Test Drive: Land Rover Defender 90 SE 200 PS Auto : it’s all in the family

The Defender is an institution, the European counterpart of the legendary Jeep. In one form or another,it has been on and off the roads since the late 1940s. The current Defender was launched at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show. Does it still live up to the reputation of the previous generation?

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Gerry McGovern is Land Rover’s styling department boss. He must have had some sleepless nights… How do you replace the good old Def? How to avoid alienating a large bunch of customers and fans while, at the same time, trying to broaden its customer base as much as possible? At the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, the brand introduced the DC 100 prototype. It left no stone unturned and triggered passions in both directions : as many fans loved it as many loathed it and decided the DC 100 unworthy of replacing the Defender… We had to wait until the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show to finally discover the new Defender. Of course, all the basic trademark elements of the original version remain : the general shape, with an almost vertical windscreen, smooth sides, the emblematic wiggle at the top of the rear wings or the reduced window height and elongated glass openings in the sides of the roof above the rear seats. This new generation Defender is assembled at the JLR Nitra plant, in Slovakia. The bodywork (glued and riveted) is still made of aluminium. It is based on JLR’s D7 platform, which is common to all models with a longitudinal engine. In this particular case, it is the D7x, the ‘x’ indicating that it is suitable for 4×4 use. It features steel front and rear subframes. It is fitted with air suspension allowing it to wade into rivers up to 90 cm deep without any problems. The air suspension works wonders both on the road, preventing excessive rolling, and off-road. It provides excellent comfort in all circumstances.  JLR identifies the Defender as a real 4X4 rather than a ‘simple’ SUV… At 4.58 m long, the new 90 is as long as the old 110. It is 2 m wide and 1.97 m high. This is a far cry from the compactness of the previous version.

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This version is equipped with a six-cylinder 24 valves 2996 cc engine. It develops 200 hp at 4,000 rpm and the 500 Nm of torque are available from 1,250 to 2,500 rpm. However, moving more than 2,300 kg means that very often you just feel power takes its time to be available and… that it could somehow handle a little more of it effortlessly. The engine is mated to an excellent 8-speed automatic transmission. Top speed is 175 km/h and 0 to 100 km/h takes just over 10 seconds. NEDC fuel consumption varies from 6.5 to 9.4 l/ 100 km, while the CO2 emissions vary between 172 and 247 grams per km. During our test drive (about 1,000 km on various types of roads), we couldn’t get lower than 9 l/100 km, on average. Tank capacity being 89 litres, filling it will cost at least a whopping €130! Prices start at €53,600 including VAT and our test car was €75,331 with all extras included.

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Smart and tough

Inside, there’s a balance between luxury and practicality. Users of a previous generation Defender will be happy here: visible painted sheet metal, visible fixing screws, handgrips and an evocative instrument panel are carried over. Leather adds a luxurious touch but it’s easily washable, for practical reasons. There is a plastic protection panel beneath the carpets. Both materials quality and fit and finish are clearly in a different league, compared to the previous generation. Think of the old heater controls… here, they are digital displays with rotating knobs oozing quality, no more good old plastic pullers. Of course, it’s no Range Rover or Velar but it’s still ahead of some of its direct rivals like the Jeep Wrangler or the Land Cruiser, for example. A third, central front seat is available as an extra, linking it even more to its forebears. The driving position is comfortable, the steering wheel is rather large but it is pleasant and useful when driving off-road. Up front visibility through the windscreen and the door windows is good but it’s a rather different story at the back. Fortunately, the various cameras are there to ease manoeuvring the Def around. The central screen offers an excellent view of the different menus and displays, even if navigating between them all is not always easy (we had to stop in a lay- by to find out how to switch from Apple CarPlay to DAB+ radio…). Despite the promised 400W sound power, the Meridian audio system was a bit disappointing.

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I like it

The Defender still features a personal and recognisable design… however, it deeply and subtly evolved, abandoning a rather utilitarian side in favour of modern equipment. Comfort is matched by its ease of use and supreme ability on and off- road, whatever you throw at it. Its modern chassis can easily handle much more power than the 200 hp of our test vehicle.

Quite clever

Parking the car is made easier as the rear view mirror uses the reversing camera for accuracy. Land Rover even patented its own system to facilitate manoeuvring trailers. The Defender can pull up to 3500 kg without a second thought : boats, horses or racing cars will be natural companions for it. It handles like a smaller, lighter car.  Steering, suspension and brakes give total peace of mind and turn the Defender into something you quickly feel totally unburstable.

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I don’t like it

The electric front seats are great : supportive and comfortable, it is easy to  adjust them and find an ideal driving position in a few seconds… however, when it comes to moving them forward or backward and allow access to the rear seats, it takes a long time, especially in the rain. Some of the interior finishing details and bodywork adjustments are approximate. If this could be considered as part of the charm of the previous generation, it’s no longer the case here, especially considering the new Def asking price.

Why I buy it

The Defender 90 is not small, but can be driven almost anywhere, even in the city, where the various cameras and the high driving position are a precious help when parking it. Its genuine comfort is associated to luxury features and combines with real, serious off-road capabilities. The steering is smooth, responsive and is a mere 2.7 turns from lock to lock. Of course, it’s no a sports car, but for its size, the Defender 90 has excellent road manners, corners flatly and its smoothness makes it even sweeter. On the road, body roll is contained and never too much of a problem. Off-road, the Defender never fails to surprise : every difficulty is wiped out in no time. The Terrain Response System takes care of everything, from throttle response to stability control, everything seems to happen naturally and with ease. The air suspension gives the Defender up to 291mm of ground clearance. Approach angle is 38° and departure is 40°, enough to endow the Defender with high-flying crossing capabilities.

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Why I don’t buy it

Obviously, the Defender is no low-cost car, getting one on your drive means shelling out big money! Add a few extras and the bill quickly will go up very quickly… which, in a way, makes it expensive but for Land Rover this also means its potential competition is reduced! (Text: Dimitri Urbain – Pictures: Pierre Fontignies)

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