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Land Rover Defender’s designer steers clear of a retro offroader

The Defender’s ancestors, the Land Rover Series 1 and Series 2, became global icons in the 1950s and ’60s when adventurers used them to traverse the world’s harshest terrain — African deserts, South American jungles and frozen tundras. The original Land Rovers were never the most comfortable. But they were nearly unstoppable and extremely durable and reliable.

That, and the Defender’s rudimentary design, made it an icon that transcended the auto industry, much like the Volkswagen Beetle or Mini Cooper. No new version of the Defender was going to appeal to many of those who love the classic model. But Land Rover could not just bring out a new Defender that looked like the old one and hope to attract a new generation of buyers. The vehicle’s styling, technology, creature comforts, capability and refinement had to evolve, and it has.

Still, when leaked images of the new Defender began appearing online over the weekend, the carping started. The new Defender has drawn comparisons to the Honda Element, Kia Soul, Ford Flex. But a closer look at the new version reveals that McGovern’s team paid the appropriate homage to the classic Defender with the shape of the new one. (See infographic below.)

The 2020 Defender has plenty of heritage styling cues inside and out without being a retro vehicle. And that, in my estimation, is the right direction. Retro styling is a dead end. Except for the current Dodge Challenger and Mini Cooper, and recently interred Volkswagen Beetle, few retro-styled vehicles have achieved sustained success.

While looks are important to Defender customers, so is capability. Land Rover has pioneered technologies that not only increase the ability of its off-road vehicles to get through swamps and deep sand, but that are less damaging to the environment than its classic vehicles. The new Defender is safer, smarter and cleaner than the vehicle it replaces.

Land Rover’s North American marketing chief, Kim McCullough –- who owns a 1956 Land Rover –- has driven the newest Defender and says those familiar with the original model will instantly recognize the new one. But there is a difference: The new Defender, she says, can be driven long distances without beating the driver and passengers to a pulp.

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