Road tests

Land Rover Defender 90 D250 SE 2021 review

Is the smaller Land Rover Defender 90 the pick of the range? We sample it in D250 guise to find out...

Overall Auto Express Rating

4.0 out of 5

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There’s no denying the Land Rover Defender 90 packs masses of personality, and with Land Rover’s new mild-hybrid D250 six-cylinder diesel engine, the powertrain is torquey, smooth and refined, even if it’s not all that quick. You lose some practicality over the 110, but the 90’s image is unrivalled, and the tech means it’s as easy as any other Land Rover to live with. While it’s still a pricey car in SE trim, the kit list stands up to scrutiny and few other true SUVs offer this level of desirability.

This time last year we sampled the new Defender for the first time in 110 form in the wilds of Namibia – now we’re getting our first taste of the smaller Defender 90, with Land Rover’s new D250 mild-hybrid engine, in the UK.

What a difference a year makes, as in the intervening period Land Rover has also announced it’ll be targeting 60 per cent pure-electric sales by the end of the decade, with a fully electrified product line-up. So even though there’s a plug-in Defender on the way, the electrification of Land Rover’s new icon here is a step towards that target for the British brand.

It’s a very convincing one too. The Defender 110 feels big on British roads; while the 90 is no narrower, the shorter wheelbase means it feels just a little more agile and enjoyable to drive – not that its big brother is sub-standard in those respects.

This was always a big push for the new Defender, to give it its own personality from behind the wheel, and the 90 version certainly adds to that.

The engine is a good fit too. It’s a 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder diesel unit with mild-hybrid assistance. You won’t notice the hybrid element when you’re on the move as it only really helps out with a torque boost when accelerating from a standstill, while making the stop-start system a little smoother too.

This added boost in refinement when moving off fits with the powertrain’s character at speed. With 246bhp and 570Nm of torque, the big diesel unit is smooth and powerful. It’s a much more satisfying engine to work and listen to than the four-cylinder diesel Defenders we’ve tried up to now.

The engine is the lesser of Land Rover’s two I6 diesels, but the Defender 90’s kerbweight is a still significant 2,228kg, so it’s just powerful enough to cope. The bulk also means official fuel economy of 32.2mpg and 230g/km CO2 emissions.

The 0-60mph sprint takes 7.6 seconds, but you never drive the Defender like this anyway. Instead, part throttle, in-gear acceleration is its strongest trait, with lots of smooth torque delivered from just 1,250rpm making it a very easy-going SUV. It’ll no doubt help with progress off-road too.

So will the eight-speed automatic gearbox. It shifts smoothly and makes the most of the engine’s output to carry you along with real refinement; even if you use full throttle it doesn’t get too loud or intrusive.

Our car was fitted with Land Rover’s £1,615 air suspension, which also adds Adaptive Dynamics. We’d like to try a steel-sprung Defender, but there’s no denying that on the optional air-sprung set-up, even the shorter wheelbase 90 delivers a mostly smooth and controlled ride on the majority of roads buyers will tackle.

It’s far from magic carpet-like, occasionally thumping into potholes even on smaller steel wheels, which can also rebound a little aggressively, but then as part of pushing the Defender’s personality, a more communicative driving experience was always on the agenda for Land Rover. And thanks to the shortened distance between this car’s axles, while it’s comfortable and absorbs all but the worst bumps relatively well, it does feel just a little keener to change direction than the Defender 110, the slight reduction in kerbweight no doubt helping as well.

We found out last week that Land Rover has made the new-for-2021 Discovery more car-like to drive, which has resulted in a slight reduction in ride comfort. The Defender 90 feels every inch the rugged SUV antidote, but one that’s still enjoyable to drive and balances refinement to just the right degree. The new engine really is a key element in this equation.

At £53,200 in SE trim the Defender 90 is still a pricey car, even if it’s likely to be more like £555 a month for many on a three-year PCP deal, based on a £12,000 deposit.

All Defenders feature LED headlights, heated front seats, Land Rover’s 10-inch Pivi Pro infotainment set-up (it was the first model to feature the brand’s newer tech, which still stands up one year on), with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, a 3D surround-view camera and all-round parking sensors, cruise control, lane-keep assist and autonomous emergency braking.

SE trim gets the kind of kit you’d really want, adding 20-inch alloys, leather trim, a Meridian sound system with 10 speakers plus a subwoofer, Land Rover’s Blind Spot Assist Pack, keyless operation, the firm’s ClearSight digital rear-view mirror and Isofix mountings for the front seat to improve practicality.

Stepping up to HSE (another £4,260) brings a panoramic glass roof and some higher quality materials, but we don’t think it’s worth the extra.

On the subject of practicality, the three-door-only Defender 90 does lose out a little to its larger 110 brother, which is available as a five, six or seven-seater.

Boot space stands at 397 litres, but the load bay is a less usable shape. It’s also a bit trickier to climb into the 90’s rear seats, but once you’re there, space isn’t too bad. And of course, to some the three-door’s even boxier look might be preferable and more reminiscent of the previous Defender.

Model:Land Rover Defender 90 D250 SE
Price: £53,200
Engine: 3.0-litre 6cyl turbodiesel mild-hybrid
Power/torque: 246bhp/570Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
0-60mph: 7.6 seconds
Top speed: 117mph
Economy/CO2: 32.2mpg/230g/km
On sale: Now

Sean’s been writing about cars since 2010, having worked for outlets as diverse as PistonHeads, MSN Cars, Which? Cars, Race Tech – a specialist motorsport publication – and most recently Auto Express and sister titles Carbuyer and DrivingElectric

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