As I pulled into the “Destination Defender” event’s dirt lots, I panicked, approaching my appointed roosting space. Despite kicking the terrain selector up to mud, the all-season tires on our all-new Land Rover Defender 130’s 20-inch wheels spun and slid. Luckily, I came in with momentum and skidded into a spot on a slight ridge.
In Upstate New York, the sun was shining, and the temperatures climbed into the mid-60s. This was ideal, if unusually warm, for mid-November. However, Hurricane Nicole, the 14th named storm of the year’s Atlantic season, had wended its way up the eastern seaboard and dumped a month of rain the previous night.
The mud was deep enough to subsume the soles of my boots and place the dark stain of environmental degradation on my soul as well.
The event was, as the name implies, a celebration of all things Defender: a rugged, immensely capable, all-wheel-drive vehicle with roots back to the founding of the Land Rover brand in the immediate post-war era as a Jeep for the British gentry. Original design Defender derivatives were in production consistently until 2016. Even here, though they weren’t always available in the U.S., the affection for these old trucks is reverential. They are beloved despite (or because of) their lack of comfort, sophistication, and on-road manners. If All Cars Are Drag, and they are, the Defender is Salomon hiking boot couture.
The “new” Defender, introduced in 2020, adjusts that reputation for the modern age when everything is an SUV, and every SUV must be able to do everything. Or at least look like it can.
While the Defender lost some of the arcane signifiers of off-road capability—like a solid rear axle and body-on-frame construction—it retains amazing prowess and adds a deluxe-yet-rugged interior and on-road refinement that trounces its nearest competitors, the Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco. Both of those Americans feel, behave, and sound on streets and highways, about as sophisticated as a Neolithic bullock cart.
The 130 I was driving is the latest and largest iteration of the new Defender family, which already includes the classically stubby two-door 90 and the extended-wheelbase four-door 110. All three lengths have decades of Land Rover heritage, with the numerological assignations corresponding roughly to the wheelbase in inches. This practice has been dispatched. Similarly, though the 130 was offered only as an open-bed pickup in the past, this new incarnation is not only a closed SUV, it shares its wheelbase with the 110. It is, however, extended, with an extra 13.4 inches grafted on behind its rear wheels.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the 130’s exterior looks a bit… extruded. It’s got a big butt. Still, it’s nowhere near as inelegant as the taffied ass of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, which appears to be attempting to shoplift a kitchen stove in its back pocket. Still, the extra visual weight imbalances the truck’s historic shortly overhung rear proportions. It also impacts departure angle, if you care, decreasing the decline 30 percent, from 40 degrees to 28.5. The elimination of the long horizontal clerestory windows punched into the rearmost portion of the roof on the 90 and 110, another heritage callback, de-accentuates the visual heft back there.
But what the 130 gains on the interior is impressive. While a cramped, two-person third row has been available as an option on the 110, the 130’s additional length allows the inclusion of a 60/40-split folding third row with places for three passengers. I’m five feet eleven inches tall, and with the front seat set for my ideal position, I fit comfortably in both rear rows. Granted, the cushion in the wayback is a bit low but far from forcing any knee licking. It was suitable for a jaunt. For young kids, it would be downright commodious.
With standard seat heaters, USB-C ports, elevated stadium positioning, and an overhead glass roof with a manual shade, this bench is anything but sepulchral. A separate aft-end climate zone system is optional and worthwhile if it will be regularly occupied. The 130 gains 3.0 cubic feet of additional cargo space with the third seat up—enough to swallow a weekend’s worth of bags for two—and 9.0 more with it down over the three-row 110. All this inner space costs about an additional $8000 beyond the 110’s chit.
Of course, the extra length impacts the 130’s total mass, which increases by over 500-pounds compared to the 110. Fuel economy from the 395-hp/406 lb-ft electrically boosted 3.0-liter inline-six thus diminishes five percent, from 20 mpg combined to 19. And 0-to-60 acceleration increases a half-second from 5.8 to 6.3. This is a noticeable amount on road, though not enough to arouse on-ramp merging panic. The addition of the 518-hp/461 lb-ft supercharged V-8, already available in the 90 and 110, would help the alacrity issue but further hinder fuel economy.
On-road, the 130 mimics the smooth ride of the 110 on straights and through sweepers—the standard adaptable air suspension helps—though the extra weight out back makes it a bit more unwieldy on tight corners, though, at 5500 pounds and 6.5-feet tall and 16.5 feet long, this isn’t exactly a sports car. Off-road, the Defender demolishes nearly any terrain. I drove over a ribbed cascade of two-foot moguls that stranded two alternating wheels in the air. I traversed muddy ruts that approached the centerline of the five-spoked 20-inchers. I crossed over a log bridge and into a bog, storm-deepened by nearly a foot, according to the instructor. “How deep is it now?” I asked. “About 35 inches,” he said. “And… what’s the fording depth of this vehicle?” my query continued as murky water approached the beltline. “About 35 inches,” he said.
Of course, the Defender 130’s immense abilities don’t come cheap—prices start at $68,000, and most (like the one I drove) will carry stickers beyond $80,000. And a Defender of any number doesn’t necessarily make one impervious. Though I readily slipped out of the mired parking area after the event, a colleague wasn’t so lucky. He rocked his 130 back and forth for an hour, spewing bathing-elephant trails of sludgy gumbo to no end. We helpfully asked, “Did you try putting the car in the mud setting?” Eventually, a bulldozer yanked him free.
With the Earth’s ongoing haywire highwire act, the best offense may not always be a good Defender.
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