REVIEW | 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is tech-filled and tough
There are many things to be said about simple, robust engineering.
You know, the analogue, fix-on-the-roadside variety, unencumbered by layers of complicated circuitry and artificial intelligence. The other day a seasoned off-roader was telling me about his preference for mechanically-operated transfer case systems, relying on levers, not buttons.
“The last thing I need is a malfunctioning relay, leaving me stranded in the wild,” said the keen outdoorsman.
Without hearing them, you could tell what his sentiments were towards modernised iterations of long-standing overland icons like the Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes-Benz G-Class and the subject of our evaluation this week, the reimagined Land Rover Defender 90.
Indeed, the 2021 vehicle is a far cry from the stalwart that preceded it. But that rudimentary, tough-as-nails character, replete with dodgy ergonomics and an unforgivingly hard driving experience are factors that many ardent enthusiasts regard as part of the whole Defender appeal.
It is a loyal club, with kinship that prompts waves and friendly high beams. I saw two other new Defender examples in Gauteng while driving the 90. And neither of them acknowledged my greetings.
Yes, the audience of the latest Defender is removed from those typecasts of oil-stained fingernails, brown waterproof seat covers and stickers declaring: “One life, live it.”
But you cannot blame the Defender for such an evolution. And by most accounts, it is an evolution that has been well-received – maybe with the exemption of that old guard who will prefer hanging onto their trusty warhorses.
After a first acquaintance with the long-wheelbase 110 model in 2020, we came away deeply impressed. For starters, it looked absolutely brilliant, unmistakably a Defender but endearingly future-forward in execution. Cues like the Alpine lights (those windows on either side of the rear ceiling) remained, while the distinctively boxy silhouette was intact, unlike, say, the direction in which the Discovery or full-sized Range Rover had moved.
And then there was the off-road ability. With the Jaguar Land Rover Experience Centre at our disposal, we tested the axle articulation, wading capabilities, incline-summiting and descending talents of the Defender. As expected, it never faltered, rendering the person behind the wheel as a mere observer, since the Terrain Response 2 systems, pneumatic suspension and sturdy chassis made light work of all obstacles.
In basic S trim, with Fuji White paint and simple steel wheels, the 90 looks as a Defender ought to – in the traditional sense. You can pick from an array of packages which incorporate visual and functional elements. The Explorer choice throws in a roof rack, side-mounted carrier and extra body protection. An Adventure package adds a portable rinse system (for hosing off boots, they say), as well as an integrated air compressor to inflate tyres. The Classic package gets retro-style rear mud-flaps and rear load area partitions, while the Urban adds a spare wheel cover and rear scuff plates.
Four engine choices are on offer, two petrol choices and two diesels. We drove the D240, wielding a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel unit packing 177kW and 430Nm. Apart from an interval of lag on immediate take-off, it fares rather well in motivating the hefty two-door with surprising eagerness, boasting a claimed 0-100km/h time of nine seconds – merging onto freeways can be done with confidence. The eight-speed automatic requires no interference, going about its job in a slick fashion.
Fuel consumption after a week was 11.6l/100km.
Obviously, the short-wheelbase configuration brings trade-offs with practicality. Ingress and egress for those taking the rear can be ... undignified, especially for shorter occupants who have to resort to climbing. Rear cargo space is 297l, which is fine for a week’s worth of grocery shopping or the luggage of two travellers.
Our vehicle was equipped with a folding fabric top (R30,000), retractable electronically, very nearly spanning the entire length of the roof. It adds a wonderfully outdoorsy ambience to proceedings. Also optioned on our test vehicle was an air suspension package (R48,600) which, in addition to the pneumatic benefits, includes automatic headlight levelling and the adaptive dynamics system, which constantly analyses road conditions and compensates accordingly.
It brings a notable advantage over the coil spring setup in off-road conditions, where maximum ground clearance can be upped to 291mm, vs 226mm. The maximum wading depth is also greater by 50mm, at 900mm.
Moreover, the option delivers exemplary ride quality, with marshmallow-like suppleness over all terrains. Over a spirited dirt road jaunt, the Defender hardly broke a sweat and sucked out disturbances underfoot before they reached occupants’ buttocks.
Minimalistic, rugged, with a clear emphasis on digitisation, is how the cabin of the Defender would be described. Although you probably could hose down the rubberised interior floors, you would not want a drop of water getting near either of the sizeable screens on the dashboard. The exposed rivets are a novel touch.
On the last day of our test, as the vehicle was due to be collected, the Defender was in the throes of a software update.
“Good news!” was how the message began. “Latest software updates have been downloaded to your vehicle. Your vehicle needs to switch to the new software. You will not be able to use the vehicle during the update. Side and hazard lights will also be disabled.”
Estimated time of the job was 35 minutes. You could understand how something like this might alarm our outdoor adventurer: imagine if such a demand were made in the middle of the Kalahari expedition?
A large steering wheel and enormous side mirrors are reminders that, while short in length, the Defender is anything but diminutive. And you do need to exercise caution when negotiating tighter landscapes, especially if your vehicle is equipped with rear side windows featuring a blanked-out panel section. Luckily our tester also had the R15,000 driver assistance package, with blind-spot alert and a clear exit monitor.
Automakers know that making everyone happy is a nearly impossible feat, especially when it comes to heritage-steeped nameplates like this one.
But the new Defender, while brimming with contemporary technology and boasting refinement levels the old one could only dream of, still delivers on the overlanding credentials forged by its predecessor.
Just remember to follow the software update prompts before you set off on your expedition.
Defender 90 D240 S basic price: R1,096,600