2021 Land Rover Defender 90 Review
Introduction - Find the best Land Rover deals!
In reviving its legendary Defender SUV for a new age, Land Rover leverages classic design cues, modern technology, and the seemingly unstoppable off-roading capability for which the nameplate is known.
Two versions of the 2021 Land Rover Defender are available. New for the model year, the Defender 90 is a short-wheelbase 2-door version of the SUV capable of seating up to six people. The Defender 110, which debuted halfway through 2020, is a 4-door model with seating for up to seven people and more cargo space. Aside from interior room and dimensional differences, the two Defenders are one and the same, but this review focuses on the 90.
Land Rover offers the 2021 Defender 90 in Base and X-Dynamic trim levels with S, SE, and HSE equipment packages. Additionally, a specially equipped First Edition model is available, and there is a top-of-the-line Defender X trim. Depending on your selection, you'll get a turbocharged 4-cylinder or a turbocharged 6-cylinder engine, the latter equipped with standard mild-hybrid electrification and an electric supercharger.
In addition to various colors, materials, and optional equipment, Land Rover offers numerous accessories to improve the Defender's functionality and ability to meet the needs of specific lifestyles.
What Owners Say About the Land Rover Defender - Find the best Land Rover deals!
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
The Land Rover Defender competes in the Midsize Premium SUV segment. According to data collected from verified new-vehicle buyers for the J.D. Power 2021 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, 81 percent of new Land Rover Defender buyers are male (vs. 55 percent for the Midsize Premium SUV segment), and the median age of a Defender buyer is 55 years (vs. 64).
As part of the APEAL Study, owners rated the Defender in 10 primary categories. Listed below in descending order, you'll find their preferences from their most favorite thing about the vehicle to their least favorite:
- Exterior styling
- Driving feel
- Feeling of safety
- Interior design
- Driving comfort
- Setting up and starting
- Getting in and out
- Infotainment system
- Fuel economy
In the 2021 APEAL Study, the Defender ranks highest out of four Midsize Premium SUVs.
What Our Independent Expert Says About the Land Rover Defender - Find the best Land Rover deals!
In the sections that follow, our independent expert provides an analysis of a 2021 Defender 90 First Edition equipped with the following options:
- Tow hitch receiver
- Off-road tires
The price of the test vehicle came to $66,475, including the $1,350 destination charge.
Getting In and Getting Comfortable
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Hoisting yourself into a Land Rover Defender 90 isn't easy unless you kneel the SUV on its available air suspension. Inexplicably, it doesn't have grab handles on the windshield pillars, to the endless consternation and complaint from my wife.
Once everyone is aboard, they'll enjoy a Land Rover experience like no other. The automaker refers to the Defender's modular interior design as "constructivist," a term that means it is functional, practical, and reductive in nature. For example, some structural elements that are typically hidden from view are plainly visible.
Rubber flooring makes for easy clean-up, but if you have no plans to drag mud, sand, and slush into the Defender, carpeted floor mats are available. You have numerous seat upholstery and interior color and trim selections to make, too, and you can opt for a full-length power-opening fabric roof.
The Defender 90 comes with standard seating for five people. You can opt for a front-row center seat, which Land Rover calls a "jump seat," making it a six-passenger vehicle. My kids loved this feature because they'd never seen a car with a front bench seat before. It does rob the Defender of some storage space, though you can fold the center backrest down to take advantage of a couple of cupholders and a shallow storage tray when not in use.
We found the outboard front seats to be comfortable and supportive, with an excellent forward view of the road and our surroundings. The jump seat is narrow and has tight legroom, making it suitable only when necessary to travel short distances.
If you plan to carry rear-seat passengers on a regular basis, you're going to want the Defender 110 because the process of powering the 90's front seats forward to create enough clearance takes quite some time. Plus, loading people into the 90's back seat is no fun in cramped parking situations. The rear seat is remarkably roomy, though, and occupants sit up high with panoramic views to the sides. The safari-style windows in the roof add light and make the rear seat look and feel even more inviting.
Storage is plentiful in the Defender, with a large glove compartment, a full-width dashboard shelf, and generous door panel storage bins. Models without the jump-seat option also have a full center console with storage, but the test car did not have this arrangement.
You can also use the roof for hauling items. The Defender has a 370-pound dynamic roof load rating and a 661-pound static roof load rating. Naturally, Land Rover offers numerous accessories that help you make the most of it, including a rooftop tent.
2021 Land Rover Defender Pivi Pro Infotainment System Review
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Land Rover uses its new Pivi Pro infotainment system in the 2021 Defender. It's a significant improvement over the company's InControl technology in other models, featuring a more intuitive interface, faster loading and response times, and over-the-air software update capability. However, Pivi Pro still falls short in a significant way.
