2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition Review – Expensive Capability

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

The last time I reviewed a Land Rover Defender, I commented on how I enjoyed its driving experience despite some very British electrical failings such as the radio going AWOL for half an hour.

I expected similar from the two-door version, and to my pleasant surprise, I got the good parts without any real gremlins or bugs.


Fast Facts

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition Fast Facts

Powertrain
3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six with mild-hybrid setup with 48-volt electric supercharger and 48-volt starter/generator motor (395 horsepower @ 5,500 RPM, 406 lb-ft @ 2,000-5,000 RPM)
Transmission
Eight-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Fuel Economy, MPG
17 city / 22 highway / 19 combined (EPA Rating)
Fuel Economy, L/100km
13.2 city / 11.3 highway / 12.3 combined. (NRCan Rating)
Base Price
$64,100 (U.S) / $82,750 (Canada)
As Tested
$66,475 U.S.) / $93,316 (Canada)
Disclaimer
Prices include $1,350 destination charge in the United States and $2,545 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can’t be directly compared.

I even had a chance to go off-road, and I found the two-door Defender to be quite capable in the backwoods of an off-road park in Indiana.

Not that the experience was perfect – after all, nothing is. I returned from the woods with some scratched-up paint. More on that in a second.

This Defender had a 3.0-liter inline-six underhood – and it’s a mild hybrid setup. Here, the six has a turbocharger and a 48-volt electric supercharger, and a belt-integrated starter motor replaces the alternator. A 48-volt lithium-ion stores energy that’s captured under braking. An eight-speed automatic transmission with a twin-speed transfer case gets the power to the wheels – the Defender has a permanent four-wheel-drive system.

The mild-hybrid setup was so seamless that I forgot the Defender had a mild-hybrid until later perusing the spec sheet. With 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, there’s enough power on tap to feel good about passing and merging.

Like the bigger four-door sibling, this Defender also had steering that was surprisingly well-tuned for on-road driving, and an on-road ride that rarely offended. The shorter wheelbase did occasionally make the ride a bit worse, predictably, though not by much. I credit the air suspension here – though I concede that Land Rover air suspensions have a reputation for breaking and being costly to fix – which such expensive breakage naturally only occurring after one’s warranty has expired.

Then again, if you have the scratch to be shopping for Land Rovers, paying for these repairs might not cause you too much stress.

The real fun came in the boonies. The Defender has a system that can sense the terrain and adjust accordingly, a center-locking diff (a rear locker is available), and the requisite drive modes. All these factors combined to help me traverse narrow trails with relative ease. I also managed to get across a muddy patch of woods without getting stuck or smacking a tree – though some moments were tense – to access an open field where I could goose the gas and get the rear end a bit loose.

I also managed to climb a medium-sized, somewhat challenging rock pile with ease.

No stuckies? No bent sheetmetal? Success, right? Well, upon leaving the park I found the pretty Pangea Green was quite easily pockmarked by thin tree branches that lean into the trails and brush up against any vehicle that’s passing by. Those same tree branches didn’t leave any evidence of their existence behind on the Wrangler I’d tested, or the Bronco Sport (which doesn’t carry such premium paint), so it was a bummer to see an off-road-ready vehicle taking cosmetic damage. I am told the fix was easy – it actually did buff right out – but I’d warn any Defender intenders to think about paint protection before going to the backwoods.

Indeed, Land Rover does make a big deal of the Defender’s ability to ford up to 34.5 inches of water, and its maximum suspension articulation of 19.7 inches. It’s too bad the paint got marred so easily.

Just like with the four-door version, I generally found the interior to be attractive with a decent user experience, though pushing knobs to switch between the controls for various functions gets annoying and occasionally stymies one’s attempt to do something quickly. I also shudder at how expensive it will be to replace the digital screens outside of warranty. At least Land Rover’s haptic touch controls are about as good as haptic touch can be – and yes, that is damning with faint praise.

My test rig based at $64,100 and came with 20-inch wheels, front jump seat, front fog lamps, LED headlights, rearview-mirror camera, navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist, premium audio, rubber interior materials for easy cleaning after off-roading, and traffic-sign recognition. Options were limited to a tow-hitch receiver and off-road tires that surely helped a bit at the Badlands.

Total as-tested? $66,475.

I can’t help it – I dig the Defender, regardless of door count. That’s not to say it’s perfect – the electrical gremlins of the first one I tested are fresh in my mind nearly two years later. The interior’s UX is fancy for the sake of fancy – the brand could’ve easily avoided haptic touch and kept things simple. But overall, the packaging here is good, the off-road chops legitimate, and the on-road ride surprisingly excellent.

Perhaps the proper Brit – flawed yet charming, and capable of facing challenges without much complaint.

What’s New for 2021?

The Defender came back to the market for the 2021 model year, and save for the First Edition packaging, it carries into 2022 and 2023 with only minor changes.

Who Should Buy It

The well-heeled adventurer who wants an SUV with good on-road manners and stout off-road capability.

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

More by Tim Healey

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  • Hifi Hifi on Aug 08, 2022

    God I want one. This thing is cool. And therein lies the problem. JLR makes such achingly seductive SUV's that will leave you stranded on the highway at 11pm in the rain. I've been seduced twice, it ended badly, but I'm not going to rule out bending over and grabbing my ankles again for Land Rover a third time.

  • Robert fugate Robert fugate on May 12, 2023

    Such a beautiful SUV always love the styling. Sorry to say I'll stick with Toyota cause of the great reliability!

  • Tassos Most people here who think it is a good idea have NO idea how much such a conversion costs. Hint: MORE than buying an entire new car.
  • Zipper69 Current radio ads blare "your local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer" and the facias read the same. Is the honeymoon with FIAT over now the 500 and big 500 have stopped selling?
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh hmmm get rid of the garbage engine in my chevy, and the garbage under class action lawsuit transmission? sounds good to me
  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
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