- Photos: Kurt Bradley

Evaluating The Land Rover Defender 90 As It Was Designed To Be

No mall crawler, this 2-door Defender gets a proper off-road test.

1w ago
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Decades of adventures around the globe give the Land Rover Defender credentials few vehicles can match. During its more recent history, Land Rover has become a brand synonymous with well-heeled drivers who want a luxury vehicle in the city that can occasionally lug things around on the farm, but there are still plenty of people who know what it's capable of. When this new Defender was released, Land Rover set out to bring back that popular off-road status back into focus while still delivering a composed city cruiser.

When I gave the new Defender 110 an initial test earlier this year, I was limited to gathering my impressions in the city without going off-road, as a winter disaster hit Texas during my time with it. This massive storm covered the Lone Star State in unprecedented amounts ice and snow, took out Texas' flawed power grid, and after over a week with millions of people without power or running water, energy companies continued to achieve record profits rather than investing in equipment and winterization improvements, and government officials either remained silent--or tucked their tails and skipped town to seek warmer conditions--as hundreds of people lost their lives while freezing inside their own homes.

To keep the roads clear, and allow emergency workers to serve their communities, I scrapped my plans of taking the Defender 110 to a favorite off-road park to evaluate its capabilities. As I step off my soapbox, I'll state that I was fortunate to remain safe throughout the winter disaster, though I did lose power and water for several days. Since then, Land Rover released the two-door Defender 90, and offered me a chance to pick up where I left off.

The Useful Specs

Land Rover ships the Defender as either two- and four-door models, named the 90 and 110, respectively. In the previous generation, those numbers indicated the inches of wheelbase for the Defender. Though the proportions have grown for the new Defender--with the 90 now sporting a 101.9-inch wheelbase and overall length of 184 inches, and the 110 boasting a 119-inch wheelbase and 197-inch overall length--Land Rover opted to maintain its previous naming conventions.

Base trims of the Defender can be equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, producing 296 horsepower. Just like the Defender 110 I reviewed earlier this year, the two-door 90 model shown here--known as the P400 option--is powered by a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six, supplemented by a mild hybrid pack, making 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft (550 Nm) of torque. Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission, the Defender is driven by all-wheel-drive and a 2-speed transfer box intended for your off-road excursions.

Starting price for the Land Rover Defender 90 in its S and SE trim levels actually start a hint higher than its 110 sibling, with a bit more standard equipment, at $52,300. Other trim levels include X, X-Dynamic, and a 518-horsepower V8 selection that loads up the features list while hitting a sticker price just over $100,000. The Pangea Green First Edition model--which packages together plenty of popular options into a middle of the road trim level--I tested has an MSRP of $64,100, and after adding a tow hitch receiver, off-road tires, and the destination charge, the total price as tested hit $66,475.

The Urban Adventure Vehicle

Despite its large proportions and a commanding presence, the Land Rover Defender 90 is remarkably composed as a city driver. Both Defender models I've driven have been equipped with the optional--and truly sublime--adaptive air suspension which easily masks the 5,000-pound curb weight as this Land Rover glides through the concrete jungle with only the slightest bit of body roll.

Contrary to my initial concerns for a massive SUV equipped with Goodyear's All-Terrain Adventure rubber that's more suited to unpaved surfaces, the Defender 90's electric-assisted power steering was precise and offered the ideal amount of steady feedback, while needing little elbow grease to maneuver. It may resemble the utilitarian look and target demographic of the Mercedes G-Class--which I gave good marks during a recent review--but the Defender exhibits far better on-road manners at a significantly lower price.

The mild-hybrid powertrain is effortlessly smooth, delivering a subtle shove when you apply the Defender's throttle. The P400 powertrain is great, even if a 0-60 MPH sprint in 7.6 seconds isn't impressive, but the Defender has a sufficient amount of power and torque according to this enthusiast driver. There are plenty of people who will spend more money to opt for the new V8 Defender if they don't think the P400 is quick enough.

