The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 — the two-door, short wheelbase one, as opposed to the four-door Defender 110 — is a car for people for whom Wrangler and Bronco simply won’t do. Driving it and looking at it feels like a blunt object — in the best way possible.
(Full disclosure: Land Rover had me to its American headquarters in New Jersey to give me some seat time in the Defender 90. Because of the pandemic, the drive program was limited to only a few hours on the road and none off. I also ate some lunch, which LR was kind to provide.)
It would be strange to call this new Defender the next generation of the car, because production on the original Defender started in 1983 and continued for the next 33 years. This new one is less the next-generation and more like the sequel. It was first unveiled in 2019 and was on track to steal some of the new Ford Bronco’s thunder but then, well, you know what happened.
The first deliveries of the Defender in the U.S. weren’t until June 2020, when we were all preoccupied with more pressing matters. The ritual of flying journalists from around the world to some fancy locale in hopes of producing the first reviews of the Defender (like this one) was also off. The 2021 Land Rover Defender just kind of showed up, though early signs were good.
That also was just the four-door version; the two-door Defender 90 wasn’t delivered here until February.
Both versions are significantly different from the old one in a lot of ways. The old one was pitched for a more practical market, while the new Defenders aspire to be as luxurious as a Jaguar but as capable as a Wrangler. Land Rover says the Defender has the stiffest body structure of a Land Rover, owing to its unibody, while the old one was body-on-frame. The new one also has all-around independent suspension on all four wheels, while the old one was solid-axle.
Purists might cry foul, but automakers don’t make cars for purists. Automakers make cars to sell them, and I imagine that Land Rover will sell quite a few Defender 90s. That’s because this is a two-door car that starts at $46,100, and while you can price trims of the two-door Wrangler and two-door Bronco that cost that much — and obviously plenty of people do — at the end of the day what you have is an expensive Jeep Wrangler or Ford Bronco.
A Land Rover Defender is those two cars classed up a bit, even at the base model. And you might argue that “class” is subjective — and you would be right — but it doesn’t really matter. The people who buy this thing will convince themselves otherwise in any case; I saw one the other day upstate and the gentleman who emerged from it seemed like just the kind of person with whom I might disagree about the definition class.
Enough of that, though.
It’s a two-door shorter wheelbase version of the Defender 110 (the numbers refer to the wheelbase of the original Defenders with these names and not the modern ones, which are a little bit longer.) The biggest advantage of the shorter wheelbase is as follows:
“Higher breakover angle” is an engineer’s way of saying that the Defender 90 can over more terrain without scraping.
Moving on to engine options: There are two. One is an inline six-cylinder that is a mild hybrid that makes 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque; the other is an inline four-cylinder that is not a mild hybrid that makes 296 HP and 295 lb-ft of torque. All of them are mated to an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox. Land Rover says the zero-to-sixty number for the six-cylinder is 5.8 seconds and did not include the zero-to-sixty number for the four-cylinder in its product presentation, because it is slower.
The towing capacity is up to 8,200 pounds. The four-wheel drive is permanent in all configurations. There is rubber flooring. You sit almost unnervingly high, though the overall feel is less that the car will topple over and more that the car is brick, weighing heavily on the road.
This feeling is not uncommon in this type of car, in that if you’ve ever driven a Wrangler or even ridden in one you will discover that it really doesn’t like going over 35 mph or so. Likewise, with the Defender 90, the version Land Rover gave me had the optional foldable fabric roof that was aesthetically appealing and, when folded, was pleasant at low speeds. On the highway, however, it induced an unpleasant amount of wind buffeting. The car would have rather I did not drive on the highway.
Another optional feature that I did like, though: the jump seat up front. This is made possible by the drive shifter being attached to the dashboard. The center is open, meaning that the armrest can be retracted, making room for a sixth passenger in what would be a very cozy ride. As in:
From ground level, here is down:
And here is up. (I apologize for the poor photos.)
The time I had with the Defender was limited, in that it was a couple hours around northern New Jersey. It was pleasant enough, but barely scratched the surface of what the 2021 Land Rover Defender is designed to do. Take, for example, the Wade program, which lifts the car a little bit, closes HVAC vents, and keeps the brakes a little engaged after fording water to dry them.
I didn’t get to test it, but you can see how it looks on the car’s screen below. If I did get to test it, having something like this would instantly reduce all of the anxiety I get about fording bodies of water in cars, which I’ve done many times in old and new cars and never goes away.
There is also, of course, wireless device charging. The rear seats look uncomfortable, and are probably best suited for luggage and gear and what not. (I say as a slightly tall person.) The interior, however, looks and feels refined.
It’s maybe a little too nice for a car that Land Rover ostensibly wants you to dirty up a bit. This is because Land Rover wants to have its cake and eat it too, in that it wants a car that it can sell as ready-for-the-rough-stuff and also a car that it can sell as luxury. The 2021 Land Rover Defender is that, perhaps especially the Defender 90.
It’s a car for childless urban couples who aspire to have a sense of adventure or for single persons with disposable income who already do. I can’t vouch for Land Rover’s dependability (or undependability, if you believe J.D. Power), but, again, that probably won’t matter for the people who actually get a 2021 Land Rover Defender, many of whom will be leasing.
For those people, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 will impart a sense of invulnerability. As it was designed to do.