Perhaps a designer’s greatest challenge is creating a worthy successor to a classic original. For many vehicles, progressive evolution over generations is to be expected. But when it comes to icons of style and performance, stakes are greatly increased. Such is the case with the 2020 Land Rover Defender.
Just unveiled at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show, the new Defender—chassis code L663—is the first redesign since 1983. Incremental changes came between then and the end of the 90 and 110 models’ production in 2016, but it still wore the boxy, upright, agricultural aesthetic adored since the 1948 Series I.
The L663 had a style to uphold, but more important, a purpose. The Defender is a near-perfect example of form following function. It needed to remain capable of tackling extreme trails and deep wilderness, while carrying gear or even providing refuge in dire situations.
Outside, it effectively blends contrasting descriptors: tough yet cute, boxy yet rounded, modern yet classic. Overall there’s a concept car vibe to it, like it’s a bit too far out there for production. But no, it’s ready for the real world.
Up front, semicircular LEDs mimic classic round bulbs, with smaller elements at their sides a tie-in to indicators seen on past Defenders. The boxy lenses pay homage to the fender-mounted enclosures seen previously, while coming in line with other Land Rover products’ complex LED light signatures. The grille, however, takes a new approach. It’s more faceted than ever before; prior models often wore little more than slats or mesh panels. The hood is more smoothly integrated with the fender tops, rather than protruding above. What carries over excellently, though, are the DEFENDER letters proudly marking the fascia’s top line.
In profile, the retro-modern theme continues. It’s practically devoid of sculpting, but the flat shoulder line stretching end to end is a key Defender cue. Fender flares are subtly boxed, similar to the 90 and 110. The functional air inlets have grown, however. One nice detail: the black bar spanning the lower width of the windshield, which flows across the A-pillars into the side mirrors. A more controversial detail: the square. In our Facts and Figures video from Frankfurt, Land Rover explains how that C-pillar panel is a structural, feature-adding element on the four-door 110. However, on the two-door 90, it’s solely aesthetic. Some will think it’s cool, some will hate how it blocks visibility, but in either case, it’s optional on the 90.
The rear end effectively progresses hallmark cues as well. It’s still a flat panel with a similar silhouette, particularly the hip bulge below the greenhouse. In previous generations taillights were hardly more than parts catalog tack-ons; in the L663 they’re more decorated, if only barely. Main lights are set into black vertical bars, with smaller indicators in the body aft of those. Of course, there’s a spare tire mounted on the side-hinged rear cargo door.
True revolution took place inside. Gone is the exposed machinery and spartan minimalism. While opulence was not the target, the L663’s interior now becomes thoroughly modern. It still looks purposeful, with plenty of grab handles and compartments to aid livability on- or off-road. A stubby selector replaces long-arm manual gear or range levers. Digital screens and dials abound, with USB ports and steering wheel-mounted controls to bring it into contemporaneity. Optional wood veneers or metal tints are available, as well as varied shades of upholsteries. It looks as ready to cross wispy dunes as it does urban jungles.
Also great about the new 2020 Defender is the ability to personalize it. Besides two distinct body styles, Land Rover offers some 170 individual options covering all manners of style and performance so it’s suited for the driver’s personal adventures. Wheel options abound, ranging from 18-inch steelies to eye-catching 22s. Paint can be had in gloss or matte finish. Roof racks, mudflaps, and skid plates improve its versatility. Unusual—but super cool—options like a side ladder, exterior cargo pod, and front row center jump seat take that even further.
Improving an icon is a huge challenge, but Land Rover has succeeded with the new Defender. It’s far more stylish than before, but just as capable as ever. Surely, it’s a refreshing reinvention of a classic—deftly earning the letters on its hood, and a place in the storied lineup. Time to get it out there and get lost.