One of the more counterintuitive automotive developments of the coronavirus era — with all the stay-at-home orders and work-from-home policies — has been the rejuvenated pull of cars built for taming the great outdoors. Look no further than the (socially distant) commotion that has greeted the recent introductions of two new off-road autos with famous nameplates, the Land Rover Defender and the Ford Bronco.
What is it about our time that is drawing people to Jeep-like vehicles with arguably the least utility in our workaday lives? The humble Jeep began service in 1941 and after the war evolved with a civilian version. Known as CJ then and from 1986 as Wrangler, a Jeep was a spartan thing favored first by ranchers, wildcatters and others who could use its short-wheelbase, all-wheel-drive capability.
The Jeep’s popularity never stopped growing and has even heated up in the 21st century. Nearly a quarter-million Wranglers were sold in the United States in 2018, for example, more than tripling 2005 sales, with most delivered to owners who might never exploit the Jeep’s off-road brawn.
It is from Wrangler that these two newcomers might be expected to poach sales. But they are distinctly different approaches to taking the mud trail less traveled.
The Jeep remains truest to the original construct of an S.U.V. — an actual sport utility vehicle! — with a fold-down windscreen, removable doors and a ride quality that still makes occupants feel like cowhands.
With the new Bronco, you can whip the doors off (it comes in two- and four-door configurations) and the roof, too, if you like. While the Bronco may be slightly more comfortable than the Jeep, its body-on-steel-frame construction and heavy-duty suspension optimized for off-road duty guarantee a ride as rugged the truck looks.
The new Land Rover is easily the most technically sophisticated of the three, with an aluminum unit body and fully independent suspension (the others have solid rear axles). While it is just as capable off-road as the others, its highway handling will feel more elegant. It looks less retro, if still faintly like its old self, and it costs more.
At its 1948 introduction, the Land Rover was meant to be a work vehicle. No frills, but enough four-cylinder power to furrow fields, cut hay and help out on the farm. (Today, there are copious power outlets.)
Inspired without apology by the Jeep, with which Britons became acquainted during World War II, the original go-anywhere Land Rover quickly emerged as an international favorite, and not just with landowners. It came to count as repeat customers police departments and armed forces, rescue societies, game wardens, forest rangers, fishermen, adventurers and the occasional Amagansett adman, all enamored of its rugged (mostly) rust-resistant construction, four-wheel drive and simplicity of repair.
In 2016, the lineal descendant of that first Land Rover, renamed Defender in 1990, went out of production, ending a 68-year run. The company soon confronted a huge question: How do you replace an eternal classic?
The Bronco came on the scene in 1966, long before a significant upsizing and a late-in-life, O.J. Simpson star turn. The original Bronco, too, was Ford’s answer to the Jeep.
But the Bronco sold better than any Jeep or Jeep wannabe. In the intervening years, it has become a classic. Today, well-heeled aficionados are spending $150,000 and more to restore and customize vintage Broncos. This enduring appeal has led their makers to bring the Defender and Bronco back to the American marketplace after lengthy absences, 23 years for the Defender and 25 years for the Bronco. People appear enthusiastic — or should we say stoked — for the next generation.
Ford won’t deliver its new off-roader until next year. But since announcing it in July, the company reportedly took over 165,000 deposits within a month. Though Broncos start at $28,100, a reasonable-sounding point of entry, over 200 options can quickly double the price tag and more.
Ford expects to sell 200,000 of these macho machines in the coming year. And to further capitalize on the Bronco renaissance, it will offer a smaller Bronco Sport, a cheaper, lighter and mechanically unrelated car-based model.
Rather than tackling challenging trails, the Sport is meant for “that customer that wants to go to the trailhead where their adventures begin, whether that be for mountain biking or skiing or whatever they’re going to do,” said Mark Grueber, Ford’s marketing manager for the Bronco.
