Sport utility vehicles as we know them have transformed from go-anywhere tools to mall-crawling tall wagons and minivan substitutes. Most vehicles we refer to today as SUVs are actually CUVs— car-based crossovers lifted up in the air a few inches, not for ground clearance but because people like to sit up high.
There is no mistaking the Land Rover Defender for one of these poseurs. That said, the Defender itself has metamorphosed to play in the current times. It ditches the decades-old steel frame of the previous L316 version (itself an evolution of the original “Series” Land Rovers, a chromosome or two removed from a farm tractor). Instead, the new L663 Defender sports an aluminum unibody. Perhaps most shocking of all to loyalists and off-roading aficionados, the live axles have been dropped in favor of fully independent suspension. How do you say “sacrilege” in the Queen’s English? Yet if asked to traverse great swaths of rutted, tumbling African trails, the Defender is a steadfast, undeterred companion and guide.
It seems like a simple decision to hand the Calipers to the lads from Solihull. But not so fast. Merely being a rough-and-tumble “real” SUV does not automatically earn you SUV of the Year.
Even during this global-crisis reality, we put all 28 contender vehicles (including variants) through a slew of instrumented and evaluative tests, checking everything from acceleration and handling to second-row passenger space, from fuel economy to infotainment intuitiveness.
In so doing, we cut our list to six finalists then dove back in for a round to test (among other things) rough road ride, switchback cornering, and smart cruise control at freeway speeds.
At the end of a less-than-ideal process, one SUV stood roof rack and rear view above the rest. This year, the 2021 SUV of the Year result is not only the obvious one, but it’s also the surprising one and the feel-good one.
There are certain vehicles you can feel are special after only 50 feet of driving. Or, if you’re features editor Christian Seabaugh, “Three feet is all the Defender needs to put a smile on your face.” I remember having this feeling after 30 seconds in a Dodge Challenger Hellcat. Same thing happened with a Bugatti EB110 SS and a Ford Fiesta ST. The type of vehicle doesn’t matter as much as the intent behind the vehicle. After 100 yards across a parking lot leading to the drive route, I radioed to my fellow judges, “Can we just call the Land Rover the winner and head home?” Cheeky, as the Brits would say? You bet your bubble and squeak. However, I had a point.
“Part of the word ‘transportation’ is not just the driving but the feeling of being transported,” editor-in-chief Mark Rechtin said. “The moment you get into a Land Rover Defender, you are transported. Every design element gives the aura of journey, safari, moving outward into the world with courage.” I had a similar thought in my own notes: “The Defender makes me feel like going on an adventure. Preferably across an unpaved continent.” Features editor Scott Evans was even more succinct: “It has a snorkel. You can hear it sucking in air when you accelerate. Sold.”
Speaking for me, I was predisposed to think the new Defender wouldn’t be any good. Based on what, though?
I had convinced myself that the removal of its live axles, especially the rear one, would render the Land Rover neutered. My two favorite luxury off-roaders—the Mercedes-Benz G 550 and Toyota Land Cruiser—both employ a rear stick axle and feature unassailable capability.
I had also convinced myself that Land Rover was simply going to dress up the Defender as a serious off-roader, not be one. I know others feel the same way, including possibly some of you and specifically everyone on Instagram.
Then our young Seabaugh proved all us haters and doubters wrong when he drove a Defender 110 across Namibia—498 miles off-road, only 2 miles on pavement. Full disclosure: I ran into a pack of prototype Defender mules easily handling the Poison Spider Trail in Moab, Utah. That’s about as tough of a rock crawling adventure as a stock vehicle can handle.
So even though I knew, I didn’t really know. Put a better way, I didn’t choose to believe. Anyhow, I’m pleasantly surprised at how wrong I was.
The Defender, like the G-Wagen and Land Cruiser, as well as the 900-pound mountain goat of the off-road world, the Jeep Wrangler, is an icon. Car enthusiasts want icons to be great, not just good. There is a reason why so many owners and admirers have loved them as hard for as long.
If the new Defender was just OK or even a complete betrayal of its roots, I suppose Land Rover would sell enough on looks alone to justify the development cost—but the rig’s status as a true icon would be forever over. Fears unjustified.
“I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see the return of the Land Rover Defender,” head of editorial Ed Loh said. “I’m also happy to report that it’s good. Really good. Definitely the most emotional choice here. No vehicle made me smile more.” Added Seabaugh: “Man, this thing just puts a smile on my face.” See? The Defender just feels good. It feels right.
But a vehicle cannot earn an SUV of the Year win on emotion alone. It must show excellence against our six key criteria.
Advancement in Design
I’ll admit that when I first saw pictures of the new Defender, I was not a fan. Then I stumbled into one at an auto show (remember those?), and my opinion did a 180. There’s a scale to the vehicle that you simply can’t grasp from photos.
“Looks way better in person than in the pictures,” MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said. “The design is futuristic, modern, iconic, and outstanding. It incorporates the Defender’s DNA with the modern design cues of today.” From whatever angle you view it, the Defender stands out and lets you know exactly what it is, though perhaps the rear is where the most is happening.
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