Does the Land Rover Defender Deserve To Be Motor Trend’s 2021 SUV of the Year?

Despite their luxury appearance and reputation, Land Rover’s SUVs have genuine off-road chops. Yes, even the Velar and the Evoque. However, few are quite as iconic or beloved as the classic Land Rover Defender. Which, like the Ford Bronco, was recently reborn in modern form. By all accounts, the 2021 Land Rover Defender does justice to its name. But with the brand’s unreliable reputation, is it worthy of being Motor Trend’s 2021 SUV of the Year?

How did Motor Trend determine its 2021 SUV of the Year?

Motor Trend’s annual SUV of the Year contest doesn’t just include body-on-frame SUVs anymore. The term now also refers to car-based crossovers, which means more options for consumers and more competitors to test.

A silver 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 drives through the desert
2021 Land Rover Defender 110 | Land Rover

For 2021, the competition included 28 different new or refreshed models, ranging from the Tesla Model Y to the GMC Yukon. Some, like the 2021 Land Rover Defender, had off-road tech. Others, like the Mazda CX-30, were more about on-road performance.

Motor Trend hasn’t discussed its specific testing methodology. However, all of its SUV of the Year contenders were evaluated against the same basic criteria. They include value, fuel efficiency, design and engineering advances and execution, safety, and “[p]erformance of [i]ntended [f]unction.” That last criterium essentially means that, as long as a performance SUV delivers on its promise, it won’t be dinged for having poorer off-road capabilities. Or vice versa.

And after 10 days of testing, the 2021 Land Rover Defender was crowned the winner.

Why did Motor Trend pick the 2021 Land Rover Defender?

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The Land Rover Defender has changed significantly from its origins, Motor Trend notes. The classic model is a direct descendant of the original Land Rover—a rugged, body-on-frame British CJ Jeep.

In contrast, the 2021 Defender is a crossover, riding on the same aluminum-heavy unibody platform as the Range Rover and Discovery. And while the latest Wrangler retains its solid axles, the new Defender has independent suspension.

However, that doesn’t mean the 2021 Land Rover Defender can’t venture off-road. It has more ground clearance than the Wrangler, Motor1 reports, and greater wading depth. Also, while the Wrangler has a better approach angle, the Defender has better break-over and departure angles. Plus, it has full-time four-wheel drive with a 2-speed transfer case, a standard locking center differential and an optional locking rear differential, Autoblog reports.

A green 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 wades through a forest river
2021 Land Rover Defender 90 wading | Land Rover

But those aren’t the 2021 Land Rover Defender’s only upgrades. Some, like the ultrasonic wading sensors and multiple cameras, have off-road benefits, Car and Driver reports. Others, though, like the over-the-air-update-capable infotainment system, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, navigation, ADAS features, and heated and ventilated seats, add on-road refinement.

And that’s where the 2021 Land Rover Defender differs the most from its predecessors, Motor Trend and Automobile report. To quote Automobile, it’s “as adept at driving the Baja 500 as it is at driving to Baja Fresh.” The independent suspension, as it does in the new Bronco and updated Tahoe/Suburban, doesn’t limit off-road capability, but adds on-road comfort and stability. The Defender rides and handles well, especially with the optional air suspension. Even the steering has decent levels of feedback.

The 2021 Land Rover Defender's front seats and dashboard
2021 Land Rover Defender front interior | Land Rover

Then there’s the 2021 Land Rover Defender’s interior. It’s relatively spacious, with comfortable seats and high-quality materials. And the stylish magnesium spar that makes up the dashboard also creates lots of storage space. It’s functional but still stylish.

What did judges not like about it?

To be fair, Motor Trend’s judges had a few issues with the 2021 Land Rover Defender.

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Some were somewhat minor. The 3rd-row seats, for example, have little usable space; luckily, they are optional. Some of the plastics are somewhat cheap, though that may be because they’re meant to be hard-wearing. And despite offering turbocharged four-cylinders and a mild-hybrid supercharged inline-6, the Defender’s EPA ratings are average at best. Car and Driver notes the six-cylinder powertrain is actually marginally more efficient.

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A bigger issue is the Land Rover Defender’s potential reliability. Motor Trend notes that it’s been a noted issue for the British brand’s vehicles in the past. And testers experienced some glitches in its pre-production testers, as did Roadshow. However, Motor1 reported no issues in its recent test, and Motor Trend somewhat famously ran a long-term Alfa Romeo Giulia with zero issues.

Value and the final verdict

A rear shot of a green 2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro on a forest off-road trail near a creek
2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro rear | Matthew Skwarczek

In terms of value, the 4-door 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 starts at $50.5k, with the six-cylinder model starting at $62,700. In comparison, the 2021 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro starts at $50,470. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon starts at $38,695—however, equipping it to the Defender’s level raises it to roughly $45,000.

2020 Mercedes G-Class
2020 Mercedes G-Class | Mercedes

However, the Land Rover Defender is more luxurious than the 4Runner, and noticeably more refined than the Wrangler. Motor Trend likens it more to a Toyota Land Cruiser or Mercedes G-Wagon—and in that company, the Defender is a bargain. Plus, the Land Cruiser is no more.

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It’s worth noting that in Motor Trend’s SUV of the Year testing, all but one judge gave the Defender a 1st-place vote. Does it have some drawbacks and flaws? Yes. But with its design, capability, value, and performance, it earned this award.

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