For as long as I can remember, I've daydreamed about driving along rocky riverbeds, cruising up steep mountainsides and breezing down muddy dirt roads at a 45º angle. Despite the fact that I work and live in New York City, it's not as farfetched as it might sound.
I grew up visiting my grandparents’ off-the-grid log cabin, deep in the woods and often accessible only by 4x4 or snowmobile, and I spent many a summer helping my parents haul their little tin fishing boat to various (secret) fishing spots all over the country, backing it into and pulling it out of public boat launches, some with dubious upkeep.
Now that I'm a Brooklyn-based parent, the cargo I'm traveling with is more precious and important than ever — and wow, do kids ever come with a lot of stuff! So while I still dream about off-roading, I think just as much about safety as I do about maximizing storage and (let's be honest) style, particularly when it comes to the car I’m in. Guessing how other drivers might react to the vehicle I’m testing and spontaneously chatting with neighbors about everything automotive are things I love to do.
Spoiler alert: Lots of people wanted to talk about the Defender 130!
How We Test Cars
Here at the Good Housekeeping Institute, our product testing is legendary and trusted. And it should be: We’ve been evaluating consumer products since 1900, and we use carefully developed science-backed methodologies to ensure the objectivity and accuracy of our results.
When it comes to cars, trucks and SUVs, we drive on tracks, highways and city streets, assessing a range of features, including price, drivability, roadworthiness, fuel efficiency, cargo and passenger spaces, comfort, infotainment systems, technology, sustainability and more. We also work closely with our colleagues at other trusted Hearst-owned brands like Car and Driver, Road & Track and Autoweek and consider their test results too. At least one mechanical engineer is involved in every test, along with automotive journalists, product analysts, expert car enthusiasts and a few bona fide consumer testers — like me.
I had spent a little time with the Defender 130 before starting this comprehensive 14-day test drive. First, I drove it during testing for our 2023 Best Family Car Awards. Our experts were so impressed by the vehicle then that after several months of rigorous evaluation, the Defender 130 was our 2023 winner for Best Luxury 3-Row SUV.
Then I spent a few hours with the vehicle in April living out my off-roading dreams at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, a world-famous equestrian competition that draws riders from all over the U.S., Canada and other countries. The champion is gifted a Defender 130 for a year as part of the prize and is allowed to drive it out of the stadium after the prize ceremony. (Sidebar: If you’re part of a ski, soccer or hockey family or you live an equestrian or surfer lifestyle, Defender has special packages and genius add-ons created just for you.)
But this was the first time I really got to know the car as a real consumer would — driving it to and from the office every day, hitting the interstate for a weekend road trip to the beach, entering and exiting parking garages, taking kids to sports practices, birthday parties and after-school stuff and parallel parking on city streets (there are very few driveways in New York City, if you didn't know).
Size and Specs
With over 13 more inches of length than the Defender 110 (four doors, two rows), the Defender 130 is notably longer and bulkier. Compared with the cute and most compact Defender 90 (two doors, two rows) it's 30.5 inches longer. That means it can seat up to eight passengers, but keep in mind that what you gain in seating when all three rows are upright, you give up in cargo space.
So while the all-terrain Defender can take your entire family (and a few friends!) wherever you want to go, you might have to take advantage of the roof rack if you need all eight seats — that, or pack lightly for road trips. Luckily, it was incredibly easy to lower and lift the third-row seats; while they are not automated, they are very user-friendly and fast. (One less thing to break, as my dad likes to say.) Plus it was easy to get into the cargo area thanks to the side-hinged cargo door at the back. (Now I wish more vehicles employed a side-hinged door for the very back door.)
You can feel the heft of the Defender just by looking at it, and the height too. It’s not a pickup truck, obviously, but it has a similar vibe size-wise. When you’re in stop-and-go traffic, you’ll notice and appreciate how clear your sight lines are and how high above other vehicles you feel you’re sitting; it’s akin to being in a big commercial truck. That sense of height certainly contributes to an overall feeling of safety. You also benefit from strategically placed lights (exterior and interior), including signal lights on the mirrors that I actually realized were there only when I was driving behind another Defender and noticed them. Nice touch, I thought.
With added length come added challenges in finding street parking and parallel parking, which can be tricky even on the best of days. For the record, I envy anyone with a real driveway who doesn’t have to deal with this unique big-city circumstance. It's not surprising that I needed a few tries early on in my test-drive with the Defender 130 to master parallel parking, especially on those occasions when someone else was waiting for the spot (clearly betting that I wouldn’t be able to do it). Well, I was persistent and committed, and I was proud of myself for getting into some fairly tight spaces, never giving up a spot even if I had to pull out and redo the angles a few times. I relied heavily on every bit of park-assist technology — including the mirrors, cameras, screen and alert sound system — and it never steered me wrong. Thankfully, the more I drove the car, the easier parallel parking got.
Performance, Engine and Motor
Both my husband and I agreed the Defender 130 delivered a really smooth ride, especially on highways where you could set the cruise control and settle in. On city streets, you could feel the power of the engine kick in — and I couldn’t help but think it was like a horse, just wanting to work hard and go but being held back by the terrain or the rider.
I was also super-impressed every time I went over a bump or an uneven road; the Defender made even deep potholes seem like nothing. There are a few potholes along my route to work, and I've accidentally popped tires in the past, but this wasn’t a concern with the Defender 130.
From a purely technical perspective, the Defender 130 is available with a powerful and efficient choice of electrified powertrains, including the P300 turbocharged four-cylinder and the P400 mild-hybrid six-cylinder engine. Mild-Hybrid Electric Vehicle (MHEV) technology underpins Land Rover’s six-cylinder Ingenium powertrains, providing seamless responses. It also uses a 48V belt-integrated starter generator (BiSG) that helps make the stop-start system more rapid and efficient.
