Land Rover Defender: nothing like the old one but that’s fine with me

·18-min read
Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Land Rover Defender 90 on long-term test: Iconic, legendary, unstoppable – the original Defender had it all but the new version is aimed at a softer driving, SUV-loving audience. Can the short-wheelbase 90 live up to expectations?

Our car: Land Rover Defender 90 D250 SE

List price when new: £51,205

Price as tested: £61,125

Official fuel economy: 32.8 mpg

Fuel economy on test:  27 mpg

Prising a Defender out of Land Rover these days isn’t easy. Chocolates, flowers, gentle cajoling – the waiting list for eager buyers is currently up to a year, so that means “get to the back of the queue” for the rest of us.

In the end, however, we took delivery of a 250 SE, a short-wheelbase 90 model, used to film an episode of Top Gear in Scotland. This particular car has, therefore, probably suffered more abuse in a week than the average buyer could dish out in a lifetime.

Land Rover is constantly updating its model line-up, so the SE and the cheaper, entry-level S have now disappeared on the company’s configurator. Instead, the £58,875 HSE is the entry model, unless you opt for a commercial Defender, plus VAT. Why? The company says this is due to the microchip shortage which has reduced its offering, along with pretty much all manufacturers.

Even so, our car has the same six-cylinder, 3.0-litre, 249hp diesel engine as the HSE with mild hybrid technology (MHEV). Don’t expect startling economy, as in this case MHEV just tweaks the torque when accelerating from standstill and aids the stop-start system.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Painted in Hakuba silver metallic (£895), with a black contrast roof (£900) and privacy glass (£490), our 90 looks modestly understated compared to some of the rather vulgar “urban truck” Defenders now cruising around Knightsbridge replete with schnorkels and all manner of heavy-duty off-roading gadgets.

And all the better for it, especially as our car sits on 18-inch steel wheels that add a retro cool to any Defender. I doubt Land Rover expected that when it priced up the extensive accessories list – a no-cost option that people actually want.

The £10k of extras on this car includes the all-important electronic air suspension (£1,615), which replaces the standard coil-spring set-up but is now standard on the HSE.

Other additional features include a tow pack (£2,200), Tracker security system (£745) and, best of all, a huge folding fabric roof (£1,800) that gives everybody on board a blast of Vitamin D.

First impressions

There’s an old Defender in my garage, I prefer wellies to shoes and also have the 5 o’clock shadow of a beard. It’s fair to say, I’m the target audience for a new Land Rover – helped by the fact I drove one across Namibia 18 months ago and know what this car can do off-road.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

It actually does everything my old Defender can do but is so technologically advanced by comparison that there really is no comparison. The 90 is a thoroughly modern, hugely capable machine that is more luxury SUV than mud-flinging workhorse.

Purists out there – you know who you are – who have driven this new model will begrudgingly tell you that it’s astonishingly good in the dirt. Their caveat is that the price and internal fixtures and fittings have turned their beloved Defender into a dreaded lifestyle vehicle.

Yet, if we can accept old and new Defender design is literally decades apart, that most new model buyers will likely use less than a tenth of its capabilities, then the latest Land Rover looks a very attractive family car indeed.

Priced in excess of £50,000 – if you can work out the model specifications – you might expect nothing less. The 90 has personality by the boot-load, although that area of the car has also been its undoing in my stewardship.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

As first impressions go, our 90 got off to a bad start, thanks to a dodgy boot handle. And not just any handle, new Defender features a touch sensitive pad and soft-close system that supposedly takes the effort out of the whole operation.

However, unless you have the gentle touch of a concert pianist, the sensitive pad on the inside of the handle only partially unlocks the boot, then relocks the door as it’s wiggled in frustration. One the second day, it refused to open completely, leaving me cursing in a supermarket car park surrounded by shopping bags. In the end, I opened the driver’s door and loaded the back seat.

A week later, I managed to fill the boot with bags, only to return home and find I was locked out of the load area again. The solution – climb onto the back seat and lift the bags out from there. Not the comfortable Land Rover lifestyle I was expecting.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Inside, the grained leather and ‘robust’ Woven Textile seats have taken a battering, with rainwater stains on the non-hide areas. I also can’t understand why Land Rover hasn’t provided a console slot for the key-less entry fob, keeping it safe and secure when I tackle all that off-roading I’m supposed to do.

