Vehicles like the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler are iconic nameplates that uphold decades long reputations in the off-road community. So as an American it’s easy to forget how deep the Land Rover Defender also digs its roots into automotive history. Seventy-five years after the Series I was introduced, the 2023 Land Rover Defender 130 is still doing its best to ensure it stays relevant in our ever evolving world of off-road oriented SUVs.
What Is It?
The 2023 Land Rover Defender 130 is the newest and quite literally the longest Defender you can buy. It adds a massive 13 inches of body work to the rear of the vehicle compared to the Defender 110. All of that extra space accommodates a full – and actually spacious – third row, with plenty of room for your average adult. The third row option is exclusive to the Defender in this niche class of off-road oriented machines.
Not only is the three-row Defender the only one in its class, but it’s the only vehicle currently in production with such a sheer assortment of wheelbase and passenger configurations. The Defender 90 and Defender 130 are not even usable in many of the same ways solely due to their size difference.
The Defender 130 is currently only available with a 3.0-liter Ingenium inline-six that is both supercharged and turbocharged, making 296 horsepower and 347 lb-ft of torque. If you splurge for the top-level P400, you get an added 100 HP and 60 lb-ft of torque, thanks to a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Sadly, the rowdy V8 that can be had in the tiny Defender 90 is not currently available in the 130. But praise JLR for shoving such a silly drivetrain in such a small SUV in the first place. More of that type of humor, please!
Our tester came with relatively tame Pirelli street tires, which should be an indication of how Land Rover envisions most consumers using the three-row Defender 130. We spent nearly ten days and 500 miles trekking Southern California roads that were both paved and unpaved. It became clear the Defender 130 shines on-road in a way its direct competition can’t quite match. Wind and road noise are incredibly minimal for such a large vehicle. That added refinement does come at the cost of not being able to go topless, but there’s more to the Defender 130’s sophistication than that.
Through canyon roads, the unibody chassis with height-adjustable air suspension gives you superb body control even in its tallest setting. You won’t be fooled into thinking you’re in a Range Rover Sport, but for a vehicle with 11.5 inches of ground clearance that weighs 5,600 pounds, it is impressively stable. Steering response and feel is light but natural and far from the truck-like numbness you might expect in a rig this big.
I’ll always love a V8 in a big SUV, but the inline six’s torque didn’t really make me miss it. Adding every type of forced induction and electric assistance imaginable to the six-cylinder could have easily left the drivetrain feeling clunky and unrefined if it was badly tuned, but it feels just the opposite. The mild hybrid system fills low-end torque gaps around town with a silent shove. And when you really get both forms of forced induction spooling, the combustion engine rips to life with snarls of character befitting a cheeky Brit.
The Ultimate Overlander
While we steered clear of any serious off-road trails, we did cover about 60 miles of higher-speed, wide-open desert trails where the Defender 130 truly felt like it was in its element. The approach (37.5 degrees) and departure (28.5 degrees) angles trail its more serious American competition, but the Defender is more than a one-trick pony and makes up for slightly less off-road ability in strides on the street.
At multiple points throughout our trip, we drove by Defender owners with full camping gear and all-terrains, so it’s clear I wasn’t the only one to figure out just how well the Defender covers ground in the desert. The desert is clearly an extreme example that most owners probably will never experience, which is a shame, but good suspension tuning shines no matter where you are.
Sophisticated and Character-Filled
Calling the Defender “sophisticated” certainly does a disservice to the amount of character it has. “Character” is usually a nice way of saying something lacks refinement, but in this case it’s genuinely not. Land Rover has managed to make something upscale and refined, but also entirely more capable than any of us actually need.
The automotive world can sometimes feel like it’s being flooded by soulless crossovers, but luckily the Defender and all of its other off-roady competitors aren’t paying attention to any of that. And in the case of the Defender 130, seven of your closest friends can tag along for the adventure too.