Two ways to build the world’s most capable SUV
Clash of the icons: The all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender versus Jeep Wrangler, our 2019 SUV of the Year. These two are SUV royalty, direct descendants of vehicles that invented the genre. The 1941 Willys MB jeep was the feisty little go-anywhere military vehicle that helped win World War II. The 1948 Series 1 Land Rover, the prototype of which was built on a modified Jeep chassis, turned off-road capability into a useful tool for farmers, explorers, and civilian agencies around the world. They’ve been brothers in arms ever since, related in form and function. Until now.
The 2019 Wrangler and 2020 Defender take radically different approaches to delivering the ultimate in off-road capability. The body-on-frame, live-axle Wrangler is evolutionary, relying on tried and true off-road engineering concepts and hardware. The unibody, independent-suspension Defender is revolutionary, diametrically opposed to the Jeep in terms of its engineering philosophy, using computer power to control the nuts and bolts. The Jeep is analog. The Land Rover, digital.
Both the Wrangler and the Defender are available in short- and long-wheelbase form and in a variety of trim levels. We won’t know for sure who’s done it better until we get them wheel-to-wheel in the rough stuff for an actual comparison test. But we can draw some conclusions from the data points we have right now.
Today’s Jeep is built the way Jeeps have always been built, with a body bolted to a frame and with live axles front and rear. Although the basic formula remains, much has changed over the past seven decades. There’s extensive bushing between body and frame to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness, and the axles are now suspended on coil rather than leaf springs.
The new Defender tears up 70 years of tradition with an aluminium-intensive unibody and all-independent suspension with height-adjustable air springs on upscale models. Hardcore off-roaders insist the Wrangler’s live axles front and rear allow superior articulation, ensuring the tires are kept in contact with terra firma for longer and thus providing superior traction in extreme conditions. The Defender’s unibody construction promises a smoother, quieter, more precise driving experience, however, especially on-road.
The Land Rovers are bigger all around. Including the rear-door-mounted spare tire, the Defender 90 is 180.4 inches long overall, while the short-wheelbase Wrangler measures 166.8 inches. The Defender 110 is 197.6 inches long overall, more than 9 inches longer than the 188.4-inch Wrangler Unlimited. The Land Rover is also wider—78.6 inches versus 73.8 inches—and taller—77.5 inches versus 73.6 inches.
Smaller size might give the Jeeps a slight edge in certain extreme rock-crawling scenarios. But with a wheelbase 5.1 inches longer, the Defender 90 has way more room inside than the regular Wrangler, and it’s able to accommodate six passengers when fitted with the optional center front seat. The Defender 110, whose wheelbase is just 0.6 inch longer than the Wrangler Unlimited’s, can be ordered with a third row.
Despite aluminum construction, the Defenders are heavier than their Wrangler counterparts: Land Rover claims a curb weight of 4,815 pounds (2,184 kg) for a five-seat, four-cylinder Defender 110, compared with 4,755 pounds (2,157 kg) for a five-seat, four-cylinder Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
The base engine in the Wrangler Rubicon is the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which makes 285 hp at 6,400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. The Jeep’s optional powertrain is called eTorque; it’s a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a 48-volt mild hybrid system developing 270 hp at 5,250 rpm and 295 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm. With more torque, it’s easily the better of the two engines.
The Defender’s base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, badged P300. With 296 hp at 5,500 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 rpm to 4,000 rpm, it has more power than either Jeep powertrain, and it also has a better torque spread. The killer engine in the Defender lineup, however, is JLR’s new 3.0-liter straight-six, which boasts an exhaust gas–driven turbocharger, an electric supercharger, and a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Badged P400, it develops 395 hp at 5,500 rpm, and 406 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 rpm to 5,000 rpm.
While entry-level Wranglers can be ordered with a manual transmission and part-time four-wheel drive, the Defender is only available with an eight-speed automatic and permanent four-wheel drive. The six-speed manual transmission is available only with the V-6, however. Order the optional eTorque powertrain, and an eight-speed automatic is the only option.
Both Defender and Wrangler Rubicon have two-speed transfer cases, but only the Jeep allows front, center, and rear differentials to be locked. A locking center diff and active locking rear differential are available as options, along with a new configurable version of Terrain Response 2 that allows drivers to tailor the powertrain and suspension settings.
