Land Rover returns to its roots – and new Defender will return to the US market

CNBC Automobile 2 weeks ago

It's been nearly four years since the last Land Rover Defender rolled off the assembly line – and a full 22 years since the big off-roader last was seen in U.S. showrooms.

But Defender – the closest thing the British brand has to its brutish, off-road roots – is back. The official debut this week of an all-new model at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show marks its return to the American market.

"There is strong pent-up demand," noted trade publication Automotive News, after word that the new version of the Land Rover Defender would come back to the U.S.

It took quite a bit of work to get here, Land Rover officials have explained, the new version of the SUV now brought in line with U.S. emissions and crash standards that the older Defender had run afoul of when it was pulled from the market. The new Defender also had to meet increasingly stringent government mandates in other parts of the world.

That was one of the key reasons why the two engines offered for the American market include a new mild hybrid system. It uses a 48-volt electric drive system that functions as a motorized supercharger. This approach is meant to deliver the best of both worlds, improving fuel economy and lowering CO2 emissions while also punching out 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque -- enough to launch from 0 to 60 in just 7.7 seconds.

There also will be a turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 295 horsepower.

Going into the project, said Ralph Speth, the CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, the big challenge was coming up with a way to "redefine an icon." That required more than just a new powertrain line-up. Among other things, an entirely new "architecture," or platform was developed.

If anything, the goal was to give the new model even greater capabilities than before. With its new "Wade Sensing" system, the new Land Rover will even be able to ford nearly three feet of water. When switched on, using the first-ever Defender touchscreen infotainment system, it automatically softens the throttle response, raises ride height to maximum, locks the driveline and switches the HVAC system to recirculate cabin air.

Like other Land Rover models, virtually everything about the new Defender can be controlled electronically, in fact. A single twist of the Configurable Terrain Response control adjusts functions like ride height, transmission shifts, throttle response and braking to make it easy to adapt to situations where a driver might need to cope with deep ruts, heavy snow, slick rocks – or the highway.

Meanwhile, Jaguar Land Rover said it will launch the new Defender with about 170 accessories allowing extensive customization – much of that for serious off-roaders.

When the new Land Rover Defender was first shown in European trim at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, Chief Design Officer Gerry McGovern pointed to the new model and suggested, "The new Defender is respectful of its past but is not harnessed by it."

The new model is, without question, more traditional than many of the car-based crossovers now on the market, but there are more curves than on the boxy old Defender, which was defined by its angles and creases, and that has created at least some noise among Land Rover fans.

"There's been controversy and that's to be expected when you mess with an icon," said Larry Printz, a classic car expert and a judge at numerous antique car shows. That said, fans "who want the old Defender should go find an old Defender. For those who expected the new one to look like the old one, that's fantasy."

The U.S. automotive market has changed dramatically since the original Defender was sold here. More than two decades ago, there were substantially fewer SUVs on the market but they tended to be classic, body-on-frame, or truck-like, in design. Today, utility vehicles make up half of new product sales – but the vast majority of them are car-based "crossovers" trading some off-road capabilities for on-road manners.

Defender will go up most directly against the handful of classic SUVs craved with serious off-roaders, including the Lexus LX, the Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the Toyota Land Cruiser at the high time, as well as more affordable offerings such as the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota 4-Runner.

Two versions of the new Land Rover SUV will be offered, the five-door Defender 110 coming first and priced at $50,925 including delivery fees. It will be followed by a three-door Defender 90. Fully loaded, the 110 is expected to reach $80,000 – and even higher with aftermarket accessories.

The five-door will reach U.S. showrooms next spring. For those who want more of a look at the reborn Defender, it will be one of the cars to be showcased in the upcoming James Bond film, "No Time to Die."

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