Why The 90 Is The Best Land Rover Defender You Can Buy

Off-Road / 3 Comments

LR's smallest Defender is also its best.

The Land Rover Defender was sold in the US up until 1997, but we didn't see too many of them in our Midwestern neighborhood. That's because here in the Big Three belt, anyone that wanted a capable off roader got a Jeep Wrangler or Ford Explorer. If they wanted luxury, they may have bought a Grand Cherokee.

But now there's a new version of the Defender, in several wheelbases and with several engine options, and we've already seen more of them in the past 12 months than the former version in our previous 40 years. And that makes sense considering Land Rover already sold more of them. The new and handsome Defender keeps just enough of the old-school boxiness to be cool, without becoming a gimmicky retro job. We got a chance to test one for a week on our home town roads, and it expectedly was damned impressive.


Box On Box Design

We had been in the larger Defender before, and the V8-equipped version. But this Defender 90, the short wheelbase version, is the best for going off-road. We loved the mossy green color, which almost camouflaged it with the surrounding forest trails. This is the best it's going to look, except for maybe flying through the air in the hands of a James Bond villain.

The front end looks surprisingly cheerful and the wraparound rear glass and the floating roof doesn't bother us as much as it does on some vehicles. The offset Land Rover badge was a bold choice, we usually like things symmetrical, but it looks good here.

Out back, the tail and reverse lights are pretty weird, again sporting a retro-inspired futuristic look. The tailgate with the tire is cool, but really heavy to swing out, god forbid if you're leaning on an incline. Of course, all the requisite tow hooks, towing hitch and tough-looking, stubby bumpers are all present. We don't think the company could have done much better in the design department.

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Throwback Cabin

Land Rover stayed true to the Defender's roots here with a useful, industrial cabin, most of which can be hosed out or wiped down. Some of it even fees like truck bed liner. Speaking of throwback, the Defender can fit six passengers with the jumpseat/armrest leaned up in front. There's a seatbelt, so it's legal, but it doesn't look comfortable.

Especially with the volume knob on the right side of the radio. That's the far side, which means if you didn't want to use the steering wheel controls, you have to lean over to reach it. We'll admit that knobs are better than no knobs, so we're happy about that. It also has knobs for climate, but the need to be pushed and pulled for different functions, which will take time to learn.

We do appreciate all the storage space. In addition to the regular cupholders and door pockets, there's also a long shelf in front of the passenger that extends behind the touchscreen. It's a ton of space that would fit more than just a phone. We're talking books, coloring or other, tablets…it's about the space of a big rolling pin.

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Driving And Handling

Our test Defender came with the company's mild-hybrid six-cylinder engine making 395 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque with an eight-speed transmission and all-wheel drive. Piloting this vehicle up north in Michigan, and then driving it all over grass, trees, rocks and dirt, we see no reason to pony up for the V8. It's far from slow on the street, and do you really need 500 hp in trails barely wider than the vehicle? We'd say no.

Getting up to speed off-road is easy and controllable. Between the semi-knobby tires and heavier steering effort, the Defender feels solidly planted to the ground. Drive modes from the Terrain Response system alter the controls to make them more friendly for grass/gravel/snow, rocks or general driving. And with approach and departure angles measured at 38 and 40 degrees, a ground clearance of 8.9 inches and front, rear and center lockers, there isn't much this vehicle couldn't tackle.

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This Defender 90 First Edition model came fully equipped (minus the off-road tires and towing package) for $65,450. With those options thrown in it came to a total of $66,475. That's not massively expensive, but it's far more than the average transaction price and about double what a Jeep Wrangler will set you back.

That's not a knock on either car. Start adding options to the Jeep and you can get near the price, and it's the same with the new Ford Bronco. Will those all be cross-shopped? Probably not, but they are similar ways of doing the same thing. The Defender does come with some tradition, though we suppose the Bronco and Wrangler do too.

Our main concern with this overly capable machine is that its weird, chunky stylishness and name cachet will relegate it to a life of cocktail parties and mall parking lot cruising. All it really wants to do is rip through the woods and maybe catch a little air on the trail.

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