Driving the new Defender 90 in top and entry spec on road, track off road!

Here’s the first review of the new Land Rover Defender 90. I know what you’re thinking, surely the new Defender has been out a while already? Indeed, and with some success. The Defender 110 clocked up 4500 sales in July, one of the best months ever for the company – under pressure from the pandemic and slowing export sales – but that’s the four-door long-wheel base version. The two-door edition was delayed.

And now here it is. Prices start at £43k for what is regarded as the entry-level car with coil rather than air suspension as standard and rising to over £77k for the top spec X P400 (that compares with £45k-83k for the larger long-wheelbase 110). The 90 is 435mm shorter than 110 which is fractionally over five metres long, all of that difference is in the wheelbase and the width is the same. Out of interest, compared to the old Defender 90 the new car is nearly 700mm longer and 230mm wider – so if you’d bought the old car because it just about fits perfectly through your farm gates, you’ll er… need new gates.

Read about my experience driving the Bond Movie stunt cars.

What you mostly won’t have to worry about though is getting stuck. Throw a brand-spanking new Defender in the icky stuff and it proves its credentials; it’s as invincible as ever. As part of a two-day press launch event we spent a lot of time traversing the bogs of the Eastnor hills in a coil-sprung Defender 90 – which has slightly less maximum ground clearance. This is not only where Land Rover run their experience programmes, but also where they do their own testing and development regimes. I’ve been here a couple of times before, and admittedly mud is not my favourite type of off-roading.

The routes are not easy for novices at the best of times, particularly when it had been raining so much. And we weren’t doing the showcase nursery routes – for the last part of our off-road tour we were taken into the actual areas where Land Rover engineers signed off the new Defender with dips filled waist-high with water and muddy trails you’d sink right into if you stepped out.

Some participants needed help, but I made it through relatively intact, not so much a testament to my driving skills – which are limited in this scenario – but as proof beyond question that the new Defender is a hard core off-roader, even more capable and versatile in the short-wheelbase guise, proving virtually unstoppable and able to deliver seemingly impossible traction in absurdly slithery conditions – and it wasn’t on mud tyres. The terrain response makes it all ridiculously easy and features such as the all-round cameras aid confidence. The key is to let the electronics work their magic, trust the systems, remain delicate on the throttle and sparse with the steering – that’s what got me through.

The car we drove was the 300bhp petrol inline six-cylinder. And while the diesel six-pot with 250bhp endows it with enough torque to better its 0-62mph acceleration from 9.8 seconds to 6.7, the real powerhouse is the 400bhp petrol six, achieving the same run in 6 seconds dead and 130mph – though I witnessed a few mph more on Land Rover’s test track. Where the old car would have been as eager to ascend to such velocity as a sloth and as comfortable there as a ship in the storm, the new car glides at Autobahn speeds, keeping stable and straight, unwavering in direction and untroubled by aerodynamics.

Sliding the 90 X HSE P400 around a dirt track to prove the merits of its stability aids (honestly more fun if you turn them off though) demonstrated how wonderfully manageable throwing around such a bulk on a loose surface can be, how delightfully adjustable it is to throttle input, and how entertaining a rally car it would make.

Running it hard over crude developing world-simulated surfaces proved it was ready to go exploring and up for UN-duties, while jumping it at 50mph (landing surprisingly comfortably and unruffled) seemed to confirm the James Bond movie stunt team’s assertion that their flying 110 Defenders were on standard air suspension. Deploying the active cruise control on a long motorway run where it cruised effortlessly, and flinging it down country lanes, where it proved surprisingly adept if not entirely sporty, proved the 90’s astonishing versatility.

Talking of versatility, how usable is the 90, especially when compared to the seemingly gargantuan capacious calling of the family-friendly 110 version? Doesn’t chopping out nearly half a metre from its wheelbase compromise accommodation? Just how much does it loose in space?

Very little actually. The front row’s middle ‘jump seat’ remains on the higher spec models, and rear accommodation is surprisingly capacious even for tall six-footers like myself – the only proviso is that you need a bit of dexterity to embark and disembark. As for luggage space it still gets hatchback-sized room in an area lined with rubberised mats and hard-wearing surfaces.

So to the verdict then and honestly speaking part of me wanted to hate this car. It’s not really a Defender – doesn’t really look like one and surely its namby-pamby unibody construction betrays its rufty-tufty hard-car image. Just look at that lovely well-appointed, extremely well kitted-out and positively plush interior. This thing has got to be too precious and expensive to be a proper Defender, right?

Well yes, right. But on the other hand – and perhaps it’s safe to come out and say this now – the old Defender was crude, basic, very uncomfortable and difficult to drive, if we’re being brutally blunt, it was also prone to breaking, rusting and general get-the-spanners-out-again tantrums. This all new Defender is the opposite of all those things. And for those that moan that this isn’t really a proper Defender – they’re right, it ain’t. And thank God for it! In fact to me, this car is actually the spiritual successor to the original Land Rover Discovery of the early 1990s – remember the functional yet attractive interior, the skylights in the rear, the rugged usability, the full off-roading capability, and the ‘let the kids have at it’ carefreeness of its family-serving functionality? The newer Discoveries have become too Range-Rovery by comparison. So where does the 90 sit in all this? Frankly if you don’t really need the extra doors, it’s the one to get. Now if only it wasn’t quite so pricey.

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