Eastnor and Fiorano don’t have much in common, but they should be twin towns. Eastnor is a tiny village in the English county of Herefordshire, home of a scenic Victorian castle that was originally commissioned by a bloke with the unimprovable name of John Cocks.
The extensive grounds of this country pile are where Land Rover has been testing the off-road credentials of its products, almost since the company’s foundation. The ability to tackle the toughest trails is reckoned to be every bit as important to the British brand a new Ferrari’s Fiorano lap time is in Modena.
It’s a point made when CarAdvice was invited there to drive the new Land Rover Defender 90.
Most press events involve fully-specced range-toppers with every option box ticked, but at Eastnor Land Rover put me into a 90 with the entry level P300 2.0-litre petrol engine, base coil springs in place of pricey air suspension, and even the novelty of what was close to a hose-out rubber interior.
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You won’t be surprised to hear that the Defender 90 was mighty in its development playground. Wearing factory option Goodyear Wrangler ATs, it squelched and slithered its way along some of Eastnor’s tougher tracks while barely breaking sweat. The revelation wasn’t that it could do it all, rather how easy progress was.
Many years ago I got to drive an original Defender 90 TD5 around Eastnor under the supervision of Land Rover’s legendary off-road expert, Roger Crathorne. It was a day of mud, sweat and gears – Crathorne emphasizing the need to select an appropriate combination of transmission ratio and differential locks before every new obstacle.
By contrast, the 2021 Defender did the whole thing with its Mud and Ruts dynamic programme, managing everything with no more drama than occasional twanging noises as the brakes regulated speed and traction.
Petrol versions have a simpler all-wheel drive system, missing the diesel’s torque-juggling clutch pack, but this doesn’t make any difference in terms of finding grip in the wilderness.
Of course, mud-plugging in rural England a very different challenge from life in the rougher parts of Australia, but Land Rover is keen to emphasise that the Defender has been designed for adventure in almost every environment. And as the 90’s shorter wheelbase gives it a bigger ramp over angle than the 110 it should be the most adventurous of the lot.
It’s certainly a useful reminder that even, beneath the sleek design and life-stylish options packs, the new Defender remains a proper off-roader.
The P300 powerplant also impressed. This doesn’t have the aural muscle of the six-cylinder P400, nor the ability to produce the same unlikely quantities of longitudinal G-forces, but with 220kW and 400Nm it still delivers more than adequate performance, especially given the quick-witted standard eight-speed autobox, and its doughty character suits the car well.
I got to experience the other end of the 90 range, too – with a 90 P400 in loaded X-form, although only on-road. The full-strength Ingenium straight-six engine makes 294kW and 550Nm featuring both a mild hybrid starter-generator and a 48-volt electric compressor that works in conjunction with the turbocharger to improve low-end responses.
Performance was impressively brisk, Land Rover claims a 6.0-sec 0-100km/h time, but the sense of speed is heightened by the nose-up attitude the car takes under bigger accelerator inputs.
It’s definitely point-and-squirt fast, rather than a sports SUV: I soon learn to be looking at a straight before unleashing the powerplant. Even pushing moderately hard brings body lean and understeer. On tarmac the stability control intervenes hard and early to avoid any slippage of loss or grip. Which is sensible given the combination of a short wheelbase and a high centre of gravity.
It’s much better at cruising. Even riding on air springs the test P400’s chassis felt firm at urban speeds, but it gains some calm authority at a highway pace and the cabin felt impressively well insulated even pushing beyond the UK’s 70mph (113km/h) motorway speed limit.
Such velocities in the original Defender were barely possible, and would have required any in-cabin conversation to be shouted.
Considering its relatively compact dimensions, being a full 435mm shorter than the 110, the 90 also feels respectably spacious inside. The front of the cabin is roomy with plenty of headroom, even with a natural driving position that enables you to look down on the pilot of pretty much any other SUV.
An optional fold-up jump seat also gives the option to sit three in the front – the backrest housing cupholders when not in use – although anyone playing piggy needs to bend knees around the centre console.
The rear seats are positioned higher than those in front, giving occupants an excellent view forwards, and there’s plenty of space for adults back there, although non-kids will find reaching them through the side door an awkward scramble.
In terms of packaging the obvious compromise is luggage capacity, with no more than 397 litres behind the rear seats with this space both short on length and tall. The side-opened tailgate is surprisingly heavy to operate too.
The Defender’s new upgraded Pivi Pro infotainment system also deserves some credit, especially given the criticism that has been heaped on the previous generation InControl Touch system found in other Land Rover models.
The new setup is better looking, faster acting and much more intuitive to use, a point reinforced when I got to drive InControl equipped versions of the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport on the same event. Defender buyers are getting a far better set-up.
Although sales have barely started in Australia, the Defender is getting some substantial revisions for 2021 beyond the arrival of the short stop 90. The four-cylinder diesel engines it was launched with have now been replaced with six-cylinder oilers offering near-identical power, but extra torque. Given the limited refinement of the smaller Ingenium four-pot that’s probably a blessing.
Standard kit has increased, too – but so has the pricing, with the entry-level 110 nearly $5000 more than it was last year.
The 90 doesn’t quite offset that supplement, being $3000 less than the equivalent 110 across the range. That means prices will go from $71,500 for the base P300 through to $132,590 for the D300 X, before options and on-road costs.
But for anyone who doesn’t need the 110’s space, and wants to experience the Defender in its purest form, the 90 makes a strong case for itself.
- Engine: 2996 cc, straight-six petrol, turbocharged and e-boosted
- Transmission: eight-speed auto, all-wheel drive
- Power: 294kW at 5500rpm
- Torque: 550Nm at 2000rpm
- 0-100km/h: 6.0-sec
- Top speed: 209km/h
- Weight: 2268kg (EU)
- economy: 11.0 L/100km [WLTP combined TEL]
- CO2: 252 g/km [WLTP]