2021 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: Off-Road With Style and Simplicity
It's got the looks, brains, and brawn to conquer anything you throw at it on and off the road.
Land Rovers are famous for their off-road prowess. From being the go-to vehicle of African Safari park rangers to serving in the Royal Army and becoming rugged icons in cross-continental rallies, Land Rovers have always meant business. This, of course, will come as a surprise to anyone under 35 who's only ever seen them at the local Starbucks and pilates studio. But while the British automaker's most popular offerings nowadays are more about pomp than romp, the 2021 Land Rover Defender is here to shake things up a bit. Or, a lot.
Unlike the Range Rover, which essentially became a pop icon in the early 2000s thanks to the Kardashians and David and Victoria Beckham, the Defender identifies more with the likes of the adventurous Jack Hannah or young Queen Elizabeth II. In other words, it would rather get dirty out in the field than look pretty outside Nobu.
Land Rover recently loaned me a 2021 Defender 90 so I could get a taste of this up-until-now forbidden fruit. And while I did the typical thing with it—drive my kid to school, go to the grocery store, and so on—I also took it off the pavement and onto some dirt to see what the hype was all about.
In the words of Most Extreme Elimination Challenge's Captain Tenneal, "Let's get it on!"
2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition: By the Numbers
- Base price (First Edition as tested): $49,050 ($66,475)
- Powertrain: 3.0-liter twincharged (turbo+electric supercharger) mild-hybrid inline-six | 8-speed automatic | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 395 @ 5,500 rpm
- Torque: 406 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm to 5,500 rpm
- Curb weight: 4,830 pounds
- Max ground clearance: 11.5 inches
- Off-road angles: 38° approach | 31° breakover | 40° departure
- Cargo space: 15.6 cubic feet
- Seating capacity: 6
- Towing capacity: 8,201 pounds
- EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city | 22 highway | 19 combined
- Quick take: A charming and well-rounded SUV that's a joy to drive on and off the road.
The original Defender has long been considered an off-road legend, but that status grew even stronger in the '80s when the grueling Camel Trophy rally became the pinnacle of vehicular adventure—one that the Defender had no problem dominating. It was then that the plucky Brit became the king of overlanding before overlanding was even a thing.
Sadly, all of this adventurousness never really made it Stateside, or at least not for long. While it was produced in multiple iterations from 1948 to 2016—Series I, II, III, 90, 110, and ultimately just Defender—the famous off-roader was only briefly available in the U.S. from 1993 to 1997. When the wraps came off the all-new Defender in September of 2019, however, Land Rover confirmed that it'd be sold in North America.
The new-generation Defender is offered in two core models and a variety of trims. The model I tested is the Defender 90, which is the two-door variant. First Edition refers to the trim, which is a sort of middle-ish ground when it comes to its exterior, interior, and tech equipment. You could go down and opt for the base model—or X-Dynamic—but you could also go up and choose the loaded-up Defender X. Depending on what kind of goodies you want, you can spend anywhere from $48,000 to over $81,000.
Then there's the Defender 110, which takes all of that rugged goodness and stretches it out to fit four full-size doors. Trims and packaging are nearly identical to those of the 90, with the premium to pay for the extra set of doors being around $5,000. Despite having these, however, both the 90 and 110 can fit either five or six people depending on seat configuration (more on this later).
If you're looking for the ultimate 110, Land Rover will sell you the exclusive Defender V8 Bond Limited Edition. It is, as you guessed, inspired by the SUVs featured in 007's latest franchise film No Time To Die. That one costs a wee bit more: $115,950.
Three different engines are offered throughout the lineup. The base model makes do with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbocharged engine that produces a respectable 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. The second engine offering—the one in my Defender—is the 3.0-liter twin-charged (turbo- and electronically supercharged) mild-hybrid inline-six, which produces 395 hp and 406 pound-feet. Lastly, there's Land Rover's beloved 5.0-liter, supercharged V8, which produces a thunderous 518 hp and hefty 625 pound-feet. All engines pair to a ZF-derived, eight-speed automatic transmission.
Regardless of how many doors or what engine you give your Defender, they all look essentially the same inside and out. Land Rover went for a simple design that paid respect to the original Defender. It's not exactly retro but it's not exactly spaceship either. It's nothing but a modern take on a classic, and it works.
More importantly, it's a design that favors function over form inside and out, which is evident in the SUV's impressive approach, breakover, and departure angles. The front-end design can even incorporate a factory winch kit and the roof can be outfitted with all kinds of racks, ladders, and lockboxes in traditional Safari style. And yes, an exposed spare tire mounted to the sideways-swinging rear hatch is the cherry on top.
The interior follows the same principles as the exterior. The seats of my test unit came wrapped in a sort of all-weather material Land Rover calls Robustec with grained leather inserts throughout the upper and lower seat cushions. There was even an optional middle seat up front which my daughter loved, which boosts total seating capacity to six total (three in the front and three in the back). My colleague Kristen Lee covered this jumpseat in detail in her first drive review.
The floors as well as the back of the rear seats are hard plastic, too, making cleaning up a breeze. At last, you're free to throw muddy things in the trunk without worrying about ruining the upholstery. The same goes for most surfaces found throughout the cabin, which have been designed with convenience and durability in mind.
The end result is a practical interior and an exterior that's equal parts rugged, cute, and cutting-edge. If Land Rover was looking to design an SUV that caters to various demographics, it's nailed it.