Visually, I don’t think the silver paint works well with the white wheels and the fancy ClearSight rear-view mirror, that uses a camera system to relay images to the driver, just isn’t as intuitive to use as reflective glass.

But I’m also driving the 90 more than my old Landie and enjoying the comforts, while still feeling adventurous when the moment takes me. This really is a Defender for a new generation.

Solid performer

Has Land Rover really gone soft with the new, user-friendly Defender? As far as I can work out, not a bit of it. If you want proof, simply open the heavyweight driver’s door. It could have been carved from granite.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Reminiscent of a 1980s Mercedes – the last of the properly built Mercs – you have to slam the thing shut with a reassuring thud. But unlike the original Defender, there’s also no need to open the window for a slice of elbow room.

Inside a retro cabin, the dashboard grab handles are part of the cross beam, which is a structural element of the all-aluminium monocoque. Should you want to dangle something heavy off a mountainside with a rope, the handles are as good a place as any to tie the knot.

At launch, in 2019, the company banged on about its new D7x chassis architecture delivering the stiffest structure ever, three times more rigid than body-on-frame designs. After driving our 90 for two months, the Defender really does deliver a feeling of immense solidity – far more so than any model in the Land Rover line-up.

And while we are talking doors, the tailgate finally seems to have calmed down too, after some initial teething problems left me locked out of the boot with an armload of shopping. However, Land Rover has overcomplicated the cabin door mechanism, which is best described as semi-keyless.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

In-car sensors will recognise the key as you approach but the driver still needs to press a button on the door handle to release the locks. Odd that the button is also forward of the door handle instead of aft, where logically they would be easier to touch with a thumb.

Charmed, I’m sure

Otherwise, our short-wheelbase Defender is proving a more than capable everyday drive. It may not have the charm of the much-loved original but that doesn’t stop inquisitive looks and questions at every stop. “Is it any good,” and “I’ve got a proper [ie previous generation] one at home, why would I buy one of those?” are among the most common.

I prefer the proportions of the shorter 90 model compared with the five-door 110 but there’s no escaping the fact that the boot space in our test car is very tight. With the rear seats in place it measures just 397 litres – only slightly more than a Ford Focus. The 110 tops out at 1,075 litres, plus the rear seats in the 90 do not fold flat.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

I’d say this new model is still a long way from being adored but slowly, ever so slowly, the Defender is winning me over. It’s clever, very comfortable on the air suspension and, unlike a lot of SUVs, should still be a desirable drive in 15 years’ time.

Questionable options

It’s possible to spend over £100,000 on a new Defender but I’d suggest looking further down the range, while avoiding some of the options that are totally unnecessary for most people – do you really need a snorkel air intake or those silly side panniers that hang off the rear windows?

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

The folding fabric roof is proving a favourite feature because until Land Rover brings out a full soft-top model, it’s the best way to brighten the interior – especially on a frosty winter’s day with the hot seats and heater on full blast.

But whichever model and spec you choose, this Land Rover has the almost unique ability to make every journey feel like an adventure. I never thought I’d say this, but it genuinely has the necessary Defender DNA to be a future classic, too.

Failure to proceed

The Nutcracker is a spectacular two-act ballet that usually runs for 90 minutes – or the same length of time I spent waiting for Land Rover Assistance to collect our once all-singing, all-dancing Defender 90.

It’s been a while since I’ve suffered a car breakdown, let alone in a £60,000, go-anywhere all-wheel drive, with a no-nonsense heritage to boot. I mean, this is Land Rover for goodness sake, no wonder other drivers were sniggering at my Sugar Plum Fairy of an SUV now floundering by the roadside.

Defender 90 long-term test
Defender 90 long-term test

I hadn’t expected travelling from Gloucestershire to Sadler’s Wells theatre in London would include a complicated plot twist along the way – not unless I’d planned an off-road route. With only three hours to curtain up on the first act, I truly doubted the Defender was fit to go on.

Sat on a service station forecourt near Reading, with only a coffee and a family-sized bag of Maltesers for company, I pondered the facts. Cruising the middle lane of the M4, first the coolant overheating light came on, then the engine lost power and finally most of the dashboard lights illuminated in a dazzling display of solidarity.