Land Rover has just begun delivering the Defender to Americans in its larger four-door guise, known as the 110. The number once described the wheelbase of the old Defender in inches, but now it’s merely a name. The new 110’s actual wheelbase, with rear-seat legroom a primary beneficiary, is 119 inches. Built at a new plant in Slovakia and starting at $49,900, the Defender is not as expensive as some had feared. However, with some 170 options — including a front jump seat, allowing for three-abreast seating, like the original — the price is easily pushed skyward.
While Land Rover won’t sell nearly as many Defenders as Ford will Broncos, the demand at American dealers selling the English brand (owned along with Jaguar since 2008 by the Indian conglomerate Tata Group) is reportedly strong. Broadening the range next year, a two-door Defender 90 (now with a 101.9-inch wheelbase) arrives first in an extra-cost First Edition model — priced at $65,450 — although it will be quickly followed by other trim levels with lower prices, including a $47,450 base model.
The Bronco, revealed but not in showrooms until next spring, wasn’t available for a test drive. But the Defender 110 was, and on a recent drive in Vermont, it gracefully took on rutted, muddy trails, sharp rocks and washed-out surfaces. The Defender’s technology-packed four-wheel drive astonished with its ability to keep the vehicle moving steadily forward.
Where the new Defender (available only with a hard top, for now) differs most strikingly from its predecessors is on the road, as if the farmhand had gone off to Oxbridge. It rides superbly by any measure, with handling that’s more modern sports sedan than buckboard wagon, even though it has more ground clearance — and the ability to wade across deeper streams — than either Wrangler or Bronco.
Finally, with an optional mild-hybrid, in-line six-cylinder engine (395 horsepower), the Defender can hit 60 miles an hour from rest in 5.7 seconds, and can, were it legal, top out at 129 m.p.h. A 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine comes standard, producing 296 horsepower. All Defenders are rated to tow a substantial 8,201 pounds.
Joe Eberhardt, the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover North America, is sanguine about the Defender’s prospects, while acknowledging the appeal of the two American rivals.
“I haven’t driven the Bronco yet, but it looks fantastic, a good combination of being true to the original character of the vehicles without just copying it,” Mr. Eberhardt said. “As we know from the Defender and long ago replacing the Jaguar E-Type, following up on an iconic vehicle is always difficult. And the Jeep is the Jeep.”
But, he added, “as long as you don’t sit on top of each other and as long as you offer a product that is differentiated, I think there’s room for everyone.” Prosperity for all is not unthinkable, with the S.U.V. market growing fast, he said: “There’s still 30 percent of the market that can migrate from cars into S.U.V.s.”
Still, is there something more than coincidence in what appears to be this sudden re-infatuation with off-road vehicles, specifically the most hard-core ones?
Rory Carroll, editor in chief at the auto site Jalopnik, sees a connection to current events. “I think the most obvious thing is that we’re all trapped in a slow apocalypse, and that makes the idea of a big, off-road-capable escape pod appealing,” Mr. Carroll said.
“Covid and the election have made it more acute, but I think it’s been obvious that things are not OK for quite a while,” he added. “There are a lot of cultural expressions of that: guns, zombie stuff, preppers, victory gardens, canning, baking. I think even the explosion in people doing overland stuff, or off-road stuff, owes something to that general feeling that we’re on the edge of collapse.”
He continued, “The response to potential collapse isn’t ‘How can we work together and figure this out?’ It’s ‘I need to get out of here.’ Or, I guess, ‘I need to fortify what I have.’”
Mr. Eberhardt smiles when presented with the pure-fear option, but sees the market in less apocalyptic terms.
“I think it’s more enabling a lifestyle that individuals find very appealing,” he said. “I mean, if I look at the younger generations, it’s all about experience; it’s all about outdoors, about doing more with our time.”
His own kids “love to be outdoors,” he added. “My daughter loves to go camping in the woods without anything — just a tent.
“And I think there is a trend toward that, away from just screen time and everything indoors. And I think these vehicles are seen as enabling that. And in the Instagram and Snapchat world, you want to be seen on top of a Defender in a tent against an interesting backdrop.”