Auto123 reviews the 2021 Land Rover Defender.
After an almost 25-year hiatus, the Land Rover Defender has made its way back to North America, and with it, we get to experience the latest evolution – more of a revolution, really -- of one of the most famous nameplates not just in the SUV world, but in the automotive world in general.
For the uninitiated: the 2021 Land Rover Defender’s ancestry can be traced all the way back to the late 1940s, when Britain, tired of having to rely on the Americans to provide Willys MB JPs (or “jeeps”) for their military, decided to create something they could call their own. In addition to that, the Defender became one of the first civilian vehicles available with four-wheel-drive. Land Rover also used aluminum for the body, which is also the case for the new model.
Fast-forward to 1983 and after a series of evolutions the “new” Defender was born, looking more modern than the older vehicle, which had looked pretty much the same for about 40 years. The ladder-framed 80s-vintage Defender delivered a choppy ride, it wasn’t all that fast and both headroom and legroom were on the wrong side of generous. And yet, it has achieved cult status in North America like few other SUVs this side of the Jeep Wrangler and perhaps the Ford Bronco.
And now, the Defender is back, in both 110 (long-wheelbase) and 90 (short-wheelbase) forms, and it’s both like and utterly unlike the Defenders of old.
In Canada, we have two engine choices, both turbocharged: a four-banger good for 296 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque in P300 form, and a 6-cylinder with some mild hybrid functions good for 395 hp and 406 lb-ft in P400 form, as seen here. The Defender has always been known for its diesel power, though, and while a diesel version does exist, we won’t be seeing it here.
Styling-wise, Land Rover has frankly nailed it, right on the head – sort of. We get a boxy profile, LED headlights, “portholes” on the roof, a Pangea Green paint job and a white roof (a $1,010 option, but still) that recalls Landies of old, those vehicles that had no air con and relied on white roofs to keep them cool inside. All of its is beautifully executed.
A white roof as cooling element? That of course was less of an issue for me because a) I live in ultra-temperate Vancouver and b) my tester had the huge $1,850 sliding panoramic sliding roof. Welcome to the 2020s. That roof is not, by the way, the most expensive option - you can also get a fabric roof section – again, very old-school Defender, that – for a whopping $2,250. That’s a lot to spend for a section of tent.
Now, there are some missteps. The $1,350 20-inch wheels on my tester irked me in that they look way too modern for this truck. They’re fine for a Discovery or Range Rover Velar I’m sure, but not the Defender. This thing needs body-coloured steelies and while you can get those, they’re reserved for lower trims and their smaller brakes because that’s the only way they’ll fit. Shame.
Once inside, it’s again very Defender-y and at the same time, not at all. For example, well, there’s headroom. Lots of it. There’s also legroom, as well as a heated steering wheel, the latest-gen Jaguar-Land Rover infotainment technology (centred around a low-profile 10-inch display that feels just as responsive to the touch as your tablet does), digital rearview mirror and Meridian audio. I have a feeling that in the older Defender, you’d be lucky to get FM audio.
In a nutshell, the new Defender is airy, spacious, quite techy and high-class where it needs to be, and just a little rugged otherwise.
The seats are adjustable in a number of ways and heated – but they’re a little flat and high-mounted and in my tester, finished in a very military-spec olive drab colour with both leather and a sort of cut-proof-seeming nylon that you’d need if you were to have a bowie knife on your hip. Which I suppose you very well could, in a vehicle like this.
There’s even a third row – but barely. It’s incredibly snug and I couldn’t justify stuffing an adult back there unless I had a real axe to grind with them. Save the $2,300 required to get that row. Plus, if you really want some extra seating, you can go super basic and scrap the centre console with its wireless charger and optional cooler, and have – wait for it – a fold-down seat there instead. That’s right; the front row…can be a bench seat, just like in the ’87 Cutlass Ciera my wife used to drive.
Then there’s the barn-door-style tailgate, which is heavy and opens from left to right. Meaning that when parked on the right side of the road – as you would be in almost every country in the world but not, coincidentally or not, in the UK – the door opens against the curb. That means that you have to be sure to leave room between yourself and the car behind you and even then, you may have to walk around the front of the Defender to get to the tailgate. There’s a big opening once the door is open, though, and you can operate the Defender’s adjustable air suspension system from buttons mounted inside the tailgate for a lower liftover height.
Enough about the foibles and quirks; let’s get on to what I like about the Defender, and that starts with the cost of entry. You can get into the 110 for less than 70 grand – 70 grand! – assuming you can live with the four-banger. Getting the 6-cylinder will run you just over $75,000 at base, but even that’s not so bad considering that with it you get air suspension, adaptive dampers, hill-descent control, LED head- and taillights, dual-zone climate control, interior mood lighting, 360-degree parking aid, leather seats, bigger brakes and more. It’s a great deal and to be honest, the one option my $89,000 tester had that I really would want is that contrast-colour roof.
The drive experience starts with that great powertrain, which sends power t the four wheels through a quick-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission, it and the engine working well together in unison to maintain surprisingly brisk forward progress. On the road, meanwhile, the adaptive dampers and air suspension do a proper job of keeping everything copasetic. All but the harshest bumps are metered out, and what I did feel is possibly due to my tester’s big wheels.
The real take-home for me, though, was just how easy the Defender was to manoeuvre through tight situations, ergo in urban situations. The steering is tuned just so and the view out is so good that parallel parking spots I felt would involve a lot of wheel turning were never as bad as I anticipated. It’s a masterclass in size management, for sure, because the 110 is not a small SUV by any means.
Of the beaten track, meanwhile, the Defender acts as you knew it would. The four-wheel drive system is an impressive one that provides plenty of wheel articulation and the well-tuned steering does its part here as well to provide a ton of confidence as you cross more-rugged terrain. There are of course a number of drive modes – six, to be precise – that adjust throttle mapping, traction control, transmission response and suspension travel.
There’s also a way-cool feature that uses cameras to basically make your hood disappear, so you can see what’s going on below you when off-roading. It’s all very tech and un-Defender, but darn if it isn’t effective. Equally effective is the air suspension and its ride height that can be changed on-the-fly to allow anywhere from 8.5 to 11.5 inches of ground clearance, helping achieve a 900-mm wading depth. This is a truck that’s meant to be taken off-road.
The pros so outweigh the cons here that this vehicle is a clear win for Land Rover, a company that, along with Jaguar, has had a rough go of late. The Defender is tailor-made to handle the rough stuff and it could very well be the shot in the arm that the company needs. I love it, and I want one.
Now, about those steelies…
- Fantastic capabilities
- Great mix of old school/new school styling both inside and out
We like less
- Useless third row
- Somewhat flat seats
- Clumsy “barn door” tailgate