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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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