Moderate use of the go pedal will make it easier for the Land Rover Defender to hit its EPA estimated 17/22/19 MPGs. While the cabin is exceptionally quiet, I still appreciate hearing the slightest rumble from the Defender's straight-six. The two-door Land Rover's 8-speed automatic changes gears at an imperceptible level, rounding out a refined driving experience.

Interior treatments in the Defender 90 are a nice ensemble of functional and stylish materials. There are ways to increase your level of luxury, but I like the mixed materials in this First Edition trim that's exactly like the cockpit in the Defender 110 I previously reviewed. The Defender's interior is definitely nicer than the upgraded trim you can get inside the Ford Bronco I evaluated this summer, which is still good for its class. Heated memory front seats are standard, and seat ventilation is available in upper trim levels. With the folding fabric roof fitted, rather than the panoramic glass sunroof, I liked driving the Defender with its cabin totally exposed to the sun and sounds of the city.

Land Rover claims the Defender 90 can seat 6 if you opt for the front jump seat--as my tester had--having three occupants up front and out back, but a tiny child would be the only person to sit in the middle of either row. The Defender 90 is a cool package with good proportions in its two-door form, but most drivers will benefit from having easier entry to the back seats while utilizing added cargo space found in the four-door Defender 110. Even though the boot space isn't great in the Defender 90, the rear seat folds down 40/20/40 when more storage is needed.

Tech equipment is plentiful in the Defender, with a big and customizable instrument cluster, a 10-inch infotainment screen featuring JLR's PIVI Pro infotainment UI that's supplemented by Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and featuring sounds that pump through a 400-watt Meridian audio system. The Defender also has plenty of USB-A and USB-C outlets, spread throughout its interior, for all your devices. Because rearward visibility is compromised by the optional spare tire mounted to the tailgate, Land Rover supplies a digital screen feature in its rearview mirror, which works in harmony with a high-resolution camera mounted atop the Defender. It does take a bit of getting used to, since it's not a true representation of the distance between you and the car behind you, but it does a good job.

Tough Yet Useful Details

Maintaining a classic Defender appearance while incorporating a new Land Rover design language, the shape of the Defender 90 is cool yet refined. The fascia is impactful yet upmarket, and the fenders flare ever so slightly around the meaty tires to give a muscular impression. Atop the hood are rubbery trim panels that allow you to make the spot a workspace without the worry of your stuff slipping off. The tailgate is still a flat surface, and there's a cool nod to the old Defender's taillight design that now uses LED strips around the edges with updated lighting components to add a modern finish.

Seating surfaces have a combination of durable leather and textile to offer a hint of luxury while being easy to clean whether you're wiping up your kid's breakfast or mud you splattered on the trails. Floors are rubberized for quick cleanups, and all-weather mats have deep walls to help keep any mud, sand, or water from sneaking under the Defender's seats.

The dash and top of the interior door panels are treated with a rubberized material that looks like a blend of Alcantara and leather, which has a soft touch. Neatly incorporated into the dash panel are a set of pockets and shelves, perfect for stashing smaller items when you're out exploring. I also like the exposed fasteners in the door panel, showing the trim fitted to the exterior color-painted metal.

Dominating Any Terrain

Proving its worth in the great unpaved domain, the Land Rover Defender 90 and I headed to Hidden Falls Adventure Park, about an hour's drive from the bustle of downtown Austin, Texas. Having evaluated the Ford Bronco along these trails this summer, I wanted to see how a more luxurious and slightly better equipped Defender 90 got along. In this environment, the Defender exhibited its off-road prowess in demanding conditions.

With a quick tap of a button next to the climate control system, the Defender temporarily converts the passenger side temperature knob into a dial to engage its terrain response modes, and opens up its 4x4 settings on the infotainment screen. Offering several dedicated terrain modes (including rock crawl, grass/gravel/snow, mud / ruts, and sand) in addition to allowing a custom configuration, Land Rover makes it simple to dial in the Defender to conquer any surface.