These days, there are emergency warning symbols for everything – it’s a proper pub quiz round of lights that requires the manual to navigate. Instead, I decided to open the bonnet (when was the last time you did that?) to find water splashed around the engine compartment.

Cold comfort

By now, it was getting proper cold, the Defender’s battery was rapidly losing charge and one by one, every electrical feature was, well, Nutcrackered. By the time rescue arrived, not even the central locking would work.

Assistance also sent a taxi to ensure I made it to the theatre on time, as well as back home afterwards, but for that day at least the Defender and I had danced our last pas de deux.

It turned out that the water pump belt had snapped. Apparently, they can last up to 100,000 miles with proper maintenance. Our Defender is still in four digits.

Defender 90 long-term test
Defender 90 long-term test

Land Rover hastily sent a replacement vehicle, so I can’t fault the customer service – it’s just unfortunate their owners may need to expect this sort of thing these days. The company’s toughest 4x4 should be supremely reliable but Land Rover doesn’t have a great reliability record.

Last year, JLR’s new boss Thierry Bollore announced his intention to crack down on the reliability and quality issues – a founding pillar of the firm’s Reimagine plan. In What Car? magazine’s 2020 reliability survey, Land Rover had finished last for older models over five years old.

Unfair? Land Rover did slightly better in the 2021 study for cars up to five years old, finishing in 29th position, just ahead of Fiat. Lexus, Dacia and Hyundai claim the podium positions.

Defender 90 long-term test
Defender 90 long-term test

Our 90 was momentarily back on the driveway – literally moments. The heated electric windscreen took a stone on the way from the workshop so the delivery driver had to turn around and take it back again. It was due back a week later but the replacement screen didn’t arrive. So for now, I’m rolling around in a replacement waiting for an update.

Events like this shake your faith in a vehicle, especially at the premium end of the market. Given the choice, would I drive the Defender on an epic journey, or would I pick a supposedly lesser SUV? The 2022 reliability survey will be available later this year.

Spot the difference

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Take a close look at the photograph – apart from the outsize, 22-inch alloy wheels, there’s little to distinguish the Defender 90 on the left from our car. In fact, it’s the supercharged V8 version, powered by JLR’s familiar 5.0-litre engine and priced from £100,000.

That’s a heck of a lot more than the £51,205 list for a D250 and, from the outside, the only key difference is that extra set of twin exhaust pipes. It’s a different story on the road of course, where the V8 is faster, noisier - and much thirstier.

Indeed, after a 1,300-mile round trip to the north of Scotland in the 518bhp V8, I’d still be reaching for the keys to our D250. It’s not just the fact the flagship model barely manages 16mpg but once you’ve tired of toying with the accelerator and paddle-shifters, the V8 feels like the same vehicle.

Land Rover Defender 90
Land Rover Defender 90

Over the last couple of weekends our more utility diesel has been getting its tyres dirty in a field, pulling out stock fencing posts. With the ‘original’, old Defender I would have tied a rope around the galvanised front bumper but as you might expect this new model does it differently. The D250 is equipped with the optional Towing Pack (£2,200) which, in days gone by would have meant a simple towbar, hitch and electrics.

This means dipping into the handbook to understand All Terrain Progress Control (automatically maintains a set speed during off-road driving) and Advanced Tow Assist (allows the driver to reverse a trailer using a rotary controller on the centre console – brilliant!).

However, for most people towing a caravan or trailer, the most obvious benefit is the deployable towbar, operated from a button inside the luggage area. It also means there’s no need to drive around with an ugly tow ball jutting out from under the bumper when not it use – or arm-wrestling with a detachable bar, either.

Defender 90 long-term test
Defender 90 long-term test

This is classic new Defender stuff. It effectively does everything the original model did but without getting your hands dirty. Another example is the adjustable air suspension. This doesn’t just manage ride height and comfort, the system can also be used to lower the tow ball and make hitching up to a trailer a lot easier.

Vision on

Less impressive is the Clearsight interior rear-view mirror, which replaces a conventional mirror with a roof-mounted, rear-facing camera. If you have a full complement of five passengers on board, a luggage area packed to the headlining – or are simply too lazy to lower the rear headrests – the concept is brilliant.

