of yesteryear. The Defender is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 296 horsepower or a 3.0-liter inline-6 paired with a mild-hybrid system that makes 395 hp. Both engines are mated to an 8-speed automatic that drives all four wheels. The new Defender moved from a body-on-frame construction to a unibody platform provides more on-road comfort.
The new Defender carries forward the older SUV's legendary capability. Land Rover said the new Defender can ford up to 3 feet of water and has up to 11.5 inches of ground clearance, figures that are deeper and taller than a Jeep Wrangler.
With the Defender, Land Rover has an SUV that competes with hardcore off-roaders, including the Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro. The Defender even competes against tony off-roaders such as the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
Land Rover Defender history
The first Defenders were Series I Land Rovers that appeared in the late 1940s, after World War II. Those boxy off-roaders were meant for light-commercial and agricultural use and had center-mounted steering wheels. Land Rover quickly realized that the vehicles could be used on road, and seven-passenger versions followed quickly. The Series I was available as a two- or four-door SUV, and as a two-door pickup. The first four-door model arrived in 1957, and offered seating for up to 10 passengers.
The International Federation of the Red Cross began officially using the Series I in the 1950s and would continue using the off-roader around the world for decades.
The Series II Land Rover was produced from 1958 and 1971 and had smoother sheet metal, although the boxy SUV never strayed far from its farm roots. The Series II evolved to include 12-passenger variants, cab-over work trucks, emergency and military vehicles, and more Red Cross relief vehicles.
The Series III was introduced in 1971, although its looks drew a straight line back to the Series I. The Series III was produced until 1985, when it was renamed the Defender with minor cosmetic changes. The Series III offered modest comfort features such as a modern gearbox, a molded dashboard, soundproofed glass, and cloth interior upholstery.
In 1983, the Series III was renamed to the Land Rover Defender 90, 110, and 130 (and 127) models, which were produced up until 1990. Those Defenders were largely identical to the Series III SUVs but added a permanent four-wheel-drive system, coil springs, and a larger hood.
By 1990, Land Rover upgraded the Defender to a boxy SUV with more creature comforts but the same capability. A wide range of engines were available underhood, which reflected the various corporate owners of Land Rover. Everything from BMW to Ford to Jaguar engines powered the Land Rover (not including licensed products from Isuzu and Hyundai) Defender. The Defender 90 was sold in the U.S. until 1997, when airbag regulations prohibited the import of those SUVs without significant additional costs.