ON-ROAD PERFORMANCE AND TOWING
With more power, the four-cylinder Defenders will likely be quicker on the road than four-cylinder hardtop Wranglers, despite their weight disadvantage. Land Rover claims a 0–60 acceleration time of 7.7 seconds for the Defender 110 P300, compared with 8.0 seconds recorded during our testing of the four-cylinder Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. The four-cylinder 110 also has a top speed of 119 mph (191 km/h), while the Unlimited is pretty much out of breath at 100 mph (160 km/h).
The six-cylinder Defenders are in another league altogether: If Land Rover’s claimed 0–60 time of 5.7 seconds for the Defender 90 P400 holds up, it will be 1.7 seconds quicker than the V-6-powered, soft-top, short-wheelbase Wrangler Rubicon, despite a 485-pound (220 kg) weight disadvantage. And the Defender 110 P400’s claimed 0–60 time of 5.8 seconds will leave the Unlimited Rubicon gasping in its wake. Land Rover also claims a top speed of 129 mph (208 km/h) for the six-cylinder Defenders.
The Land Rovers have superior towing capacity, too, rated at 8,201 pounds (3,720 kg) regardless of engine or wheelbase, while the short-wheelbase Wrangler Rubicon V-6 is rated at just 2,000 pounds (907 kg), and the four-cylinder Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited is rated at 3,500 pounds (1,587 kg).
This is where is gets interesting. With a 44-degree approach angle, the Wrangler Rubicons beat the Defenders, which have a 38-degree approach angle. But the Land Rovers have a better departure angle—40 degrees versus 37 degrees—higher ground clearance—11.5 inches with the air suspension at its highest setting versus 10.9 inches—and better breakover angles—31 degrees for the 90 versus 27.8 degrees for the short-wheelbase Rubicon, and 28 degrees for the 110 versus 22.6 degrees for the Rubicon Unlimited. The Land Rovers also have superior fording ability, able to wade water 35.4 inches deep while the Jeeps max out at 30 inches.
The Wrangler Rubicon comes with 17-inch wheels and 285/70 tires that give a rolling diameter of 33 inches. There are 12 different wheels available for the Defender, ranging in size from 18 inches to 22 inches, but no matter which size wheel you choose, the tire paired with it ensures a 32.1-inch rolling diameter. For serious off-roading the 18-inch steel rim and 255/70 tire is the best choice.
There are two areas where the Wrangler Rubicon is more clearly optimized for off-roading than the Defender: gearing and wheel travel. With the four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, the Wrangler has the same 4.71 first gear and 4.10 final drive ratio as the four-cylinder Defender. The key difference between the two, however, is in the transfer case gearing, where a 4.00:1 ratio gives the Jeep an impressive 77.2:1 crawl ratio. The Defender’s 2.93:1 transfer case gives it a 56.6:1 crawl ratio.
Land Rover claims the Defender has 19.7 inches of wheel articulation. A rough calculation suggests that would give a Ramp Travel Index (RTI) score (based on a test of how far a vehicle can travel up a 20-degree ramp before the opposite front wheel lifts off the ground, standardized for variations in wheelbase) of about 560 for the Defender 90 and about 480 for the Defender 110. Although our experience with air-suspension Land Rovers suggests these best-guess numbers are likely conservative, we can be fairly certain the live-axle Jeeps will have the advantage, the Rubicon Unlimited having returned a score of 693 during RTI testing by our colleagues at FourWheeler.
Based on the available data points, here’s how a Wrangler Rubicon versus Defender showdown will likely shake out: The Jeep will have a slight edge over the Land Rover in extreme off-road scenarios, especially rock crawling, where extreme articulation and small physical size are helpful, but the Defender will be the better all-arounder, smoother, quieter, and more accomplished everywhere else. There’ll be a price to pay, however. A base Land Rover Defender 110 is priced at $49,900 USD. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with a similar powertrain—four-cylinder turbo and eight-speed automatic—starts at $48,325 USD, and for that price the Jeep comes with locking diffs that cost extra on the Land Rover.