Off-Road SUV Shootout 2020: Wrangler vs. 4Runner vs. Defender

Off-Road SUV Shootout 2020: Wrangler vs. 4Runner vs. Defender

The Jeep Wrangler vs. Toyota 4Runner: Choosing one over the other is a common quandary facing shoppers looking for off-road SUVs. Now there's another rugged SUV vying for your attention: the all-new 2020 Land Rover Defender.

Land Rover briefly sold its Defender in the U.S. during the 1990s. Design-wise, this new model has fewer hard edges than its predecessor, but that shouldn't mean it's any less capable. To find out for sure, we pitted it against the 2020 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro and the 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Jump to compare: Price | MPG | Interior, Comfort & Tech | Off-Road Capability | Edmunds Says

Price Comparison: Wrangler vs. 4Runner vs. Defender

Keep in mind that you can find great deals and offers on these and other SUVs at our SUV Deals Center.

Our test Wrangler was an Unlimited (four-door) Rubicon, which starts at $43,690 (including destination). Our test vehicle came with a long list of options, most of which don't affect its off-road or on-road behavior. Items such as an automatic transmission, steel bumpers, leather upholstery, heated seats, a trailer hitch, premium audio, advanced safety features, adaptive cruise control and a power-retractable roof section drove the as-tested price up to $59,275.

Our Toyota 4Runner was the top-level TRD Pro. It starts at $51,040 and offers few options. Our test vehicle came with the sliding rear cargo deck, running boards and some other minor additions for a final tally of $52,147.

The Land Rover Defender in 110 (four-door) form with the 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine, which is what we tested, starts at $63,275, but it's worth noting that there's a four-cylinder model that costs $50,925. Our test Defender was further equipped with the Advanced Off-Road Capability and Off Road packages for $2,080. Other add-ons included adaptive cruise control, a Cold Climate package, panoramic sunroof, tow hitch and other conveniences pushed the as-tested price of $72,180.

2020 Jeep Wrangler.

2020 Jeep Wrangler.

MPG Comparison: Wrangler vs. 4Runner vs. Defender

Our Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with the four-cylinder engine is estimated by the EPA to return 21 mpg combined (21 city/22 highway). Opting for the six-cylinder engine drops the estimate only slightly to 20 mpg combined (19 city/22 highway). The real champion is the Wrangler's optional diesel six-cylinder that is estimated at 25 mpg combined (22 city/29 highway).

Next up is the Land Rover Defender 110. The six-cylinder engine has a mild hybrid system and an EPA estimate of 19 mpg combined (17 city/22 highway). Like the Wrangler, the Defender with the four-cylinder engine doesn't have a distinct efficiency advantage with its 18 mpg combined (17 city/20 highway) estimate.

Bringing up the rear is the Toyota 4Runner and its 17 mpg combined (16 city/19 highway) EPA estimate. We attribute its below-average showing to its outdated six-cylinder engine and five-speed transmission. This powertrain combination means the engine has to work harder to accelerate as well as maintain its highway speed. As evidence, the engine is louder and sounds more labored in those conditions.

2020 Toyota 4Runner.

2020 Toyota 4Runner.

Interior, Comfort & Tech: Defender vs. 4Runner vs. Wrangler

As the newest, most expensive and luxury-branded competitor, the Land Rover Defender easily has the nicest interior of this trio of off-road SUVs. The broad horizontal dash is accented by a wide touchscreen in the middle, while the center stack and console remain appealingly simple with their lack of switches, knobs and levers. Those typical off-road controls have either been automated or moved to the infotainment screen.

The Defender 110 continues to lead with its high levels of comfort. The Toyota and Jeep are body-on-frame vehicles, much like a pickup truck, while the Defender's unibody construction is more like what underlies a typical crossover SUV. This, along with a sophisticated suspension, allows the Defender to ride smoothly on the highway and in the city. Helping matters are the well-shaped seats and a lot of sound insulation to block road and wind noise. The relatively tame all-terrain tires also help keep things quiet. The Defender's portly 5,571-pound curb weight is noticeable on road and off, but especially so when taking turns.

