Supercar makers rarely boast about ground clearance, breakover angles, or wading depths. Acceleration numbers for rugged SUVs are barely more relevant. Yet, being shorter and lighter than its four-door sister, the new two-door Defender 90 is set to be the quickest factory-produced version of Land Rover’s classic off-roader.
Select the range-topping 395-hp P400 six-cylinder engine, and we expect the 90 to dispatch the zero-to-60-mph benchmark in just 6.0 seconds, continuing to an electronically limited top speed of 120 mph. When we recently timed a seven-seat version of the long-wheelbase that was 110 to 335 pounds heavier, according to Land Rover’s numbers, and fitted with a drag-inducing roof rack, it ran to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds and blew through the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds. Nobody is likely to buy a Defender 90 to win a stoplight grand prix, but it might mean owners will take victories in a few.
Although mighty, the P400 engine isn’t one of the Defender 90’s experiential highlights. The 3.0-liter inline-six comes from JLR’s Ingenium family and features both a mild amount of electric assistance—through an integrated 48-volt starter-generator—as well as an electric compressor to quicken responses before the turbo builds boost. It is certainly effective, with the sensation of acceleration heightened by the nose-up attitude the 90 takes on its soft springs. But the engine is short on refinement, sounding loud and diesel-like under gentle loads and becoming coarse at higher revs.
To be fair, the powerplant’s lack of manners are only really noticeable because the rest of the 90 is so good. It cruises remarkably quietly for something with such a blunt aerodynamic profile and such sizable tires, road and wind noise staying impressively low even when cruising at an indicated 80 mph. Although upright, the seating position is comfortable over long stints behind the wheel, and the uncluttered dashboard is a model of clarity. Ventilation and drive-mode buttons are grouped in a binnacle next to the gear selector, with other most functions controlled by the 10-inch touchscreen above. We’ve been plenty rude about JLR’s clunky, confused, and often oxymoronic InControl infotainment, so we are happy to report that the Defender’s Pivi Pro system—which will soon roll out throughout the range—is clearer and much more intuitive.
Although smaller than the 110, the Defender 90’s cabin does not feel cramped. The rear seats are positioned slightly higher than those in the front, and although access to the back requires an awkward scramble, both legroom and headroom are entirely viable for adults. The option of what is effectively a fold-up jumpseat in the front means the 90 can carry six passengers—all hail the return of the front bench seat—although anyone in the middle up front will have to bend their knees around the dashboard console. Cargo space has obviously been reduced compared to the 110, but there are still 16 cubic feet behind the rear seats.
The P400 we drove in England was in fully loaded X trim, set to start at $82,560. The X model brings both plush trim and a near fully ticked set of option boxes, including an upgraded Meridian audio system and a set of gray-faced 20-inch alloys that looked too nice for proper off-roading. The X also gets standard height-adjustable air suspension, with lesser versions of the 90 running on steel coil springs.
On road the air springs felt a little firm when asked to deal with urban bumps and potholes, but they were well suited for highway speeds. Although the P400 has a set of Terrain Response modes to allow it to tackle any off-road environment, it lacks a Sport or Dynamic mode, and even moderately rapid progress brings some acute lean angles. Our test car’s Goodyear all-terrain tires could only produce modest grip, with the 90’s stability control intervening hard and early when it sensed any loss of grip. The electrically boosted brakes are also grabby, and the pedal lacks feel. We were also surprised to discover that even in range-topping form the 90 lacks steering-wheel shift paddles. Taking manual control of the standard eight-speed automatic transmission needs to be done through the central shift lever.
Having shown us one extreme of the 90 clan with the P400 X, Land Rover also let us experience something far closer to the other, a P300 riding on coil springs and with interior trim clearly chosen for durability rather than niceness. We got to drive this on a route around the grounds of Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire, this being the place where Land Rover has tested the off-road credentials of its vehicles (and those of its competitors) pretty much since the company’s foundation.
The P300’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine soon proves to suit the Defender’s doughty character perfectly. With 296 horsepower, it’s still capable of delivering reasonable acceleration; we expect it to come in under 8.0 seconds, still entirely respectable for a vehicle this shape and size. It is also happy grumbling along at low revs in gelatinous mud. Its peak 295 pound-feet of torque is available on a flat plateau that stretches from 1500 rpm to 4000 rpm.
You won’t be surprised to learn the P300 proved mighty in its development playground. The combination of low-range gearing, locking center and rear differentials and the traction-boosting magic of the Terrain Response system’s Mud and Ruts mode allowed it to slither and grind its way along some of Eastnor’s tracks while barely working hard. Steel-sprung clearance wasn’t quite as good as it would have been with fully raised air suspension—8.9 inches versus 11.5 inches—but it was still more than adequate to clear sizable obstacles. And with four-wheel independent suspension, the diffs are tucked up in the middle instead of dragging along with the axles, as in the old Defender. (And the current Jeep Wrangler.)
The Defender 90 is cheaper than the 110, but not by much. The entry-level $47,450 P300 is $4400 less than the equivalent 110, but the difference is actually less than that: The longer-wheelbase model brings standard air suspension, which is a $1600 option on the base 90. Further up the tree, the difference is even less, with the 90 X only being $2500 less than the 110.
While some may choose the two-door Defender to secure that modest discount—or to fit within the confines of an exceptionally short garage—most 90 buyers will be drawn by the desire to experience the Defender in its purest form.
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