One feature I got excited about but couldn’t really test this time around was the ability to set up a specific trailer for towing whether you need to haul an RV, a boat or some other attachable cargo hauler. You type in the dimensions of your trailer and presumably the car adjusts as needed. I got as far as entering trailer type and dimensions but then had to stop, as the next step involved connecting an actual trailer, which I didn’t have. But the towing power is impressive for those who need it. For more on the Defender’s towing capacity, check out what our friends at Road and Track had to say in their story SUVs with the Best Towing Capacity. For those who tow things, you'll appreciate that the Defender's air suspension can be raised and lowered on a whim, with handy buttons in the cargo area providing you an opportunity to lower the rear end to make loading cargo easier.
Interior and Cargo
As noted above, the Defender 130 is the most spacious of the Defender line — and it offers enough legroom in the third row to comfortably seat three adults. The row comes complete with headrests, padded armrests, storage and USB-Cs to charge devices, so any adults there won’t feel as cramped and uncomfortable as they would in a standard SUV. There is even a a spot for a coffee cup or water bottle. If you’re a parent who still relies on car seats for the kiddos, you’ll appreciate how incredibly easy they are to install, not to mention the fact that you can include up to four car seats across the two back rows. Large families, we see you!
The Defender 130’s additional space makes for a total interior load capacity of 88.9 cubic feet with the second and third rows folded down. With only row three folded down, you get 43.5 cubic feet, and with all three rows in place, you’re looking at 13.7 cubic feet. Basically enough room for a few carry-ons or some MacGyver-style packing.
Outer seats of the second and third rows are fitted with ISOFIX7 child seat attachments (also called a Universal Child Safety Seat System), reducing the risk of installing a car seat incorrectly.
To me, other standout interior features include the heavy-duty leather seats, sturdy dashboard and door construction and floor mats. Plus, there’s no carpet anywhere, which is awesome for cleaning. The entire interior is practically stainproof. Just wipe away mud or other debris or vacuum up sand, and you’re done. (Though, as I learned the hard way, pebbles can still nest themselves in the floor mats.)
I also loved how easy it was to adjust the oversized steering wheel (all automated), the placement of all the bonus charging ports, the surround-sound speakers and all the unbelievably sneaky storage—there are tons of little nooks and crannies along the dashboard for keys, change, gum, a key fob, a cell phone, lipstick and more as well as a big opening in the center console, pockets in the rear door…and the list goes on.
Infotainment and Connectivity
Up front, the Defender 130 features a 10.25-inch Pivi Pro touchscreen with a three-panel layout so users can adjust it to suit their preferences and put their most-used functions right at their fingertips. The smart system is capable of learning habits and will act in response, such as by pulling up directions at the beginning of a recognized commute.
Featured in the software is the global location platform from British company what3words that divides the globe into a grid of 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique, easy-to-remember three-word phrase (for example, Hearst Tower, home to the Good Housekeeping Institute, is "admire.tapes.simple"). Why is this so cool? While GPS programs like Google Maps and Waze give you navigation instructions, what3words gives you exact locations down to the 3m x 3m square. Since that’s about the size of a one-person office, you’ll never be stuck on the phone trying to find your friend because you agreed to meet up “near that water fountain” or on the corner of two streets.
I particularly appreciated the responsiveness of the large display screen as well as the elegant interface. It was easy to use and offered things I wasn’t used to seeing like eco tips, a driving score, easy access to dimensions, the ability to add a specific trailer or item for towing, air quality ratings and more. I was able to connect to Bluetooth without any delay and enable/disable Apple CarPlay seamlessly. The high-quality sound system stood out too. You can even connect your personal Spotify account.
Exterior and Safety
The unmistakable front and rear lights, oversized tires and the distinctive rear boat tail all contributes to the Defender series’s tell-tale look. Plus, there’s no question that the vehicle’s beloved boxy shape is trending. At Good Housekeeping, we even wrote about the renaissance in our 10 Best Boxy Cars and Square SUVs story earlier this year, with our contributing editor Brett Berk noting, “People want to feel protected... and boxiness delivers a sense of safety and luxury.”
I completely agree that the boxiness translates into a sense of added safety and luxury and creates a sense of overall security. And if you could describe a car as a sanctuary, this would be among my top picks. The Defender 130’s impressive size, shape and safety features helped me feel confident that nothing bad would happen, even if something bad did happen.
Last but not least, every exterior color option and finish feels special, elevated and timeless — and I think choosing the color might be one of the hardest things to decide if you’re planning to buy this vehicle. Matte or shiny? Gray, black or white? Historic green or trending taupe? Sedona Red (seen in photos throughout this article) is the all-new color option exclusive to the Defender 130, along with an additional panel to the panoramic sunroof that extends to the third row of seating.
The one I drove was a warm, rich melted-chocolate brown, officially called "Gondwana Stone." It's stunning in person, especially when paired with the ebony on ebony interior. Oh, the choices! It's enough to make you just keep driving.
I hated having to give up this vehicle. I even begged for more days with it, but alas, it was already spoken for by another journalist. It was such a joy to drive and felt so incredibly solid, safe and stylish — and it was such a great conversation starter with car lovers, neighbors and other parents alike.
Everyone seems to want one, me included. It handled really well in all road conditions, including during some wild downpours that turned roads into rivers—not part of our usual battery of tests, but it was a fun and unexpected additional test I got to do thanks to Mother Nature. Now I just need to get the Defender 130 back to continue the testing in the snow!
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