The Land Rover Defender is an icon. The rugged off-roader traveled the Globe with the British army. It was a vehicle fit for both queen and commoner. The world bid a fond farewell to it when its 67-year production run ended in 2016. The Defender is also a cultural phenomenon. It has become one of the most exclusive vintage cars.
Prices inflate in the U.S. We’re limited to imports and survivors from a limited U.S. production run that ended in 1998 when we unworldly Yanks decided to require front airbags. But, even factoring that in, vintage Defenders fetch ludicrous prices. Clean versions, whatever the mileage, can run $70,000 to $100,000 – enough to buy a new Range Rover. Custom resto-mods can run much higher.
Land Rover believes it can capitalize on that phenomenon. The company will relaunch the Defender in 2020, and that SUV will be sold in the U.S. The new Defender will be one of 2019’s most anticipated car debuts. That debut could be an incredible disappointment.
The engineering challenge is enormous. Reinventing the Defender is more than just a square peg/round hole problem. You can convert a boxy, body-on-frame truck into a unibody, shared platform vehicle that meets modern safety and emissions standards. The trick is doing so while retaining the original vehicle’s charm. Jeep has never resolved this dilemma with the Wrangler. The company’s solution has been punting the problem as far into the future as it can. It’s easy to aim for a Wrangler, make a few necessary compromises, and end up with something more akin to Renegade, much easier than getting it right.
Land Rover must nail the styling. The Defender’s appeal has nothing to do with everyday performance. Those sought after originals, being completely honest, were janky, uncomfortable and underpowered. It’s all in the chic appearance and exclusivity. The Defender dream is having ECD Automotive Design build a more comfortable, reliable car with a Land Rover shell.
The new Defender can be as luxe and off-road capable as Land Rover can make it. But, it has to look appealing and, just as important, distinctive. There’s little margin for error. If the new design doesn’t grab us immediately, the car will blend right into the Land Rover background.
It’s not clear where the Defender’s market niche will be. Like the Wrangler, Land Rover will make their money with the four-door version. The trouble is Land Rover already dominates the four-door, upscale, stylish, off-road specialist SUV market. Variations of that exact car are Land Rover’s entire lineup. The Defender’s base price will probably come in where the Wrangler market tops out. Will the new Defender lure Jeep buyers to spend more? Or, will it be luring away drivers from the rest of the Land Rover stable?
Pulling off a complete Defender overhaul that recaptures the original and meets expectations will require a bold feat of engineering and design innovation. That’s not really Land Rover’s element. You don’t go to Barbour to redefine the jacket for the modern era.
We may get the perfect fusion of past and future for the modern off-roader with the new Defender. I’d put my money on it only being a slightly boxier Discovery. I hope I’m wrong.