For the last 22 years, Land Rover's Defender SUV has been the Elvis Presley of off-road vehicles among the brand's U.S. dealers and fans — a long-missing heartthrob of a nameplate.
Don't Be Cruel, dealers pleaded to Land Rover brass in England, asking year after year for a new Defender. And when that didn't happen, it was Heartbreak Hotel.
The nameplate has been absent from the U.S. since the 1997 model year. But some U.S. consumers wanted Defenders so badly that they illegally imported models that did not meet U.S. emissions or safety regulations, risking their own version of Jailhouse Rock.
Those illegal Rovers were either stamped Return To Sender or confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and crushed.
When production of the original Defender ended overseas in 2016 and work began on a replacement, Land Rover's U.S. plans for the new version were viewed with Suspicious Minds, as executives continually refused to confirm whether a Defender might return here.
But last week, a redesigned and reengineered 2020 Defender made its world debut at the Frankfurt auto show. And North American Defender fans finally saw not one, but two Land Rover Defenders, specifically designed for off-road excursions.
"There is a lot of pent-up demand for this car," says Long Island Land Rover dealer Michael Levitan. "We get inquiries every day."
His store displayed several other vehicles at the Hampton Classic, one of the nation's largest horse shows. Store staffers there were quizzed repeatedly by customers about the Defender, he said.
Land Rover was instrumental in creating and marketing the luxury SUV segment. And years later, most of the vehicles in its lineup retain the brand's legendary off-road capability. But they tilt heavily toward luxury now. Few drivers of high-end Land Rovers actually veer into the weeds and creeks in their expensive Range Rover, Velar and Discovery models.
The brand has been on a "transformational journey" over the past decade, Land Rover spokeswoman Leah Watkins-Hall said. It has focused on growing the Range Rover line for luxury appeal and renewing the Discovery family for versatility. The Defender will now add the missing ingredient to showrooms.
The off-roader launches here next spring, first with a five-door Defender 110 model. A smaller three-door Defender 90 will follow next year, possibly in the fall.
The price of the new Defender might leave some fans All Shook Up. It starts at $50,925, including shipping, and could go over $80,000 when all the options are checked.
Land Rover also showed a stripped-down Defender 90 three-door commercial vehicle in Frankfurt, but it is unclear if that model will be coming to the U.S.
In that price range, the Defender slots well above most Jeep Grand Cherokee models, above all but one Jeep Wrangler, but significantly below the $125,000 Mercedes-Benz G class. Like the Defender, each of those SUVs is designed to appeal to off-road-oriented buyers.
All Defenders are powered by Jaguar Land Rover Ingenium engines. At launch the Defender 90 and 110 will be available with a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six engine rated at 395 hp and a mild hybrid system. The Defender S model comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 295 hp. All Defenders get a ZF eight-speed automatic transmission (no manual gearbox will be offered) and permanent four-wheel drive. Locking center and rear differentials will be optional on some models.
Land Rover's U.S. dealers say the company sought their advice on how to ensure the new vehicle would appeal to American buyers. Even though the Defender will be offered in 128 countries, Land Rover is counting on strong U.S. sales to help keep its new high-volume plant in Nitra, Slovakia, running full-tilt. The U.S. and China are Land Rover's two biggest markets.
One aspect of the plan certain to please Land Rover's dealers is that the Defender will come with about 170 accessories to retail.
"On the initial vehicles, there will be enough kit to fill up a Sprinter van," said Andy Vine, a Louisville Jaguar Land Rover dealer who is chairman of the Jaguar Land Rover Retailer Cabinet. "That will include safari racks and snorkels and that kind of stuff."
But some die-hard fans say they are disappointed that the new Defender isn't a retro-styled rework of the original boxy design. Some of them took to social media after the SUV's Frankfurt debut to complain.
Land Rover expected the criticism.
"How do you redefine such an icon?" Jaguar Land Rover CEO Ralf Speth asked at the Defender press conference last week. "From day one, this challenging project has been driven by respect for the original."
Instead of revisiting the original model's squared-off fenders and slab-sided body panels, Land Rover modernized the looks, improved the off-road capability, reduced the vehicle's environmental impact and gave the Defender something it never had: a user-friendly interior packed with safety and infotainment technology.
Kim McCullough, Jaguar Land Rover's North American marketing vice president — herself the owner of a classic 1956 Land Rover Series 1 — agrees that the new styling might be jarring to aficionados of the old Defender.
"Clearly, there will be a wide variety of opinions out there," she said. "Whenever you bring out a successor to a beloved product that is an icon, you are going to have people who love it, and people who prefer the older ones."