Review: 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

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Jaguar Land Rover

The 2021 Land Rover Defender has a tough trail laid out ahead of it, and not simply because it inherits the weighty mantle of a beloved British off-roader. Of course, the days of truly rugged and stripped-down Rovers is long gone, and the modern Defender’s shared bones with the Discovery says a lot about the automaker’s need to perhaps satisfy wealthy urbanites even more than off-road weekend warriors. Still, this is a marque that built its name on military-spec ladder-frame trucks, which means it has to walk the walk. (Or perhaps crawl the crawl?) At Land Rover’s invitation, we hopped behind the wheel of the new Defender 90 to understand if this luxury adventurer strikes the right balance between proficient and posh.

The four-door Defender 110 arrived in the U.S. last June; the two-door 90, delayed because of COVID-19, is only just clambering onto our shores for the 2021 model year. (European markets already sampled the 2020 version.) Each SUV rides on a beefed-up derivative of the Discovery’s aluminum architecture, although the 90’s 101.9-inch wheelbase is 17.1 inches shorter than the 110’s. Engines are also shared between the short- and long wheelbase Defenders: a 296-hp turbo-four and a 395-hp mild-hybrid straight-six with super- and turbocharging. (2022 brings a supercharged 5.0-liter V-8 making 518 hp. God save the Queen!)

Jaguar Land Rover

We drove the “First Edition” of the Defender 90 which, unlike its equivalent in Ford’s Bronco lineup, is not the 90’s highest-spec configuration. (Until the V-8 Defender 90 arrives, that honor goes to the $81,850 90 X.) Equipped with the six-cylinder engine, the $65,460 First Edition also boasts air suspension and adaptive dampers. Configurable Terrain Response, as distinct from the base model’s (non-configurable) Terrain Response, lets you individually adjust powertrain, steering, differentials, and traction control to your liking.

Jaguar Land Rover

The 90 is the more nimble of the Defender duo. Though approach and departure angles (38 and 40 degrees, respectively) are shared with its long-wheelbase sibling, the 90’s breakover angle improves to 31 degrees from the 110’s 28 degrees. The two-door is marginally more affordable, too; depending on which configuration you choose, opting for the 90 over the 110 will save you roughly $3000–$4000. That’s a lot of spare change to spend on beef jerky for the trail.

The interior is essentially copy-paste from the 110. It’s a stylish blend of no-nonsense function and polished tech tailored to those who cross-shop Arc’teryx and solar-powered outdoor TVs. None of the extensive horizontal surfaces are finished in reflective metal, a thoughtful detail considering the outdoorsy bent of this ute (and its optional folding fabric roof).

2020 Land Rover Defender interior
Jaguar Land Rover

The dash is designed to exposed a magnesium crossbeam stamped with DEFENDER, a matte-grey element that contrasts beautifully with the glossy 10-inch touchscreen. That screen runs Jaguar Land Rover’s new Pivi infotainment system, which proved sleek and intuitive during our brief hour-long drive session, though the smaller display feels a bit underwhelming compared to the classy 11.4-inch unit in the XF and F-Pace. Your five-foot-seven author located two ergonomic irritations: There’s no grab handle with which to haul yourself into the cabin, and the front seats are ill-suited to smaller figures—the bottom of the seat, in particular, felt too long, and the bottom front bolster isn’t adjustable.

Before digging into the driving experience of the baby Defender, allow us to note that this first drive was on-road only, with the exception of roughly 2 minutes on a well-graded dirt road we spent stuck behind a pest control truck doing 20 mph. If you’re interested in the Defender 90’s off-road kudos, stay tuned for a more thorough test catering to this SUV’s off-road specialties.

2020 Land Rover Defender on highway
Jaguar Land Rover

On the suburban streets of Pontiac, Michigan, the Defender 90 struck us as a very livable vehicle, though it has its pitfalls. Steering is predictable, and light enough that you can one-hand turns. Road noise is detectable but well-isolated, even with the optional $350 “off-road” tires (255/60R20 all-terrains from Goodyear). Even with both windows lowered and the fabric top folded, there’s no buffeting. Unfortunately, an abundance of direct sunlight partially washes out the ClearSight rearview “mirror,” whose 50-degree live video feed is a revelation compared to the cramped view out the back and around the spare tire. On well-known roads, most customers will be content to use the analog glass; on unfamiliar streets with decent traffic, the loss of wide-angle rear visibility made us slightly nervous.

The twin-charged inline-six is a gutsy companion, though afternoon traffic limited opportunities to stretch the mill’s legs; its most irritating tick is a reluctance to wake, following a prolonged stop, from its automatic emissions-conscious snooze. That stop/start function can be disabled, but it defaults back to being on every time the vehicle is turned off. The eight-speed automatic transmission otherwise duly rewards throttle stabs by summoning a surge of power—a spirited response that would be admirable if your timing weren’t already thrown by the laggy stop/start transition. As afternoon congestion mired us in stop-and-go driving patterns, the powertrain’s out-of-sync behavior became increasingly frustrating, especially given the ostensible benefit of the 48-volt mild-hybrid setup’s electric motor and electric supercharger. There’s a lot going on here, and at this price point, it should operate more seamlessly.

Land Rover Defender 90 6
Land Rover

If you’re shopping the Defender 90 intending on regular off-road use, the $64K First Edition is perhaps not a particularly good buy for those who are brand agnostic. Jeep’s two-door Wrangler Rubicon starts under $40K; checking every available option still rings in under $60K. The two-door Bronco Wildtrak starts at $50K but, with options, tells a similar story. If you’re determined to buy a Landie, either for the better-than-Stellantis luxury appointments or the distinctive styling, you’d be better served with a lower-spec model: the $59,150 X-Dynamic S or the $50,750 90S, if you can tolerate the four-banger. (We haven’t yet sampled it.)

Until Land Rover lets us properly thrash the baby Defender off-road, we only know the on-road part of the 90’s personality. From our first impressions, however, the reborn Defender possesses a generally civilized around-town character to complement its adorable face and attractive proportions. If the 110 is anything to judge by, this cute ute should have the guts to back up its powerful name.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

Price (base/as tested): $65,450 / $66,475

Highs: Aggressively trendy, inside and out, down to the smallest details. Two-door nails the boxy Landie look.

Lows: Spastic stop/start system, front seats aren’t fully adjustable, a very expensive way to buy an IRS off-roader.

Summary: You don’t have to be a rock-crawling expert to crave this burly Brit, but you do need deep pockets.

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