How about the 4Runner vs. Wrangler? Despite several updates over the last decade, the Toyota 4Runner looks out-of-date compared to the Wrangler. It's not as technologically advanced as the Defender, but it does afford the driver a lot more manual control over its off-road systems. As a result, it feels more rewarding when off-roading since the driver is more of an integral part of reaching a destination.

The 4Runner TRD Pro has noticeably stiffer and bouncier ride than the Defender, but it's not to any objectionable level, especially for an SUV with such off-road abilities. Likewise, the chunky and more aggressive tires create more noise on the highway, but it's not what we'd consider intrusive. The engine noise, on the other hand, is ever present.

If there's a sliding scale between comfort and all-terrain prowess, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is certainly the most hardcore off-roader in the group. The solid front axle greatly reduces on-road comfort and confidence, while the recirculating ball steering makes the Wrangler feel vague and lethargic.

The Wrangler's interior design retains its industrial and purpose-built appearance, but the fine quality of materials makes it look and feel more refined than its predecessors as well as the 4Runner. Most off-road systems are controlled manually with hefty levers and buttons, giving drivers a distinct sense of satisfaction as they muscle the transfer case lever into place with a hearty clunk. Depending on where you land on the comfort-to-all-terrain sliding scale, the Wrangler can either seem perfectly suited or unapologetically primitive.

Off-Roading Capability: Wrangler vs. 4Runner vs. Defender

Not surprisingly, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is the champion of these off-road SUVs. Straight from the dealership, this rugged SUV can navigate terrain with greater ease than the Defender or 4Runner and still have some tricks up its sleeve (such as a front stabilizer bar that can be disconnected by a button push for greater wheel articulation).

The Toyota 4Runner was able to scale the same obstacles as the Wrangler in our testing, but it needed all of its bells and whistles to get there. In particular, Toyota's Crawl Control manages the power distribution to each of its wheels independently and operates much like a low-speed cruise control. The system maximizes overall traction and allows the driver to concentrate solely on steering with feet off the pedals. In this manner, it represents a middle ground between the Jeep and the Land Rover.

Even though the Land Rover Defender is the most comfortable and refined of the three, it doesn't skimp on its off-road abilities. The smart electronic systems do much of the work for the driver as the vehicle effortlessly scales ruts, bumps and steep inclines. This ease of use can take some of the romance out of off-roading because the driver feels more like a passenger, but for novices it can mean the difference between reaching a destination or calling for a rescue vehicle.

2020 Jeep Wrangler.

2020 Jeep Wrangler.

Edmunds Says

The Land Rover Defender is clearly the easiest to live with. Its comparably high levels of comfort and long list of convenience and tech features make it a standout in the bunch, yet it still has the ability to conquer the same terrain. Its higher price is its greatest drawback, followed by the nagging feeling that all of its electromechanical wizardry could be a liability in remote locales.

The Toyota 4Runner is the rugged SUV veteran in the group since it hasn't received a full redesign in a decade. A new engine and transmission would greatly improve its prospects, along with more up-to-date features and a more modern interior.

The Jeep Wrangler's narrower focus on off-road prowess comes at the expense of on-road comfort and confidence. For the relatively rare shopper with hardcore-terrain supremacy as a priority, the Jeep is the top choice. There's a distinct charm and character for sure, but it's not the best choice for those who will use it primarily as a commuter.

With this in mind, shoppers will have to determine for themselves which is the best choice since all three have advantages and disadvantages of their own. What remains unknown is how the eagerly anticipated Ford Bronco fits into the mix. Our initial impressions have been very favorable, but we won't know for sure until we get to fully evaluate it against the current trio.

2020 Land Rover Defender.

2020 Land Rover Defender.