Land Rover Defender 90 review: short-wheelbase off-roader packs in the personality
Think Land Rover and you automatically picture mud-splattered 4x4s splashing along rock-strewn riverbeds or negotiating hand-built bridges in the middle of a jungle.
It’s a well-deserved image that the brand has cultivated over the 70-plus years since Maurice Wilks first sketched that famous outline in the sand of an Islay beach.
Whether it’s overland expeditions in far-flung corners of the globe, humanitarian efforts in a war zone or bucolic images of rural life, there’s always an old Defender to be found somewhere in proceedings.
It’s a reputation that the brand continues to pursue with the new Defender, leaning heavily on the car’s enormous off-road abilities and practical qualities.
But not every Defender is destined for a mountain top or farmyard. As with anything that can loosely be called an SUV, there’s a huge amount of interest among drivers for whom off-roading means an unfinished track on the route to the stables or a grassy field next to the rugby pitches.
It’s to those sorts of buyers that this week’s test car seems designed to appeal. Those who want the stylish yet solid looks of the Defender but don’t care about load space or breakover angles.
So, our test car is the short-wheelbase 90 version with a variety of “lifestyle” friendly features that are more about aesthetics than practicality.
There’s no doubt that the 90 looks better than the longer 110. There’s something strangely lovable about its chunky almost toy-like dimensions, which are only enhanced by the relative shortness of this two-door version. But that body style means accessing the surprisingly spacious rear seats is a struggle for all but the most flexible. And the boot space is more supermini than SUV.
The white-painted steel wheels and raised intake look like they’re ready for rugged action but pairing them with a cool but impractical fabric roof, tinted windows, fancy Meridian sound system and metallic paint with a contrast roof finish makes it seem that this particular car is more about image than ability.
Not to suggest that this Defender isn’t supremely capable. For a start it has massive ground clearance and specially calibrated adaptive air suspension. Then there’s the standard low-range transfer box, multi-mode Terrain Response 2 off-road system and chunky off-road tyres that serve a practical purpose as well as enhancing the rufty-tufty looks of the car. Plus, it’ll tow 3.5 tonnes.
So, even if it does spend most of its life on the Tarmac, this Defender is still more than capable of scampering up hill and down dale, should the urge ever take you.
Powering it through whatever conditions you face is a mild hybrid three-litre straight six engine, with a healthy 246bhp and 420lb ft. Unlike Defenders of old, this diesel unit is refined and quiet while packing plenty of punch.
Also unlike old Defenders where an array of levers were used to change ratios, all new models come with a slick-shifting eight-speed automatic that matches the engine’s refinement.
These are big changes but by far the biggest difference between the modern Defender and its famous predecessor is how it behaves on the road. Gone is the vague, wobbly and coarse driving experience, replaced with premium-level refinement, accurate steering, composed ride and controlled body movement. It’s still a tall, high-riding vehicle so there’s some pitching in corners but no more than any number of other SUVs.
The interior pulls off a neat trick of at once hinting at the Defender’s underlying ruggedness while feeling modern, comfortable and refined. There are artfully exposed screwheads, chunky grab handles and a rubberised finish to sections of the dash and centre console. But there is also a 10-inch internet connected touchscreen with the marque’s latest Pivo Pro system, electrically adjustable seats, a 360-degree camera system and full suite of driver aids.
Some will scoff at the Defender’s efforts to be all things to all people but what impresses is how well it manages to pull it off. The new technology and vastly improved comfort mean it can keep pace with more lifestyle-focused rivals while the dedication to engineering means it can still go places those rivals can’t reach.
Whether it spends its life drawing admiring glances in the Waitrose car park or gathering dents and scratches up a Welsh mountain, the Defender has well and truly joined the 21st century.
Land Rover Defender SE
Price: £51,205 (£61,125 as tested); Engine: 3.0-litre, six-cylinder, turbo, diesel; Power: 242bhp; Torque: 420lb ft; Transmission: Eighth-speed automatic, four-wheel-drive; Top speed: 117mph; 0-60mph: 7.6 seconds; Economy: 30.4-32.8mpg; CO2 emissions: 226-244g/km