By Shari Prymak

The Land Rover Defender is an absolute icon in the world of off-roaders. It has a rich history which can trace its roots back to the original Series 1 Land Rover of the 1950s. Its legendary reputation as a simple, rugged overlander has earned it an enthusiastic and loyal fan base around the world. After more than a two decade absence from the North American market, Land Rover has reintroduced its iconic nameplate to our shores. Unlike the original, however, the latest Defender is no compromised barebones rig. Although it has a good dose of nostalgia to it to keep the traditional loyalists interested, Land Rover has taken the nameplate to never before seen levels of luxury and sophistication.

From a design standpoint, the Defender brilliantly manages to invoke the charm of the original while looking entirely modern and upscale.  It looks especially good when decked out with a range of off-road appropriate accessories such as the expedition roof rack, side-mounted carrier, snorkel air intake, and flared wheel arches equipped to my tester. The Defender is offered in two wheelbase variants: the 90 and 110. While the two-door 90 version is slightly more off-road capable and more authentic to the original Defender, the four-door 110 is the far more practical version with a more spacious passenger and cargo area.

The Defender’s outstanding design continues into the interior where it masterfully blends rugged simplicity with upscale luxury. The materials used throughout have an off-road appropriate durable finish, yet still manage to look and feel surprisingly luxurious. The simple off-roader theme of the interior also blends well with the advanced technology such as the sharp-looking digital instrument cluster and touchscreen infotainment system. The displays are visually impressive and well-designed with clear, responsive menu structures. The multi-functional digital dials are a neat touch, serving as the controls for the temperature, fan speed, heated/cooled seats, and terrain response system.

The Defender packs the right hardware to live up to its go-anywhere heritage. The full-time all-wheel drive system offers a true low range with electronic locking differentials and an optional electronic air suspension with up to 290mm of ground clearance. In its highest setting with the terrain response system set for the appropriate surface, the Defender is armed to tackle just about anything Mother Nature can throw at it. The real time camera system can depict every movement in the display, including wading depth as the Defender is capable of fording 900mm deep bodies of water. If you want a go-anywhere zombie apocalypse ready vehicle, the Defender is your ride.

As capable as it is off road, the Defender is no one trick pony. Unlike the previous generation models which had the on road manners of a farm tractor, the new Defender handles urban duties as competently as any luxury SUV. The fully-independent long-travel air suspension offers outstanding ride quality that’s as comfortable as a full-blown Range Rover. Despite its cushiness, it also handles corners remarkably well with excellent body control and maneuverability. Naturally, the Defender can be optioned with all the latest active safety technology, camera systems, and driving aids to make daily use a non-issue.

The standard drivetrain consists of a turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyinder engine producing 296 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The optional engine is a turbocharged and electrically supercharged 3.0L inline-6 which makes a far more impressive 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Both engines come matched to a smooth-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission and are rated to tow up to 3,500kg. The inline-6 is the more desirable engine option, offering buttery smooth power delivery, incredible pull, and a seamless engine start-stop system thanks to it 48-volt mild hybrid system.

Pricing starts at $59,700 and stretch into the low $100,000 range depending on how off-road ready or how luxurious one goes with the options. The Defender straddles a desirable space between the more utilitarian off-roaders such as the Jeep Wrangler or Toyota 4Runner, and the top-dog luxury offerings like the Range Rover or Mercedes G-Wagon. Other than the questionable long-term reliability which has always been a sore point for Land Rovers, the Defender is every bit as accomplished and talented as one could ask of it.  It may lack the single-focus charm of its predecessors, but, as much as the enthusiasts hate to admit, a crude stripped-down off-roader was never really in the cards. The Defender is a perfect modern interpretation of an icon, and it’s mostly better for it.