New Land Rover Defender vs Volvo XC90 vs Jeep Wrangler

Unlike its predecessor, the new Defender promises to be at home on the road as well as off it. But can it really beat both the family-friendly XC90 and the rugged Wrangler at their own games?...

Land Rover Defender vs Volvo XC90 vs Jeep Wrangler header

The contenders

NEW Land Rover Defender 110 D240 S 7-seat

List price £54,095
Target Price £54,095

All-new model is far more sophisticated than its forebear, promising much greater on-road comfort and usability, but without sacrificing off-road ability

NEW Volvo XC90 B5D Momentum

List price £54,515
Target Price £49,641

This familiar face is hiding a new, more efficient mild hybrid diesel engine. It’ll act as the benchmark for on-road ability and practicality

Jeep Wrangler 2.2 Multijet II Overland 4dr

List price £50,115
Target Price £47,939

The Wrangler has a formidable reputation as an off-roader, so it’s here to see if the Defender has gone soft, or whether it’s still a properly capable 4x4.

Good things come to those who wait, as they say. With that in mind, the new Land Rover Defender should be pretty chuffing fantastic, given that the brand’s first stab at a 21st century Defender, the DC100 concept, was first shown way back in 2011 and the old-school original Defender went off sale four years ago.

However, we’re not ones to jump to conclusions, so we’ve concocted the ultimate on-road and off-road test against two talented rivals. For slightly more than the list price of a seven-seat Defender 110 D240 S, you can have an exceedingly practical Volvo XC90 B5 diesel. It matches the Defender’s seat count and four-wheel drive, but it’s a perfect example of a modern road-biased SUV.

Land Rover Defender front cornering

But what if you plan to venture off road? Well, the rugged, range-topping Rubicon version of the Jeep Wrangler impressed us with its mud-plugging ability a few months ago, during our 4x4 mega-test. And while this time we’ve opted for the slightly more road-friendly Overland diesel model, this is still incredibly capable in the rough. As a bonus, whether you prefer to fight dirty or not, the Wrangler is the cheapest 4x4 here.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

With its mild hybrid electrical assistance, the XC90 is swifter than its rivals, albeit by the slimmest of margins over the Defender. Bear in mind that a Defender ordered now will come with a mild hybrid six-cylinder diesel, promising gutsier performance than this smaller four-cylinder one, which you can still buy from stock if you want to jump the queue. With less power than its rivals, the Wrangler is a fair bit slower – you’ll feel more confident about overtaking a dawdling car in either of the other two – although it isn’t sluggish.

Volvo XC90 front cornering

Ask for a burst of acceleration and you’ll find that the Defender’s eight-speed automatic gearbox is slightly hesitant, whereas the Wrangler and XC90 – which have similar ’boxes to the Defender – are swifter to respond. However, the Defender has the smoothest gearshifts; the Wrangler isn’t far behind, but the XC90 can sometimes shift up in an overly aggressive manner.

The XC90’s engine sounds uncouth under acceleration, like that of an old Transit van. Although the Wrangler’s engine is a little louder, it’s actually a smoother, less industrial noise. Unlike its forebear, the Defender’s engine is fairly hushed in all situations, and it’s the quietest cruiser at 70mph, although there’s some wind noise from around the windscreen, and this four-cylinder model isn’t particularly refined by wider luxury SUV standards. Although the XC90 is slightly noisier than the Defender on the motorway, it’s far quieter than the Wrangler, which suffers from the most wind and road noise.

Jeep Wrangler front cornering

The softly sprung Wrangler is a reasonably comfy companion on a motorway, but undulating country roads can have the suspension tying itself in knots, leading to an unpleasant corkscrewing sensation. Next to other upmarket SUVs, it feels rather rudimentary. The XC90 does a better job of keeping its body level but has a firmer edge to its ride; potholes send a jolt to your backside and it can be fidgety on the motorway.

You’ll experience a bit of jostling in the Defender – the only one that comes with air suspension as standard – but it lollops along comfortably enough most of the time. Undulating roads are smoothed out reasonably well, and the Defender takes the sting out of vicious bumps and potholes.

Land Rover Defender rear

Given that our Defender came with optional off-road tyres (£255) and the Wrangler with slightly less knobbly all-season tyres, it’s no surprise that the XC90 has the most grip on its road-biased tyres, allowing you to tackle corners the most confidently. There’s still a fair degree of body lean, but less than in the others. The Defender is more prone to running wide of your intended line than the Wrangler, although its standard tyres would no doubt improve this situation significantly.

Reasonably quick, precise steering means the XC90 is easy to place accurately on the road, although a bit more weight build-up at higher speeds would be welcome. Some might prefer the Wrangler’s meatier steering to the Defender’s lighter setup, but no one will appreciate the Wrangler’s vagueness. Whereas you can place the Defender exactly where you want it, you have to work at the wheel continually to keep the Wrangler on your chosen path.

Volvo XC90 rear

The Wrangler’s on-road flaws are largely down to the fact that it has a separate chassis and solid axles, just like the original Jeep. That’s because they allow it to perform exceedingly well over rough terrain. The old Defender shared this configuration, but this new one has moved to a modern structure with independent suspension like the XC90.

On our off-road course, the XC90 happily scrabbled up a 35% dirt hill, even when we tried stopping and pulling away again halfway up. Its tyres were least suited to muddy conditions, though, and limited ground clearance on its non-adjustable standard suspension prevented us from exploring the extreme terrain the others could traverse.

Jeep Wrangler rear

The Wrangler’s substantial ground clearance is fixed, whereas the Defender’s air suspension allows you to raise its body at the press of a button to give even more space underneath than the other car. It certainly cushions you the best from the effects of rough tracks and has a good deal more suspension travel than the XC90, but ultimately it’s the Wrangler that’s best able to contort itself to negotiate challenging obstacles. Over offset dips and humps, the Defender was far more likely to cock a wheel in the air, forcing the clever electronics to put the brakes on to stop the wheel from spinning aimlessly and send drive to a wheel on terra firma.

On the most challenging climbs with deep ruts and a covering of loose dirt, the Defender’s attempts to regain traction by braking spinning wheels could stop it dead in its tracks. This meant having to use a lot more power and attacking obstacles faster than in the Wrangler, which could keep going at slow speeds thanks to its more subtle electronic assistance and greater suspension travel. That said, the Defender managed to go everywhere the Wrangler went – just not quite as easily.