MotorTrend named the new Land Rover Defender as its 2021 SUV of the Year. The newly designed Defender recently returned to the US market after the model had not been sold here for more than 20 years.
Like the Jeep Wrangler or Ford’s Bronco, the Defender is built to withstand serious off-road use – even though many buyers will rarely take it beyond the suburbs. When it was first unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany in 2019, Land Rover boasted it had been subjected to “Extreme Event Test” procedures that were far more rigorous than those ordinarily used in the auto industry.
MotorTrend editors were impressed by the Defender’s performance on the road – as well as off – and by its design, which gave a sense of adventure.
“You can tell that Land Rover spent the extra money to make the interior look rugged, but also be rugged,” said editor-in-chief Mark Rechtin.
Tracing its roots back to the original Land Rover models that went into production shortly after World War II, the Defender name wasn’t used until 1990. The Defender went out of production altogether in 2016 and was last sold in the US in 1997.
The new Defender has a modern design that carries styling cues from classic boxy Land Rovers. It’s currently available in the four-door Defender 110 version, with a starting price of about $50,000. The two-door Defender 90 will be available early next year with prices starting at about $46,000.
Land Rover has a few SUVs in its lineup with similar exterior dimensions and prices, Rechtin said, but the brand manages to make each one appeal to a different sort of customer. The Defender will attract those who want to go far off-road – or at least look like they do. All the same, said Rechtin, it drives well on pavement, too.
“I’m sure there’s gonna be plenty of people who will never take it off-road, who just want to buy it because it’s cool looking and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said.
To be eligible for MotorTrend’s award, an SUV model had to be completely new or substantially redesigned for the 2021 model year. Last year’s winner was the Kia Telluride.
A total of 28 SUV models were in competition for the award this year. The vehicles were put through instrumented tests, with results measured by computer-connected monitors. Then MotorTrend staffers drove all the contenders and met to discuss their subjective impressions and vote on the winner.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s testing did not include off-road driving. It would have just been logistically too difficult to get all the SUVs out to a remote off-road location at the same time, said Rechtin. (All the subjective driving tests involve driving the same vehicles on the same roads at or near the same time.) Some MotorTrend journalists had previously driven the Defender in difficult off-road environments, though, Rechtin said.
The SUVs were judged on six criteria: safety, efficiency, value, advancement in design, engineering excellence, and performance of the intended function, MotorTrend said.