Back in the U.S. for the first time in more than two decades, the 2021 Land Rover Defender is clearly off to a good start with strong sales, solid reviews and, today, the honor of being named Motor Trend SUV of the Year.
The closest thing the British marque now has to its brutish, off-road roots, production of the Defender was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic which temporarily shut down automotive assembly plants around the world. Land Rover is now facing a different challenge, strong demand that has its factory running overtime.
“It’s a great achievement, and an honor, for the New Defender to be selected as the SUV of the Year from MotorTrend,” said Joe Eberhardt, president & CEO, Jaguar Land Rover North America. “We know enthusiasts have been waiting for the return of this icon back to the U.S for more than 20 years, and we especially want to thank our designers, engineers and everyone else at Land Rover for helping to create a 21st century Defender that can be personalized and enjoyed for generations to come.”
The launch of the Defender effectively completed Land Rover’s three-segment strategy, with mainstream products like the Discovery, high-line offerings bearing the Range Rover name, and the Defender targeting those who want true, go-anywhere SUVs.
Defender was as close to a brand icon as anything in the Land Rover line-up but the British brand wrapped up production five years ago.
The company spent the following years trying to figure out how to bring it back in more modern form – among other things, finding ways to meet emissions and crash mandates in the U.S. market where Defender was last sold in 1998.
The big challenge was coming up with a way to “redefine an icon,” said former Jaguar Land Rover global CEO Ralf Speth. That required more than just a new powertrain line-up. Among other things, an entirely new platform was developed. Meanwhile, Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern and his team struggled to find the right visual balance, one picking up classic Defender cues without falling into a retro trap.
“The new Defender is respectful of its past but is not harnessed by it,” McGovern said when the SUV was unveiled at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show.
As might be expected, there have been critics among loyal Defender fans, but the positive reviews have all but drowned them out.
“We are thrilled to honor the Land Rover Defender with our SUV of the Year award,” said MotorTrend Editor-in-Chief Mark Rechtin. “Part of the word ‘transportation’ is not just the driving but the feeling of being transported. 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.”
The magazine looked at 28 all-new and redesigned SUVs, judging them according to six categories: safety, efficiency, value, advancement in design, engineering excellence, and performance of the intended function
The Defender fended off five other finalists: the Cadillac Escalade, Genesis GV80, Kia Seltos, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota Venza.
The Motor Trend trophy typically marks the beginning of the annual awards season. The Land Rover Defender is already seen as a strong contender in other closely watched competition, including the North American Utility Vehicle of the Year where it is one of the semi-finalists, with jurors set to cut back to three finalists in the coming months.