While vehicles of all stripes carry on for decades with seemingly little change, this is a particularly common phenomenon in the world of off-road-focused SUVs. The latest JL Jeep Wrangler may have a load of improvements and increased refinement, but to the eyes of the person on the street there’s minimal difference compared to previous versions. The Mercedes G-class in another for which you’d have to be quite the fan—or an automotive writer—to note the differences between the all-new 2019 model and its slowly evolved predecessor. The British have their own off-road stalwart in the Land Rover Defender, and there’s finally a new one coming after more than a decade out of production. It’s even returning to the U.S. for the first time in longer than that, but the big question is whether Land Rover will get it right. Beyond that, what does “getting it right” even mean in this context?
The Defender’s predecessor—the Land Rover Series I—began production in 1948, while the Defender itself was built from 1983 to 2006. (It left the U.S. market after 1997.) The Defender received few significant improvements to refinement over its long life and the last of the run was still very agricultural. It’s expected that those who wish for a similarly brutish Defender when the new lands in customer hands in 2020 will be gravely disappointed.
But let’s jump back to the Wrangler and G-class for a moment. Both Jeep and Mercedes did a fantastic job with their latest off-roaders. They’re each cut from the same cloth as previous versions but carry welcomed improvements including a bump in drivability. The latter is particularly true with the Mercedes, with its new independent front suspension. The Wrangler isn’t as much of a transformation, but I don’t think it needs to be—or should be. A live front axle is the proper setup for a Wrangler.
Getting back to the new Defender, the old-school, body-on-frame chassis isn’t returning—something the Wrangler and G-class each maintain. The new Landie will share the basic D7u aluminum unibody construction with the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and Discovery, which brings along independent suspension all around. Of course, hard-core fans of the Defender won’t like that dramatic change, but Land Rover is focused on more than keeping its traditional buyers happy.
From what I have seen, heard, and read, in terms of luxury, the upcoming Defender looks to be more in the vein of the latest G than the Wrangler. Now, I don’t expect the Defender to cost $100K, but it will be posher and more comfortable than the Jeep. Base price should be around $50,000, maybe a bit more. And unlike the current Benz SUV, there will be multiple wheelbases and body styles, just like with the old Defender, including a three-door 90 model. I’m not sure if a manual gearbox will be in cards (I’d say it’s unlikely) but a lineup of engines is a sure thing, including diesel and gas in certain markets. There’s even talk of hybrid and full-electric models.
And all may not be lost for the more old-school buyer. The Defender won’t simply be a model, as Land Rover is positioning it as its off-road-ier sub-brand, joining the posher Range Rover and more approachable Discovery, and it will spawn multiple vehicles. As such, a more entry-level Defender could be offered. I’m not sure it will be basic enough to satisfy the tradition British farmer or your typical African safari needs, but we’ll see. There may also be a Sport version, just as there is under the Range Rover and Discovery umbrellas.
We must also remember that the new Defender isn’t remotely an easy project for Land Rover. No matter what, they’re going to piss some people off. Remember the 996-generation Porsche 911? It was what Porsche needed to do to save the company, but many didn’t like it. That controversial water-cooled sports car began the modern 911 story—and look how impressive later versions became. It’s a similar story at Land Rover. Between flagging diesel sales and the uncertainly of Brexit, there’s an air of doom and gloom at the company. They must make sure the Defender sells well, putting many more units into the garages of a wider range of buyers versus the old version. The new Defender simply can’t be as niche a player.
Interestingly, photos of four-door Defender prototypes show it carrying a profile somewhat similar to the old LR4 (Discovery 4 in Europe). The latest, fifth-generation Discovery doesn’t do much for me. It’s gone soft and lost its balanced proportions. And it seems I’m not alone. I have multiple friends on both sides of the pond who own the old LR4/Discovery 4 and none of them plan to upgrade to the new model. Perhaps Land Rover plans a version of the new Defender that can keep LR4/Discovery 4 owners happy; we should find out when the official reveal comes, likely in late 2019. But one thing that’s clear, for better or worse, is that the all-new Defender isn’t following the same playbook as the Wrangler and G-class. We should know quickly after the Defender launches whether that’s a winning strategy.