Highlights of Pivi Pro include:
- 10-inch touchscreen display
- Bluetooth connection supports two devices at once
- Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring
- Satellite and HD Radio
- Remote connected services
- Online Pack with unlimited data plan
- Wi-Fi ready (connectivity requires a paid subscription)
- Wireless smartphone charger with signal booster
Remote connected services include automatic collision notification, a stolen-vehicle locator, a vehicle-location finder, and remote accessibility via a smartphone app. Remote functions include engine starting, cabin climate pre-conditioning, door locking and unlocking, fuel-level check, and more. Additionally, the test vehicle had Connected Navigation Pro and a 10-speaker Meridian premium sound system.
Land Rover says that one of the benefits of the PiviPro infotainment system is that it is "always on" and ready for inputs shortly after starting the vehicle. This is true, but the system's voice-recognition technology is a disappointment. In my experience, it is not a natural language system, incapable even of responding to a query as simple as "Where is the nearest Starbucks?" This is easily the most disappointing thing about the Defender.
In addition to Pivi Pro, the Defender comes with several standard camera views to improve visibility. They include a surround-view camera system with 360-degree pan and 3D exterior perspective views, and a ClearSight Ground View camera with a "transparent hood" view to help with visibility while off-roading.
Depending on specification, upgrades include a 12.3-inch digital instrumentation panel, a head-up display, a ClearSight Rear View camera (included with front middle jump seat option), and a water-resistant and shock-proof Activity Key. Owners wear the Activity Key on their wrist, and it allows them to leave their key fob and smartphone inside the Defender while engaging in active lifestyle activities.
What It's Like to Drive the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Land Rover builds the Defender on a new, all-aluminum vehicle architecture. According to the company, the Defender's structure is the stiffest Land Rover has ever created and is three times more torsionally rigid than a traditional body-on-frame SUV.
The standard engine in the base specification is a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder good for 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. It supplies acceptable performance on pavement, getting the SUV to 60 mph in a claimed 7.7 seconds. Peak torque is available from 1,500 rpm to 4,000 rpm, which is helpful for around-town responsiveness and off-roading.
Other Defenders include a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder with mild-hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV) technology. This light-electrification system consists of a 48-volt electric supercharger, a belt-integrated starter motor, and 48-volt lithium-ion battery. Total output measures 395 hp and 406 pound-feet of torque. Land Rover says 60 mph arrives in 5.8 seconds, and with this engine, the Defender tows up to 8,201 pounds when properly equipped.
Both engines use an 8-speed automatic transmission, which feeds the power to a permanent 4-wheel-drive system with a 2-speed transfer case. A locking center differential is standard, and the Defender is available with an optional Active Locking Rear Differential.
Designed and engineered to excel off-road, the Defender 90 offers up to 11.5 inches of ground clearance, a 38-degree approach angle, a 40-degree departure angle, and a 31-degree breakover angle. Land Rover hangs the SUV's spare tire on the tailgate door, facilitating the extreme departure angle. Furthermore, maximum suspension articulation measures 19.7 inches. According to Land Rover, this means the Defender can tackle 45-degree side slopes and inclines of 45 degrees without an issue.
A configurable Terrain Response system is standard. At the driver's request, it adjusts the drivetrain for specific surface conditions and driving situations. An available Terrain Response 2 system handles this task automatically and includes a new Wade program that optimizes all vehicle systems for driving through deep water. Land Rover says the Defender offers 35.4 inches of water fording capability. Additionally, the Defender is available with All-Terrain Progress Control, which is Land Rover's name for its low-speed, off-road cruise control system.
The Defender rides on a 4-wheel independent suspension employing double wishbones in front and an integral link design at the rear. Coil springs are standard, with an electronic air suspension available as an option. The air suspension includes Adaptive Dynamics to give the driver control over firmness and height settings.
Land Rover says the Defender's suspension delivers "world-class durability" and is engineered to withstand severe, repetitive off-road impacts. Yet, especially with the air suspension and Adaptive Dynamics, it offers long-distance comfort on pavement and an "engaging and agile" handling character.
The Defender 90 First Edition test vehicle had the air suspension with Adaptive Dynamics, 20-inch aluminum wheels, and optional off-road tires. Tested in Southern California, it did prove unexpectedly athletic in more than just a straight line. The MHEV powertrain made quick work of freeway on-ramps and the slicing and dicing of traffic and powered up local mountain ranges without breathing hard.
