Land Rover made some diehard fans angry when the brand messed with the off-road Defender, remaking this old farmers’ favourite into something more appropriate for farmers’ market patrons. You wouldn’t want to transport goats in the luxurious new Defender, but it will haul all the goat cheese you could ever want, and the built-in refrigerator will even keep it nicely chilled.
The truth is that the old, utilitarian Defender, which was still essentially the same shed-on-wheels that Land Rover unveiled in 1948, had long ago been appropriated by city drivers who yearned to feel useful and outdoorsy. Land Rover was simply responding to the market with the all-new luxurious Defender you see here.
This year, the new two-door Defender 90 joins the four-door Defender 110 in showrooms. (A stretched Defender 130 is reportedly being tested, but has yet to be officially announced.)
To these eyes, the smaller Defender 90 rights many of the wrongs with the 110′s design. The two-door doesn’t have the strange-looking panel blocking much of its rear side windows; instead, there’s simply a long slab of glass. The short wheelbase and tall height make the 90 stand out. If a British bulldog were a car, this would be it.
While some may still see the new Defender’s exterior design as a pale imitation of its predecessor, the interior is undeniably original. The cabin’s deconstructed style puts some of the car’s underlying architecture on display, exposing metal screws and a large powder-coated magnesium beam that is actually a structural element. In front of the beam is a shelf, useful for storing keys or phones, which runs the width of the cabin. It strikes a fine balance between luxury and utility.
Jumping up into the high driver’s seat and sitting inside the big metal cube that is the Defender 90 is like putting on a pair of hiking boots; don’t be surprised if you begin to feel more adventurous. The flat windshield and the view through the rear-view mirror – which is largely obscured by the knobby spare tire affixed to the trunk – are constant reminders you’re in an off-roader, not some anonymous egg-shaped crossover. You may find yourself uncharacteristically wanting to organize a camping trip.
Heaving open the enormous side-hinged cargo door takes a bit of muscle. It opens to reveal a predictably tiny cargo cubby that’s not even a half-metre deep with the second-row seats in place. Cramming a stroller into the trunk would be difficult, but two-door SUVs are best suited to childless adventurers, or perhaps as a second car. With the rear seats folded down, you could carry more than enough for any theoretical camping trip or mall haul.
The best part about living with the two-door Defender 90 though is just how compact it is. At roughly 4.5 metres long, including the spare wheel, it’s shorter than a Toyota Corolla sedan. The 90 is an excellent SUV for those with limited parking space. It’s easy to wheel around in tight quarters and thread through traffic. The little Defender is a refreshing change from all of the gargantuan SUVs that seem to dominate the road these days.
Fitted with the $1,620 optional air suspension package, the Defender 90 turns with the sort of eagerness and precision you don’t expect from such a capable off-roader. But the price you pay for good on-road handling is a slightly firm ride. We’d happily trade some of that handling prowess for added cushiness.
More of a concern is the fact that Land Rover ranked dead last in both J.D. Power’s 2021 Vehicle Dependability Study (which tracks the number of problems in three-year-old vehicles) and the 2020 Initial Quality Study (which tracks the number of problems in the first 90 days of vehicle ownership). Those rankings don’t include the 2021 Defender 90, of course, but they certainly don’t bode well.
Your only other options for a rugged two-door SUV are the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco. They both feature body-on-frame construction with solid rear axles. The Defender, meanwhile, has unibody construction with independent suspension on all four corners. In practice, that means the American machines are probably a better choice for rock-crawling, but all three SUVs have more off-road capability than 90 per cent of buyers will ever use, and the Defender should be more refined with better on-road handling. The price difference will likely be the deciding factor; the Land Rover is a luxury machine that costs roughly $20,000 more than those American alternatives.
Okay, no, the Defender 90 doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not a rational choice. It’s pricey and small but it wasn’t meant to be the rational choice. It was meant to make city dwellers used to living in the lap of luxury feel adventurous, a task which it accomplishes with joyful aplomb. Whether that novelty would wear off eventually is impossible to say, but this is a car that makes you smile. While it is a much more carefully contrived lifestyle accessory – and therefore less cool – than the classic Defender, the modern version is also more comfortable than wearing a burlap sack, which is something you couldn’t have said about its ancient predecessor.
- 2021 Land Rover Defender 90
- Base price/as tested: $62,800/$87,340
- Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged in-line four-cylinder; 3.0-litre supercharged in-line six
- Transmission/drive: eight-speed automatic/four-wheel drive
- Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 13.5 city, 10.8 highway (in-line six)
- Alternatives: Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco, Land Rover Defender 110, or a second-hand Mercedes G-class
There’s a reason two-door SUVs aren’t all that popular. The Defender 90 turns heads but sacrifices practicality.
The rear seats are surprisingly spacious. Legroom is generous back there, even for adults. An optional $1,850 panoramic glass roof combined with upward-facing “alpine windows” expands the view from the rear seats.
Even with a mild hybrid system, our six-cylinder test car averaged a disappointing 12 litres per 100 kilometres. Its 395 horsepower is nice, but for $10,000 less, we’d probably be happy with the four-cylinder.
Infotainment systems haven’t often been a strength of Jaguar Land Rover, but the screen in the Defender is excellent. The graphical interface is easy to use and responsive. The options you need always seem to be right at your fingertips.
The Defender 90 can seat six people if you select the optional central front jump seat. Cargo capacity is 1,263 litres with the rear seats folded, which is considerably less than the two-door Ford Bronco.
A contrived lifestyle accessory that is both totally impractical and completely charming.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.