Drives with none of your usual SWB-4x4 messiness. Insanely good off-road. Brilliant design
Pretty thirsty in real life
What is it?
The new Defender had to overcome a deafening roar of opinion, both negative and positive, before even anyone had driven it. Upvotes from people who loved the design and the progressive engineering. Trolling from those who said it's too posh to push: that it has fatally busted the rough'n'ready brief of the original.
But after a year on the road, the 110 proved its mettle, provided you don't mind its size, and can afford it. So here comes the 90 version to spread the appeal. It can be had more cheaply, and at a lower spec, and it isn't so bulky.
How much smaller is it?
It's 435mm shorter in the wheelbase, and overall length falls by the same amount. Less metal to haul along means it's 100kg lighter, fractionally quicker accelerating, and cheaper. How much cheaper isn't clear cut, but it looks like about £5,000 like-for-like. But actually the 90 comes with coil suspension and all 110s have self-levelling air springs and adaptive damping. Add that £1,615 chassis system to a 90 and the gap closes.
For 2021 in all Defenders, the four-cylinder diesels have been replaced by an enjoyable straight-six. Petrols are fours and a six. Company-car buyers will note the tax-saving plug-in hybrid, available with the 110, isn't compatible with the shorter body.
What about the inside?
The 90 has two rows of seats, but speccing the front central jump seat makes it a 5+1 seater and turns you into the most popular parent in the world. Apart from space in the back, the cabin design is the same as the 110. Which is fine. It's smart but tough.
The exterior design is, we think, masterful too. The boxiness is just right for a hardcore SUV. It ekes out the maximum carrying space, and also helps when you're driving between obstacles because you know where the bodywork begins and ends. The short overhangs help off-road. But it's subtly curved, not flat sided. Flat panels look makeshift and go wavy.
Though it's completely modern, the design does manage to evoke the old Defender. A vehicle that was very widely adored, for the exact same reasons it was almost impossible to justify buying. It was basically a tool. Its ability to survive harsh and brutal conditions meant it was, frankly, itself far too harsh and brutal to be taken seriously as an everyday vehicle for most people.
Is this new one still a proper utility vehicle?
Well, all versions will happily tow 3,500kg. The whole bodyshell is immensely strong. So's the suspension it rides on. It shares principles with the Discovery's but few parts. Almost everything is stronger. Click these blue words to drink in the details of its capability and tech.
That's the off-road part. On the road, short versions of hardcore 4x4s tend to pitch and wobble far more precariously than their longer counterparts. The long Defender 110 is a superb vehicle on the road. Can the short 90 match it?
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
Very few buyers will make full use of all the Defender's capabilities. In the meantime though it's a family car with a deep and wide backstory. It just makes you feel adventurous. And when you do use its ability – as an off-roader, a snowy-roader, a towing roader – it'd feel immensely reassuring.
And the amazing thing is how well it drives. It's stately and dignified and feels good.
Compared with the 110, the 90 is less cumbersome in towns, a bit more agile off-road, and a bit more characterful-looking. But it won't swallow as many people or as much stuff, obviously.
We usually recommend 4WD estate cars over expensive crossovers, because there's not much a crossover can do that an estate can't. But the Defender isn't a crossover and skittles that argument. If you can make use of it, there's nothing to match it.