More impressively, though, the Defender 90 was great fun to drive pretty much everywhere we took it. We expected effortless competence in the dirt, and the Defender easily pummeled deeply rutted terrain into submission while driving up, down, and around just about anything in its path. What we did not expect was genuine enthusiast driving enjoyment on twisty back roads.
Despite its off-road tires, the Defender 90 hustled along California 158 and 192 in a hurry. Because the steering doesn't exhibit excess on-center slack and the adaptive air suspension effectively eradicates excess body motions, you can zip along at a good clip without concern about upcoming curves and corners. And if you become overconfident, the Defender stability control system is ready to take subtle action to ensure you don't exceed its handling limits. The brakes are stout, too, but they can be a little tricky to modulate smoothly in heavy traffic or when bringing the SUV to a stop at an intersection.
When you look at a new Land Rover Defender, you expect it will be about as enjoyable and refined to drive on the pavement as a Jeep Wrangler, which is to say, not very. But as is so often the case, the Defender's looks can be deceiving. It is a genuine pleasure to drive this SUV, no matter where you are or where you're going.
Driving Assistance System Review
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Every 2021 Defender 90 includes a reversing camera, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance, and a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning. The cruise control includes a speed limiter function, and front and rear parking-assist sensors help when parking the SUV.
Adaptive cruise control is an option, and the test vehicle did not have it. If you're planning to tow a trailer, you'll want the Advanced Tow Assist technology, which is a semi-autonomous steering system for reversing with a trailer attached to the Defender.
Whether you decide you'd like to adaptive cruise control or not, I strongly urge you to get every camera-based upgrade beyond the standard equipment, including the rear camera mirror. Visibility to the back is terrible, so you need all the help you can get.
As far as the advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) go, the lane-keeping assistance system combines occasional inaccuracy with the insistence that it is right and you, the driver, are wrong. Ultimately, I turned this feature off and quit using it.
2021 Land Rover Defender 90 FAQ - Find the best Land Rover deals!
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
How much cargo space does the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 have?
The smaller of the two Defender SUVs, the 90 supplies 15.6 cubic feet of space behind its standard 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat. This is measured from the floor to the ceiling and is about the same amount of space you'll find in a typical family sedan.
If you fold the rear seat down, you can maximize space at 58.3 cubic feet. Of course, you'll reduce passenger capacity to two or three people in the process, depending on whether the Defender has the front middle jump seat option.
The paltry cargo space behind the back seat is disappointing but is to be expected in a vehicle this stubby in terms of length. If you need more room, get the Defender 110, which supplies at least 34 cubes behind the back seat and a maximum of 78.8 cubic feet, depending on the seating configuration.
Loading can prove challenging. The side-hinged tailgate swings from left to right, so it is tough to access in parallel parking situations if another vehicle is parked close behind and difficult to load from the curb.
Note that the Defender's clip-in cargo cover doubles as a ground mate and is machine washable. Also, when the SUV has an air suspension, a button inside the cargo area lowers the suspension for easier loading.
Does the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 get good gas mileage?
No, it does not. By far, disappointing fuel economy is what Defender buyers dislike most about their SUVs. The Environmental Protection Agency says the Defender 90 test vehicle should have returned 19 mpg in combined driving. Instead, the SUV averaged 17 mpg on the evaluation loop.
Based on this result and the SUV's 23.4-gallon fuel tank, it should supply nearly 400 miles of driving range. Since you won't drain the tank, expect to stop for gas every 350 miles or so.
Is the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 safe?
Based on its underlying engineering, curb weight, and standard safety equipment list, the Defender should provide safety on par with other tall and heavy SUVs. However, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has conducted crash tests on this SUV, so definitive proof of crash protection is unavailable.
How much is the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90?
According to Land Rover, 2021 Defender 90 pricing ranges from $46,100 to $80,500, not including the $1,350 destination charge to ship it to the United States from the Slovakian factory where it is manufactured.
What are the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 competitors?
The Cadillac and Lexus are crossover SUVs and aren't nearly as capable off-road as the Land Rover Defender. More appropriate rivals would include the Infiniti QX80, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Lexus GX. Some shoppers might also consider the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler, Nissan Armada, and Toyota 4Runner.
Independent Expert Opinion - Find the best Land Rover deals!
Photo: Christian Wardlaw
Three things about the Land Rover Defender 90 are disappointing:
- Pivi Pro's voice-recognition technology
- Cramped cargo space behind the rear seat
- Fuel economy
Otherwise, the new 2021 Defender 90 is an absolute delight. From its design and modern technologies to its thoroughly capable and enjoyable driving dynamics both on and off the pavement, the new Defender is everything the old one was, but more importantly, everything the old one wasn't.
Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience in test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.
The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.
No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2022 J.D. Power