2-door Rover a retro rock star in looks, off-roading …
OK, I say Land Rover and what do you picture?
Boxy, utilitarian off-roader running through tall elephant grass or African Savanna grass, a photographer’s head and camera poking from the open roof. Maybe an elephant, giraffe or even a lion wandering in the background?
That’s because in 1948 Land Rover started cranking out said utilitarian boxes after Jeeps had invaded the British landscape during World War II. The Brits were quick, relatively, to duplicate and improve upon the Jeep for its own market and, Boom! Rovers sold like elephant ears at the state fair. Those early models not only had high ground clearance, big rugged tires and four-wheel-drive, but fold down windshields and rear doors where we all fancy hatches these days.
Well, the good ol’ days are back, sort of, as Land Rover jumps back in to the more utilitarian end of the huge SUV market with its Defender series, which had disappeared in 1997 as Rover romped full force into the luxury SUV market where you bloody well know there are more profits!
Defender had been its entry-level more rugged Jeep-like models and now the new Defender 90 and 110 are that, with a healthy helping of luxury ladled on board. I tested the 110 back in January. It rides on a longer wheelbase and features four doors and a luxury price tag.
This time I romped the suburban tundra in a stylish (retro) Defender 90 First Edition two-door that again pressed right up against the luxury market like a lion in heat. This special trim was $65,450 and with just two options hit $66,475. Yet a base model with a less powerful 2.0-liter turbo I4 engine starts at down-market price of $47,125.
On looks alone the Defender 90, especially decked out in a light gray-green metallic Pangea Green paint scheme, is a rock star. Folks gawked, a few asked questions!
This rides on a compact 101.9-inch wheelbase, but still looks muscular and stout. It clears the ground by 8.9 inches, will wade in 35.4 inches of water, and in First Edition trim packs an energetic 395 horsepower 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder with mild hybrid system to power its electronics. A fine 8-speed automatic transmission easily melds with the big power unit for a luxury feel.
Trust me, a Jeep-like vehicle with a short wheelbase is normally about as much fun to drive as a square-wheeled peddle car. Think Flintstones! But Defender feels refined and quite comfy on most city streets, and in limited off-road romping. There is some bump felt on severe or sharp road imperfections, but ride is generally pleasant indeed.
Power is luxury sedan smooth and instantaneous. Driving the Defender is fun as you can get on the gas and be quickly up to highway speeds. In fact, I found myself over accelerating initially in highway jaunts, needing to whoa this boxy beast down to avoid the constabulary.
Handling is precise and firm with moderate steering effort required and Defender corners well for a tall short-wheelbase vehicle. It never felt tippy, although from outward appearances you might assume it to be top-heavy. I did not get to use this in rugged terrain, but it’s capable and has numerous off-road settings, all controlled via a big touchscreen. I’d prefer a knob or button.
Off-road options include mud ruts, rock crawl, grass/gravel/sand, sand, and wading for those nearly three-foot deep streams that need forded, or should that be Rovered? Comfort and a customizable Configurable setting also are available. Comfort works on city streets and highways.
So nimble is the Defender that parking is a breeze! One assumes that would help in dodging trees and rocks once off into the bush country too.
Speaking of which, there are a bunch of “dear Jesus” handles for both driver and riders to hug when bounding around boulders. The dash also has a rail across the top and at both edges if you need to hang on for dear life.
Otherwise the interior looks utilitarian. Door panels show exposed metal as in a Jeep and overhead there’s a cool fold-back cloth panoramic sunroof, powered of course. Seats are a mix of cloth and perforated leather-like material that would be easy to clean. Some of that texture is carried over into the doors and dash. These were a dark gray to black in the test truck with light gray trim on the doors and dash, which also had a shelf along its top face for storing sunglasses, phones, and rhino tranquilizer darts.
Seats are fairly flat, but powered and heated up front (controlled through the touchscreen) and there’s a jump seat in the middle that can be folded up to allow more elbow room such as that needed when off-roading. Put it down and there are cup holders in its back for the front seat occupants. However, that seat is quite thick and feels pretty confining for the front seat folks and a bit high for a comfy armrest. Put it up though and it somewhat blocks rearward vision.
In fact, rear vision is tough much of the time with the rear seat headrests and spare tire on that back door blocking the view. Thank goodness for the backup camera, mounted overhead in the shark fin antenna housing on the roof.
Rear seat folks also get a little ambient light from side skylights built into the Rover’s white metal top. Opening that cloth sunroof helps too. The skylights are retro styling touches, as are the little round taillights and so much more here. All good, as the styling communicates modernified retro inside and out.
Not much storage room behind the rear seats, similar to a Jeep Wrangler, but less. Enough space for maybe four or five upright grocery bags. Seats will fold down, of course, and there’s a power height button inside that rear-opening back hatch door. So if you’re loading up and need the vehicle higher or lower for loading comfort that’s a plus.
Again, I’m no fan of a rear-opening door, especially with a big 20-inch tired mounted on it. The door is heavy and the tire partially blocks rear visibility. Does it look macho and rugged? You bet. But it’s style over function.
What surprised me most? The interior’s quietness. I expected a lot more nubby off-road tire noise (20-inchers here adding $350 to the price), or more wind noise, this being a box on wheels. Not so. Defender’s interior is quiet as a near luxury sedan, allowing you to hear the fancy Meridian sound system, with volume easily adjusted by a roller on the steering wheel.
On the practical side the powerful Defender will tow 8,200 lbs., so is a fine trailer puller, and if the rear seats are down there’s decent cargo space in back. If you’re going to tow you’ll need the trailer hitch receiver, a $675 option.
Rovers are not known for stellar gas mileage, and the Defender 90 is not a true hybrid. It’s rated at 17 mpg city and 22 highway by the EPA, and I got just 17.1 mpg in a mix of city and highway drives.
Rovers, now owned by India-based Tata Motors, are, however, known for electronic gremlins. I found only one slight glitch this time. The rearview camera liked to stay on when the SUV was in Drive for several minutes, but did switch to a front view. Hmm, maybe for watching out for wildebeests, or boulders!
2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition
Hits: Snazzy retro looks, awesome color, off-roading ability in spades, strong smooth power, good handling, nice ride for short wheelbase. Quiet interior, cloth folding panoramic sunroof, heated seats, radio volume roller on wheel, Meridian sound system, easy to park.
Misses: Poor rear visibility, rear hatch opens out like door, tire on door makes it heavy, fold-down optional middle front seat very thick making for uncomfy arm rest, rearview camera stays on when in Drive for several minutes.
Made in: Nitra, Slovakia
Engine: 3.0-liter I6, 395 hp
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 4,780 lbs.
Wheelbase: 101.9 in.
Length: 180.4 in.
Cargo: 58.3 cu.ft.
Tow: 8,200 lbs.
MPG: 17.1 (tested)
Base Price: $65,450 (includes delivery)
Tow hitch receiver, $675
Off-road tires, $350
Test vehicle: $66,475
Sources: Land Rover, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage