Car Reviews

REVIEW: 2021 Land Rover Defender 90

Off-roading, two-door style

By Lee Bailie Wheels.ca

Sep 21, 2021 6 min. read

Article was updated 2 years ago

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It only takes one hand to rhyme off the complete list of two-door SUVs currently on the market: Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler and Land Rover Defender 90.

That’s the list. Of the most well-known, at least. I concede there may be others, but these three are the most recognized. And while most on this side of the Atlantic surely know about the Bronco and Wrangler, or have at least heard of them, that third entry from across the pond might have some drawing a blank, and for good reason.

If you’re among those scratching their heads over the Defender, don’t feel bad – it’s been gone for a long time. Although production for the first gen model lasted from 1983 through 2016, North America hasn’t seen the Defender since 1997 when slow sales caused Land Rover to pull the plug. Fast forward a quarter century, and the Defender is back. And there is much to discuss.

Structurally, the Defender is built on Jaguar Land Rover’s new D7x architecture, a lightweight aluminum monocoque that the company claims is the stiffest body structure it has ever produced. Three times stiffer than the body-on-frame construction of the first gen model, D7x is designed to support fully independent air or coil spring suspensions, along with electrified powertrains.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90

The Defender features permanent all-wheel drive with a twin-speed automatic transmission, centre differential and an optional active locking rear differential. Working hand in glove with this hardware is the all-new configurable terrain response system, which enables drivers to adjust individual settings to their liking, or they can let the system choose the settings automatically based on terrain.

With a vehicle of this type, off-road bonafides really matter, and the Defender’s numbers are impressive: 291 mm (11.4 inches) maximum ground clearance, 900 mm (35.4 inches) maximum wading depth, and maximum approach, departure and breakover angles of 37.5, 40 and 31 degrees, respectively (off-road height).

For Canada, the Defender is offered with two engines for both the 90 (two-door) and 110 (four-door): a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (296 hp / 296 lb-ft) and a 3.0-litre inline turbocharged six-cylinder with mild hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV) technology. It produces 395 hp / 406 lb-ft Both are paired with an eight-speed automatic, the only gearbox available.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90

Four grades are available: base, X-Dynamic, First Edition and X. My tester, a mid-grade X-Dynamic (P400) fitted with the 3.0-litre turbo inline-six, is finished in Pangea Green with a Khaki / Ebony Grained leather and Robustec seat facings. Land Rover is offering a slew of option packages and stand-alone accessories for the Defender and my unit is loaded with a bunch of them.

Among the extras (which total $17,440) are the Air Suspension package ($1,620), Towing Package ($2,270), Cold Climate package ($550), Comfort & Convenience package ($950), and some stand-alone options including a Black Contrast Roof ($1,010), 20-inch alloy wheels ($1,700) a Sliding Panoramic Roof ($1,850), and more.

Seeing my tester in the flesh for the first time, I was struck by two things: one, it’s strikingly boxy shape and two, how short it is. This is one short vehicle – one of the shortest SUVs I’ve ever tested. Land Rover says it’s comparable to a ‘compact family hatchback’.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90

I didn’t compare it my 12-year-old Civic, but I’ll take the company’s word for it because it is quite short. The 90’s overall length and wheelbase are 435 mm (17.1 inches) shorter than the 110’s, which produces an interior with much tighter confines. The 110 will seat up to seven, while the 90 can accommodate six. On the cargo space front, the 110 has a maximum volume of 2,277 litres, while the 90 is rated at 1,563.

As for the design, I like it. Boxy, but distinctive, with short front and rear overhangs and a silhouette that wont’ be mistaken for anything else. Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern summed the new car’s look in a statement by saying, “the New Defender is respectful of its past but is not harnessed by it.”

I’d have to agree. It looks like a Land Rover, but it’s circular LED headlights, externally mounted 20-inch full-size spare wheel ($100 option), swing-out tailgate and exposed structural elements (and screwheads!) in the cabin, which can be optioned with a ‘jump seat’ in the front row, make the Defender stand apart even within the brand.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 2021 Land Rover Defender 90

For as much modern tech as it has, the sense of extreme functionality oozes out of the Defender’s every pore. This is especially true in the cabin, where storage cubbies and bins proliferate. The dash has been hollowed out and fitted with a ledge inserted to carry loose items (with a rubberized liner in case such items are wet), and the seat fabrics are pleasant enough to sit on but are also meant to get dirty. And wiped clean.

The design team is inviting owners to get their Defenders dirty and load it with gear in the process. Got loose stuff in you hands? Great, chuck them in the dash, in the door or on a shelf under the centre console. Want to keep those water bottles cool? Not a problem, the armrest storage bin is also a cooler. Got muddy boots or mountain bike to store? Fine, just flip the rear seats forward and don’t worry about the mess. The seatbacks and cargo floor are covered in corrugated plastic and separated by a piece of metal trim that can be easily washed out afterwards.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 2021 Land Rover Defender 90

As for the exposed screwheads in the door trims and the angled-up console with a pistol grip gear shifter, I think these design choices further underline the Defender’s functional, go anywhere aesthetic. This is what the Defender is at its core.

So, as you might imagine, I took my tester on a trail that switches from gravel to rock to dirt to mud and back to gravel again, and it was a pretty grin-inducing experience. The trail is about six kilometres long, so I made sure to run it twice, just to get the full Defender experience, and my tester didn’t disappoint. By the time I was finished, the car was covered in mud, but ready for more.

The half dozen mini-ponds I drove through (twice) washed some of the mud off it but left a lot behind too. The specs I listed above aren’t just for show, dear reader – this thing gobbles up rough terrain like a German Shepherd takes care of breakfast. Ravenously and without a hitch.

I toggled the drive selector from grass, sand and gravel to mud & ruts and the Defender too care of the rest. The 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque from the turbocharged inline-six made short work of the trail, fording water with ease and handling the undulating muddy and rocky surfaces with ease.

The short wheelbase can make for a bit of a choppy, washboard ride on rough surfaces, both on road and off, but I found it to be quite hospitable in normal mode during my week of driving, which was mostly done on pavement. The Defender isn’t fast, nor does it have especially sharp handling reflexes, but it comports itself like a regular SUV in regular driving situations.

But, for as great as the Defender’s off-road prowess is, what lingers is its user-friendliness. For example, the air suspension can be used to raise or lower the cargo load floor when the vehicle is turned off and parked. Brilliant.

I get that the 110 is more practical. The two extra doors bring obvious cargo and passenger volume benefits. But if you don’t need the extra space, the 90 offers a ton of capability and design innovation, wrapped in an iconic look that really stands out.

It has a coolness that doesn’t require explanation.

The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval




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