Off-roading the Defender is similar to operating an original iPod: simple. It's a plug-and-play device. Unless you're tackling some extreme terrain, you don't even need to tinker with the drivetrain or suspension settings. Sure, you could toggle one of the five selectable off-road driving modes, but you could also just leave things alone and let the computer sort them out. That's what I did for the most part.
Creeping over mudholes and tracking rutted, mucky trails was child's play for the Defender, which articulated each 20-inch wheel, wrapped in relatively basic Goodyear Wrangler tires, to keep rolling despite the slippery conditions. It simply carried on with the job. It was about an hour into traversing seriously muddy trails near the Indiana-Illinois border that I realized just how far I really was from testing the SUV's limits.
Eventually, the trails grew narrower and the ruts more aggressive, so I shifted into low range and raised the air suspension to off-road mode, giving me an additional three inches of travel from its normal setting (4.9 from its lowest). Maximum ground clearance was now a gratuitous 11.5 inches, which is 0.7 inches more than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The Ford Bronco matches the Defender only when equipped with the Sasquatch trim's 35-inch tires.
With the body jacked up and low gears doing their thing, I felt more confident exploring the trickier, marshy sections of the trail. The surround camera system played a big role in my confidence, as I could peek at what was in front, to the side, and even underneath of the Defender at all times—all without getting out of the vehicle or having a spotter. The "invisible hood" feature came in handy while approaching hill drop-offs, with the cameras stitching together an image of the terrain under the car.
Mud & Ruts mode simply allowed the Defender to do the same, just with an easier time. When creeping slowly through large puddles or muddy downhills, I could hear the drivetrain work its magic, sometimes applying the brakes on individual tires to keep the off-roader facing in the right direction. Hill descent would also kick in when needed, making sure I didn't roll down hills too fast or out of control.
I still hopped out a few times to make sure conditions were okay before driving over them, of course, but in general, the cameras greatly minimize the chances of causing damage or running over something that could puncture a tire.
From the swampy trails to dry and rocky hills, the compact but mighty Brit quickly sorted out whatever obstacles Mother Nature threw at it. Again, without touching Land Rover's Terrain Response system, the Defender adjusted quite rapidly to the new terrain—specifically, one particular obstacle.
When faced against a steep rock wall—one that had a mix of inclined and nearly vertical slopes—the computer quickly sorted out the conditions and pushed the Defender up the obstacle with minimal strain and tire slip. Pleased with its performance, I went back down and did it again, but this time with the Terrain Response system on Rock Crawl. Unsurprisingly, it did it even better, this time without a chirp from the Goodyears.
In a nutshell, Terrain Response can quickly configure the Defender's suspension height and the transmission's behavior to better fit trail conditions. It can also fine-tune traction control and electronic stability systems so they aid instead of hinder whatever the driver is trying to do, whether it be slowly climbing a rock, cruising down a steep hill, or spinning all four tires while bombing through muddy slop. Preset terrain modes include Rock Crawl, Grass Gravel Snow, Mud & Ruts, and Sand. There's also Auto mode and a neutral General Driving mode for regular, everyday driving.
It's worth praising the Defender's off-road angles, as this obstacle could've damaged the front end of competing vehicles such as the Bronco. The Defender's 38° approach angle bests the Ford's 35.5°, though the Wrangler eclipses both with 44°. The Land Rover's 40° departure angle also made sure the rear bumper didn't drag once I climbed these stop rock formations. In this case, the Defender wins the departure angle battle against both the Bronco's 29.8° and Wrangler's 37°.
And it wasn't just the capabilities that were impressive, it was also how the Defender felt while performing these tasks. The steering was always relaxed and communicative, and so were the monocoque construction and independent suspension (no rigid axles). These allow the driver to feel what's going on with the terrain and monitor the conditions—and eventually make the right calls. In rural Indiana, this could mean the difference between me driving home or having to call a rescue truck to pull me out of a mud hole. But in remote lands like the African savannah, it could mean life or death.
For example, I was driving up a rocky stream in approximately 10 inches of standing water when I suddenly felt the steering get a little light up front. I crept up a few more inches and then I felt the rear end sink a bit. Lo and behold, I had run into a patch of soft sand in a shallow creek. Had I not felt the ground shift below me, I would've most likely sunk in enough to get stuck. Instead, I quickly reversed out of there. Let me tell ya, no fancy terrain system is getting you out of quicksand.
I didn't go into my test of the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 thinking I would be this impressed with its overall performance. Yes, as you just read, it performed brilliantly off-road, but how it drives on the road is equally impressive, as Kristen covered in detail in our original review.
The mild-hybrid engine is a thing of beauty; quick, responsive, extremely smooth. In Sport mode, the transmission shifts quickly like a sports car and utilizes the nearly 400 ponies to thrust you forward with urgency. The suspension is a delight cruising through city streets or crawling over rocks. The same goes for the overall comfort of the cabin.
Perhaps the Defender's only demerits are the lack of a grab handle on the A-Pillar (one is built into the dash but isn't quite as effective) and the lack of wireless Apple CarPlay at this price point. The infotainment system isn't the most intuitive, but frankly, its layout is basic enough to figure out in a couple of days.
If you can live with that (and I could), then the Defender is a charming SUV that can rule the dirt and the pavement alike. The fact that it does so with more panache and while looking considerably better than any of its macho, retro-crazed competitors is just a big bonus.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.