Defender 90 long-term test
Defender 90 long-term test

However, the camera system doesn’t work as well at night time, when it takes much longer for the eye/brain to adjust to the display. I’ve now re-set my rear-view mirror back to the more user-friendly, mirror glass.

Otherwise, since our breakdown on the M4, the Defender has behaved itself. The rear-door operation is still proving fiddly, perhaps functioning as it should 50 per cent of the time, while our SE model desperately needs a headlight wash system, which I firmly believe should be standard on a rugged, off-road vehicle such as this.

Verdict

I’ve just seen a commercial Defender for the first time – the panel van model minus back seats and side windows which starts at £38,133 plus VAT. It was making good use of the 90’s 3,500kg towing capacity hauling a trailer and digger.

Once a Land Rover was the only vehicle for this type of duty. Now every shape of Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota pick-up has muscled in. Not as desirable as a Defender, it’s true, but cheaper and very capable as an everyday workhorse.

The days of Land Rover being the best working 4x4xfar are sadly gone. The new Defender still has the credentials to be a utility champion but Gaydon’s greatest hit has, let’s be honest, become a posh and pretty expensive SUV. You’re more likely to see a spotlessly clean example in the West End of London than a muddy one chuntering across a rural idyll with a couple of Labradors in the back.

Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test
Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test

The marketing team at Land Rover calls this lucrative sales hunting ground the ‘urban jungle’ in its sale blurb. Naturally, it has devised a range of lifestyle packs to help tackle the terrors of mounting a pavement outside Harrods, or manoeuvring over a particularly high-speed bump.

Some of it is pure nonsense – if anybody reading this actually paid for the ‘exterior side-mounted gear carrier’ boxes that hang from the rear quarter, please, please write and tell us what you put in them. There is a perfectly adequate luggage area in the back of every Defender (although tiny in the case of the 90).

Fortunately, our fairly middling SE car arrived in standard spec, straight off the shelf. The two accessories I can recommend are the workmanlike, retro steel wheels – which are a big seller – and the huge fabric sunroof that brightens the interior no end.

The tow pack – a £2,200 option – has also been a help in the final month of Landie driving, hauling a mowing machine around a field. With multiple cameras on board, I was able to monitor the cut via imagery on the dashboard infotainment screen, relayed from the rear-facing camera above the back door.

Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test
Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test

Which neatly leads to most annoying problem I’ve encountered over the last six months in the Land Rover. I’ve already written about the touch sensitive rear-door handle release which, on average, works 50 per cent of the time. Infuriating when you are carrying bags or heavy items and are trying to load.

Do we actually need such electronic wizardry to open a boot door? I’m all for an automatic closing boot-lid, or one that opens by waving a foot under bumper sensors. Yet the Defender rear-door handle seems a pointless exercise that, in our vehicle at least, isn’t fit for purpose.

This extends to getting inside the 90 too. Despite the best efforts of a patient Land Rover PR, the keyless entry system rarely lets me in at the first pull of a door handle. I’ve taken to over-riding the operation by manually pressing the keyfob button each time I approach.

Then there is the water pump belt that snapped and left me stranded by the M4, the cloth trim material which seems to mark every time I sit on it, and rear seats which won’t fold fully flat to extend the short wheelbase 90’s meagre luggage area.

Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test
Land Rover Defender 90 long-term test

And while I can’t praise the Defender’s 3.0-litre engine enough, I’m still surprised that any manufacturer launching a new model these days is offering a diesel. There is, of course, a plug-in hybrid version now but the new Defender is so technologically advanced, so new millennium, a diesel doesn’t sit comfortably in the range.

These issues apart – and despite the lengthy waiting list if you actually want to buy a Defender – this new version is comfortable, ultra-refined and cleverly blends some of the styling cues of the original model into a new aesthete. It’s also miles better than the original Defender in almost every way, yet most of that ability will rarely be put to any practical use.

So, despite all the hype about iconic ability, past achievements and the history of a legendary badge, I can’t help but feel many Defender buyers would secretly be happy with a two-wheel drive version, cut from the same cloth. One that looks the part, says I’m an adventurous Land Rover-type but that costs considerably less to buy.

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