2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition Review – Expensive Capability

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

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)
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)
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.
2021 land rover defender 90 first edition review expensive capability

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.

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2 of 7 comments
  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.
  • FreedMike It's not that consumers wouldn't want this tech in theory - I think they would. Honestly, the idea of a car that can take over the truly tedious driving stuff that drives me bonkers - like sitting in traffic - appeals to me. But there's no way I'd put my property and my life in the hands of tech that's clearly not ready for prime time, and neither would the majority of other drivers. If they want this tech to sell, they need to get it right.
  • TitaniumZ Of course they are starting to "sour" on the idea. That's what happens when cars start to drive better than people. Humanpilots mostly suck and make bad decisions.