There are also quick buttons to engage the hill descent control and lock the differentials as you see fit. Once you're in any of the off-road drive modes, the infotainment screen will activate its cameras, offering a wide angle front view, in addition to this view with side views provided by cameras mounted under the side mirrors. I found that trio of displays vital when working the Defender along some trickier paths that were lined with rocks and brush.

While exploring a good variety of terrains at this off-road park, I was able to quickly swap between Land Rover's modes and test them all. I would also set the ride height to its tallest setting, to avoid damaging any of the Defender 90's undercarriage. Over moderate rocky stuff, I could simply keep the Defender in its comfort mode with the suspension raised, and this SUV wouldn't stress at all. As the incline increased, and texture got more dramatic, the 20-inch Goodyear All-Terrain Adventure tires easily grasped the surface, and steadily worked the Defender onward.

When crawling over rocks, the Defender 90 (fitted with its air suspension) has 38º approach and 40º departure angles, and thanks to its shorter overall length and wheelbase versus its big brother Defender 110, the breakover angle bumps up from 28º to 31º. Overhangs are 38 inches up front and 45 inches in the back. Ground clearance is 8.9 inches with the coil springs, and increases to 11.5 inches in the most aggressive off-road setting when equipped with the air suspension. The Defender 90's maximum angles for ascent, descent, and traverse are all 45º. Should you approach a stream, you'll have no issues wading through water up to 34 inches deep, and the infotainment screen lets you see just how much wet stuff you're working through.

I gave the Defender 90 an extensive test alongside a few friends in other off-road customized vehicles, and this Land Rover stood above them all, while impressing a few other park patrons in wildly kitted-out Jeeps who initially scoffed at this class of vehicle invading their turf. I'm an amateur off-road driver at best, and in no way did I feel uncomfortable pushing the Defender along technical trails that blended variations of mud, rocks, sand, and some massive water puddles because it was so capable and easy to drive. Purists may say that the hardware and tech Land Rover offers takes away from the experience, but I'd rather reduce my stress along a rocky path and be able to fully enjoy the trek.

The Ultimate SUV More People Should Properly Exercise

After giving this Land Rover two-door setup a complex test both in the city and along some rocky trails, I still feel that the Defender is the best off-road SUV you can buy, with abilities on the trails that easily match up with the Ford Bronco I loved, but with higher levels of refinement in the cabin and on any streets you cruise along. It may cost more than the Bronco, depending on which trim level and options you desire, but the Land Rover Defender has a price point to satisfy many buyers' demands and budgets.

Realizing that the vast majority of Land Rover buyers will only use them on the street, and barely explore the highest off-road competencies, that won't stop me from telling you how exceptional the Defender is when you wander away from your comfortable city life. If you decide to make the Land Rover Defender your daily driver, I beg you to make sure to exploit its off-road capabilities--and tackle new adventures--as often as possible. You'll be glad you did.

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Comments (19)

  • Couldn't help to notice that it has quite a few design features that mimic the Bronco..or vice-versa. Especially from the side. I know there is a limit to 'new' when it comes to SUVs and sale ability, but this article made me Google 'Does Ford Still Own a Little Bit of Land Rover'. Regardless, sounds like a great little truck.

      10 days ago
  • Whilst it's a Defender in name only, the 90 is definitely better than the 110 in terms of looks. And yours looks just like mine!

      10 days ago
  • I love it, but I don't know much about the reliability

      10 days ago
    • That old logic needs to be put to rest. JLR has done a lot to improve reliability over the past decade.

        10 days ago
    • If thats true, then I might like it more

        10 days ago
  • your thoughts?

      10 days ago
  • Does the new Land Rover Defender off-road as well as Land Rover says it will? Today we’ll find out @tribe

      12 days ago
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