When you reach the end of the road you just might have to take a leap of faith — or so it seemed when I took a Land Rover Defender to the Holly Oaks Off-Road Park a few months back. While it isn’t quite the equivalent of a trip to Moab, Utah, the suburban Detroit park offers a real test for any off-road vehicle, including some perilously steep and sandy hill descents.
To cut to the chase, the Defender proved itself rough and absolutely ready for anything I could throw at it. And the news is about to get even better for off-road fans. The SUV I took to Holly Oaks was the Land Rover Defender 110. Now, the British automaker is rolling out a short wheelbase version, the Defender 90. Cut down by 14 inches, it boasts even more impressive numbers when it comes to what matters for serious off-roaders, such as approach, departure and breakover angles.
I had my first, brief chance to drive the Defender 90 this week. A run back to Holly Oaks will have to wait. But I did get to check out the classic utility vehicle’s manners where they’ll matter most for the typical owner — on-road. Here’s my initial reaction.
Lore has it, what became Land Rover was born in 1947 on a Welsh beach when Maurice Wilks, the chief engineer for Britain’s Rover Co., sketched out a rough silhouette in the sand. Today’s Defender is the most direct descendant of that SUV.
The last-generation Defender was yanked from the U.S. market in 1998 and pulled from production entirely in 2016. The new version shocked traditionalists when it debuted, adding some curves to the line’s traditionally slab-sided design. But you won’t confuse the 2021 Defender with the car-based crossovers that dominate the road today. It still harkens back to the basic theme Wilks sketched out nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
If anything, the 2021 Defender appears wider and more solidly planted than the last generation, with broad shoulders giving it a confidence-inspiring sense of muscularity. The nose, with its distinctive lighting, and the hood, with hidden cut lines, add a sense of modernity even while the overall look is timeless, as you would expect of an icon.
There is relatively little difference in the overall look of the Defenders 110 or 90, but for the shorter wheelbase — and that actually offers an advantage for serious off-roaders, with a 38-degree approach angle, a departure angle of 40 degrees, and a 31% breakover angle. I expect that to make it even more suited to a run through Holly Oaks.
Inside, the Defender 90 retains the same basic layout, albeit solely two rows, and can be ordered in either a five- or six-seat configuration. It also is available with a variety of materials, from luxurious leather to more practical fabrics and synthetics easily cleaned out after a day on the trail. Exposed rivets and a magnesium crossbeam on the instrument panel add to the sense of ruggedness. But the Defender 90 nods to modernity with a wide touchscreen atop the center stack that adds a variety of functions for off-roaders, such as showing your tilt angle, as well as images from the SUV’s many cameras.
As with the rest of its line-up, Land Rover offers an assortment of powertrains, dependent upon market. For the U.S., two options are available, the base 2.0-liter turbo-4 shared with Jaguar making 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. It’s reasonably peppy and more than enough, both on and off-road.
The upgrade is a 3.0-liter inline-6 that combines both turbocharging and supercharging, as well as a fuel-saving 48-volt mild hybrid drive. It takes the numbers up to a more spritely 395 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque, the latter number particularly apparent for serious off-roaders. The I-6 also reduces 0-60 times from 7.7 seconds to 5.8, according to Land Rover.
All versions of the Defender come with standard all-wheel drive. Locking differentials, front and back, help enhance grip in rough conditions. They’re optional on some trim levels, standard on others.
Like the larger 110, the Land Rover Defender 90 features the latest JLR Pivi Pro infotainment system and a wide-format 10-inch touchscreen. I quickly learned to appreciate having so much information displayed simultaneously. Another plus is that the system has the capability of using smartphone-style over-the-air updates.
Pivi Pro comes with a WiFi hotspot and standard in-dash navigation. You’ll also get both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The base audio system uses six speakers but you can upgrade to either a 10- or 14-speaker Meridian package.
Many of the tech features are aimed at off-road use, such as that Terrain Response Control system, and the numerous cameras making it easier to negotiate a trail. There’s also the ClearSight mirror which uses a camera to provide a slightly wider image than your conventional review mirror. It’s especially useful when you have a car full of passengers obstructing your view.
The 2021 Land Rover Defender also features a broad range of advanced driver assistance technologies, such as forward collision warning with automated emergency braking.
I plan to provide an update on how the Defender 90 performs off-road when I can spend at least a few days behind the wheel. That said, based on my time in the longer 110, I expect it to be one of the most competent vehicles I’ve ever experienced, managing even the toughest obstacles with athletic grace.
Like the bigger version, the Defender 90 also provided a more than acceptable on-road driving experience. No, you can’t flog it like a sports car around tight corners, what with its high center of gravity, but it maintains composure under normal conditions and handled the rough pavement of Michigan roads much better than a key competitor like the Jeep Rubicon. The 3.0-liter I-6, meanwhile, provided more than enough power for keeping up with traffic and executing high-speed passes.
The bottom line is that there are plenty of reasons to welcome back the Defender line-up and, in particular, to give a nod to the Defender 90, in particular. It’s not cheap, my tester going for $66,475 — including $1,350 in delivery fees — but for those looking for a distinctive design with go-absolutely-anywhere capabilities, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is worth a close look.