Review: The Two-Door Land Rover Defender 90 Is an Anomaly That Resurrects Personal Luxury
The SUV stands in a class of its own, but that doesn’t shield it from criticism
Personal luxury used to be a big deal in the automotive industry, with brands like Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and even Ford pushing the concept of a private, rolling oasis designed specifically to coddle to the driver, rather than cater to passengers or practicality. Most of these odes to conspicuous single-use consumption took the form of full-size coupes with mile-long hoods, equally extended doors and plush interiors that drew attention to their inward focus on the ego of the owner.
However, personal luxury was unable to survive the ’90s-era SUV onslaught, which translated all of that bigger-is-better energy into hulking trucks with badges like “Escalade.” At the same time, the two-door sport-utilities that had flourished on a separate track up until that point were also wiped out by family-friendly rigs offering easy access to the child seats latched to the second row.
If there was ever going to be a brand to buck the four-door SUV trend while simultaneously reviving the concept of personal luxury, it was always going to be Land Rover. After all, this is the company that not only delivered a compact “coupe” crossover no one was asking for in the twenty-teens (the Evoque), it even went so far as to slice the roof off of that same slow-seller in a bid to tantalize the half-dozen or so customers that eventually ended up buying one.
The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90, however, is in a far better position to succeed in the truncated-truck sweepstakes. With a heritage that dates back almost 40 years, and featuring a rugged persona that is the antithesis of the Evoque’s genteel boulevard cruiser, the two-door sibling to the larger four-door Defender 110 is well-poised to run roughshod through the existing personal-luxury gap.
Time Travel, Both Directions
Land Rover began building the Defender all the way back in the early ’80s as the evolution of the original Series I trucks that prized off-road capability over almost everything else. Simple and square, they quickly became popular with farmers, woodspeople and anyone in the public service who had to regularly traverse terrain untouched by roads.
Although the Defender was briefly imported to the United States in the 1990s, it stood apart from the standard set of Land Rover rides, which by then had gone full-on luxury in terms of pricing and market position. It didn’t take long for both the four-door and two-door editions of the SUV to become cult favorites among the same crowd that pined for the equally industrial Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, leading to a brisk business in under-the-radar imports at exorbitant prices.
The 2021 reboot of the Defender 90 does its best to straddle the gap between past and present, while keeping at least one eye firmly on the future. Although it might not feature the same body-on-frame, solid-axle toughness of its predecessor, Land Rover claims that the model’s new unibody platform is much stronger than the Defenders of old. On top of that it adds a computer-controlled four-wheel drive system complete with locking differentials (center and rear) as well as the Terrain Response system that dials the truck’s full suite of electronic aides to assist with forward momentum no matter how sticky the going might get. It also features more ground clearance than the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (when equipped with its height-adjustable air suspension), along with impressive approach, departure and breakover angles for serious off-roading.
That takes care of the D90’s heritage — there’s little territory the older model could parse that the modern edition can’t. As for the future, popping the hood on my tester revealed a turbocharged straight-six engine that also makes use of a 48-volt mild-hybrid system that can spin an electric supercharger to boost low-end torque while the turbo spools. All told, it’s good for 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque, and if that’s not enough there’s a supercharged V8 option higher up on the order sheet (with a turbo four serving as the entry-level engine). An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard all around.
Narrow wheelbases often make for nervous handlers at highway speeds, but the 2021 Defender 90 (which is 17 inches shorter than the Defender 110) never raises any cause for alarm. In fact, I was surprised by how smooth my air ride-equipped edition felt regardless of how quick I was flogging it; even sharper corners failed to unsettle the SUV’s composure.
The D90’s throttle response is a little less civilized. I learned to be ginger with my pedal application lest I rouse the instant-on torque from its battery-assist too quickly, which often sent the truck surging forward abruptly. The Defender is much quicker than one would expect despite the lack of drama from its exhaust pipes and the absence of any particularly sporty driving modes.
About That Interior …
Tough-as-nails, with respectable straight-line speed, and bearing a price premium compared to the only other two-door SUVs currently on the market (the previously mentioned Wrangler and the just-released Ford Bronco), the Defender 90 certainly seems set to claim the personal-luxury SUV crown.
The one obstacle in its path? An interior that features a confusing mix of utilitarian design and upscale aspirations. I was charmed by the hollowed-out dashboard, which mixes useful storage with well-integrated handholds to help climb up inside the cabin, but much of the Defender’s cabin looks and feels less than luxe. Throw in manually adjustable seats and a perfectly functional, but at times complicated, set of controls for the climate and infotainment system, and it’s a little under par for what customers have been trained to expect from Land Rover.
Then there are the quirks associated with the D90’s truncated design, which include large and heavy doors that wrap around the bottom of the rocker panels, a baffling rear cargo area that is compromised by a raised seating platform that won’t fold flat (making hauling large items awkward at best), and a hatch-mounted spare tire that, in combination with the rear-center headrest, conspires to completely block your view aft of the automobile. Opt for the available (and awkward) folding front jump seat and you might as well paint the back window black. Land Rover has installed a camera-based rearview mirror system to compensate, but the difference in refresh rate between the video feed and the road ahead, combined with an unusual field of view, quickly turned me off the feature.
Still, if you’re transporting people and not cargo it’s gracious living for those who squeeze beyond the front seats into the rear row. Leg room is good and claustrophobia is averted thanks to the vehicle’s large side windows as well as its glassed-in roof and smaller side-cut glass along the curvature of its top.
One of One
As the only two-door SUV wearing a premium badge, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 presents a singular opportunity for status-seeking trucksters. Cutting a very different profile than the Porsche Macan and even its own in-house Range Rover Sport rival, the D90 revives and embraces personal luxury in a way that no other sport-utility can convincingly claim.
Still, while the vehicle’s sub-$50K starting price keeps it well below the four-door 110, you’ll have to be comfortable with a vehicular definition of the good life that includes a less-than-stellar interior presentation and somewhat limited practicality (even as the price climbs past $70K as it did on the X-Dynamic trim level I drove). That’s not a compromise any German SUV will ask you to make, but then again, good luck welding the rear doors shut on your BMW X5.
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