SAN DIEGO — Fifteen years ago, I owned a Land Rover Discovery for about 18 months. Against all logic and reason, I adored it.
It was at the mechanic for more than four months of my ownership, struggled to reach 13 miles per gallon, and left me stranded on the side of the highway when the engine grenaded itself and spread a cloud of bits of metal and smoke and oil all over the road.
Land Rover has a (deserved) reputation for questionable quality and also a (deserved) rep for owners that absolutely love them despite their foibles. My Discovery was a bit like a family dog that destroys your shoes and tears up the couch cushions, but you can't bear to part with it because it looks at you with such loving adoration.
These days, Land Rover has a new owner and new engines, and a whole new ethos. It'll take some time to figure out if the quality issues have been fixed, but after a week behind the wheel of the new Defender, I can tell you that the Land Rover love is stronger than ever.
The Defender is the hardcore off-roader of the Land Rover lineup, returning to the US for the first time since the early 90s. It's not quite as boxy and militaristically practical as the old Defender, though. The new one is a touch softer and more welcoming, which the purists will hate. But of course, they're wrong, as purists so often are.
My test truck was a four-door Defender 110 in Santorini Black with an Ebony interior. It costs $78,595 and was far better than I expected it to be, even coming in with high hopes.
At the heart of it all is a 3-liter 6-cylinder turbocharged hybrid engine making an impressive 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. My old Discovery wasn't what you would call "sprightly," but the Defender was almost zippy thanks to enthusiastic and torque-happy acceleration, particularly when passing.
The outrageously unnecessary powertrain has all-wheel drive with high and low ranges, plus a whole host of selectable on- and off-road drive modes, hill descent control, and an adaptive air suspension with multiple levels. Considering that most Defenders will be used to drive to Whole Foods or soccer practice, a vehicle capable of navigating rather bonkers terrain is total overkill — but it's nice to know you could.
Everything about the Defender design is related to practicality when exploring the Serengeti or having the appearance of such. There are clever storage bins absolutely everywhere in the cabin. The doors, the dash and the center console are filled with places to put things. I found spots for my wallet, phone, sunglasses, spare water bottles, lottery tickets, a Chick-Fil-A drive-thru order, a laptop and an iPad with room to spare.
My Defender included the $4,800 Explorer Pack that added a raised air intake, a gorgeous Expedition Roof Rack for affixing incredible amounts of gear, and a side-mounted lockable storage compartment that hangs off the side of the truck near the back. What would you put in there? I don't know, extra sunscreen? But it's the size of a large backpack, and it looks fantastic, which is what matters.
The 360-degree cameras are some of the highest-quality I've seen in a vehicle. They're extra handy if you do take it off-road because the Defender has custom views that can show a live shot of the front wheels so you can see which way you're going on a tricky up- or downhill stretch. It also has a trick feature that makes the hood of the car "invisible" to help you navigate boulders in your path.
Sensors can measure the depth of water you're trying to ford, while the air suspension can give you a few extra inches of ground clearance or drop down to make it easier to climb in and out.
The seats are covered in a rugged neoprene material that should make them easy to clean after dirty outdoor activities, and there are numerous grab handles for every passenger should the ride get a little rough.
The Defender looks terrific. It drives amazingly on-road and off. And it perfectly embodies something I'm calling "off-road lux." Most Defenders will likely never see anything more taxing than a speed bump in a supermarket parking lot or perhaps a lane that sometimes has leaves on it.
But you know in your heart that no matter where you need to go, the Land Rover Defender can get you there and back again. Unlike many SUVs that only look the part, the Defender walks the walk.
I'm in love with a Land Rover all over again. And with a 4-year, 50,000-mile warranty this time around, what could possibly go wrong?
The as-tested window sticker: