Trendy trail-tackler
THE GOOD
  • Attractive design
  • Off-road capability
  • Advanced technology
  • Smooth and confident driving dynamics
THE BAD
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Can get pricey
  • Poor cargo room

Look! In the mud!

Is it a Jeep Wrangler? Or maybe a Ford Bronco? No, wait – it’s the 2021 Land Rover Defender!

While sports cars get all the love, the real superheroes of the automotive world are rugged off-roaders, which can traverse practically any terrain. The reborn Defender is one such heroic SUV, arriving with features and tech that go beyond the average offering. First came the four-door version, dubbed the 110, followed by the two-door 2021 Land Rover Defender 90.

While the Wrangler and Bronco are both a bit more workaday, the Defender delivers a retro-inspired design and all kinds of fancy technology, not to mention off-road chops to back it all up on the trail.

Styling: 8/10

From the mall to the trail, the Defender will get looks. While the Defender 110 can look large and imposing, the two-door model is a bit leaner and more approachable. The top half is boxy, while the lower half is a little curvier. The stubby proportions are unique, but overall, this is another impressive design from the Jaguar Land Rover team. It stands apart from the other models in their respective lineups and feels fresh every time you look at it. It also wears mud with grace, looking cool when clean and badass when dirty.

The cabin is a bit more utilitarian, featuring exposed fasteners and rugged plastic panels. The interior offers several grab handles that are useful for driving on steep trails. The slick upholstery on the seats is a lowlight, and the materials found throughout the interior aren’t exactly high-end. Fortunately, they are a step up from other off-road-oriented SUVs, except those from Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. The cabin has a simple layout with a minimal amount of controls.

Power: 8/10

Like any good superhero, the Defender has a few power(train)s at its disposal. Base models use a 296-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine, while mid-grade versions like the X-Dynamic trim we tested sport a turbocharged 3.0L inline six-cylinder. A 48-volt mild hybrid system plays the role of sidekick, helping out here and there while never stealing the show.

It’s a utility belt of a powertrain with an electric supercharger to mitigate any turbo lag, and a belt-integrated starter motor, which replaces the alternator. The 48-volt lithium-ion battery recaptures energy whenever the Defender slows down.

With 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, the motor is plentiful for any commute, despite the 2,170-kg (4,784-lb) curb weight. Not convinced? The sprint to highway speed takes less than six seconds, which is impressive for something so big, let alone an off-roader.

An eight-speed automatic transmission sends power to all four wheels. The brain behind that cog-swapper sometimes hurries the shifts to high gear, but it can be switched into sport mode to hold them a little longer, or the paddle shifters can be used instead.

Additionally, there are ways to lock the centre and rear differentials for all your off-road needs, as well as a transfer case with high- and low-range gearing for trail use. The Defender feels confident on the road, but those seeking more thrills will be happy to know that 2022 models have a V8 option that produces more than 500 hp.

Driving Feel: 8/10

When equipped with the optional electronic air suspension, we can report that the ride in this Defender is surprisingly balanced. Usually, off-road vehicles can feel a bit wobbly or unbalanced on the pavement, but the Defender manages body roll with professionalism. It tackles imperfect roads like there’s nothing amiss and feels extremely confident on unpaved surfaces like gravel and mud.

The air suspension also adds off-road capability, with a 37.5-degree approach angle, 40-degree departure angle, and 31-degree breakover angle in its tallest setting. In comparison, the coil springs manage a 31.5-degree approach angle, 37.9-degree departure angle, and 25.2-degree breakover angle.

But back to that air suspension, which has a maximum of 291 mm (11.5 in) of ground clearance, which is more than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The vehicle can even wade in water as deep as 900 mm (35.4 in). There shouldn’t be a situation or condition that the Defender struggles to overcome, including rock-crawling, dune-bashing, river-crossing, pavement-pounding, lunar missions, getaways during The Purge, making deliveries during the apocalypse, or anything else you can think of.

Features: 8/10

Land Rover offers a long list of features on all its vehicles, and the Defender is no exception. However, don’t mistake that for meaning this SUV lacks standard gear. Even base Defender S models get LED headlights, a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, a 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system, wireless phone charging, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, a 10-speaker stereo, and surround-view monitoring, as well as some limited driver assistance features and safety gear.

The Defender 90 X-Dynamic S model gets a six-cylinder motor and some visual upgrades inside and out. The next model up in the range, the Defender First Edition, adds air suspension, adaptive dynamics, and a so-called terrain response off-road system, 12-way adjustable seats with memory function, and an electronically adjustable steering column. Finally, the Defender X has all the options you can think of, including a panoramic sunroof, interior ambient lighting, a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, electronic active differential, and other off-road features, as well as an upgraded sound system with 14 speakers and an 825-watt output.

Land Rover also lets shoppers add features to the model they want, so you don’t have to get a Defender X to have a vehicle with adaptive cruise control. Perhaps one of my favourite highlights of the Defender is the way it uses cameras and other sensors to help those trekking off-road to see and overcome the obstacles ahead. Cameras can show you underneath the front wheels, like a glass-bottom boat ride, only here you’re trying to avoid getting wrecked on a giant rock, steep trench, or gully. A wade sensor can also tell you how deep you are in the water to show how close you are to the danger zone. While off-road vehicles can be a bit single-minded and spartan, the Defender uses tech to make you feel like an expert adventurer.

User Friendliness: 6.5/10

For the most part, all of the features and technology in the cabin are impressive, but using it all takes some familiarity that comes with time. Turning on the heated seats, for example, requires you to press the HVAC temperature knobs before turning them. Changing the fan speeds requires a push of a fan button, which then turns one of those HVAC knobs into a fan-speed dial. And the same goes for the off-road settings. While the dashboard has fewer buttons and knobs, Land Rover gives some controls multiple functions. This means common tasks can take a bit longer than usual, or require a good memory of the steps involved.

Furthermore, the manually adjustable sliding seats in this tester were something of a surprise, while they don’t return to their last position after tipping them forward to load the back with people or stuff. Finally, rearward visibility is a bit disappointing. The trunk-mounted spare tire blocks most of the window, as do the rear headrests. Land Rover offers a rearward video feed in the mirror, but the angle is quite tight, providing a vague reference for the distance of objects behind you.

Comfort: 7/10

Though spacious, the seats are just average. They provide adequate support and are soft enough to be comfortable on a long trip. While engine noise is well-muted, wind and tire noise are harder to suppress. However, ride quality is good as the vehicle absorbs bumps and imperfections on the road with ease. A decently weighted steering rack means that the Defender responds as expected and is easy to place in tight spots thanks to its incredible amount of cameras and safety gear.

Safety: 8/10

With such a focus on off-roading and capability, the Defender comes with standard blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-keeping assistance. Adaptive cruise control is also available, along with a tow-assistance package. The two-door SUV also comes with six airbags.

Practicality: 7/10

Behind the rear seats is a limited 397 L of cargo space. For reference, the Toyota Corolla hatchback offers more in its caboose than this Defender. Fold down the rear seats and you’re treated to 1,563 L of space, which is more reasonable. However, the load floor has a curb between the seats and cargo area, making it difficult to store long items. One final complaint is with the tailgate, which swings out sideways instead of upwards, which can be a pain if someone has parked behind you. Otherwise, the vehicle has plenty of space for front and rear occupants.

Fuel Economy: 6/10

Fuel economy is the kryptonite of the Defender, with both the four- and six-cylinder models returning 12.3 L/100 km in combined driving situations. The smaller engine is a bit more efficient in the city, while the six-cylinder is a bit more efficient on the highway, but overall they’re about the same. Then again, if you want to see awful fuel economy, consider the 5.0L V8-equipped model, which returns 14.7 L/100 km combined.

Value: 7/10

The entry price for the 2021 Defender 90 S with the four-cylinder engine is a reasonable $59,700. Factoring in the $2,295 freight fees brings the total price to $61,995 before tax. Those comparing the latest two-door go-anywhere SUVs will see that the Land Rover commands roughly $10,000 over a loaded two-door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon or $6,000 over a new two-door Ford Bronco Wildtrak.

The mid-trim, six-cylinder equipped X-Dynamic S model starts at $72,195, including freight. Our tester was an X-Dynamic S model with several option combinations, including the $1,620 air suspension, among a handful of others. There were also a few individual options like three-zone climate control for $400 and adaptive cruise control for $1,200. It rang up at $89,635, including delivery.

The 2022 Defender V8 is an eye-watering $125,095, putting it out of reach of everyone but the most diehard Defender enthusiasts.

The Verdict

Although expensive, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 accomplishes its mission of being a classy off-road offering. If the usual offerings from Jeep, Ford, and Toyota are too old-school, the Defender will fit the bill with many impressive tech features, gracious two-door styling, and out-of-this-world capability.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.0L   Model Tested 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 X-Dynamic S
Engine Cylinders Turbo I6   Base Price $69,900
Peak Horsepower 395 hp   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 406 lb-ft   Destination Fee $2,295
Fuel Economy 13.8 / 10.6 / 12.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $89,735
Cargo Space 397 / 1,563 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$17,440 – Gondwana Stone, $950; Air Suspension Pack, $1,620; Comfort & Convenience Pack, $950; Three Zone Climate Control, $400; Air Quality Sensing, $100; Cabin Air Ionisation, $100; Satellite Radio + HD Radio, $300; Towing Pack, $2,270; 20” Full-Size Spare Wheel, $100; ClearSight Rearview mirror, $500; 20” Style 5098 – Satin Dark Grey, $1,700; Roof – Sliding Panoramic, $1,850; Front fog lamps, $200; Premium LED Headlights w/Signature DRL, $450; ACC + Stop/Go, $1,200; Cold Climate Package, $550; Extra Duty Pack, $1,920; Black Contrast Roof, $1,010; 40:20:40 Fixed, Heated Rear Seats with Centre Armrest, $500; Protection Pack 90, $770