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Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition Review

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Mark Savage
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Land Rover jumps back in to the more utilitarian end of the huge SUV market with its Defender series, which had disappeared in 1997 as Rover romped full force into the luxury SUV market.

OK, when I say Land Rover and what do you picture?

Boxy, utilitarian off-roader running through tall elephant grass or African Savanna grass, a photographer’s head and camera poking from the open roof. Maybe an elephant, giraffe or even a lion wandering in the background?

That’s because in 1948 Land Rover started cranking out said utilitarian boxes after Jeeps had invaded the British landscape during World War II. The Brits were relatively quick to duplicate and improve upon the Jeep for its own market and, Boom! Rovers sold like elephant ears at the State Fair. Those early models not only had high ground clearance, big rugged tires and four-wheel-drive, but fold down windshields and rear doors where we call fancy hatches these days.

Well, the good ol’ days are back (sort of) as Land Rover jumps back in to the more utilitarian end of the huge SUV market with its Defender series, which had disappeared in 1997 as Rover romped full force into the more profitable luxury SUV market.

Defender had been Rover's entry-level more rugged Jeep-like models and now the new Defender 90 and 110 are that, with a healthy helping of luxury ladled on board. I tested the 110 back in January. It rides on a longer wheelbase and features four doors and a luxury price tag.

READ: 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 First Edition Review

This time I romped the suburban tundra in a stylish (retro) Defender 90 First Edition two-door. This special trim was $65,450 and with just two options hit $66,475. Yet a base model with a less powerful 2.0-liter turbo I4 engine starts at down-market price of $47,125.

On looks alone the Defender 90, especially decked out in a light gray-green metallic Pangea Green paint scheme, is a rock star. Folks gawked, a few asked questions!

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Mark Savage
A Jeep-like vehicle with a short wheelbase is normally about as much fun to drive as a square-wheeled peddle car, but the Land Rover Defender feels refined and quite comfy on most city streets and in limited off-road romping.

This rides on a compact 101.9-inch wheelbase, but still looks muscular and stout. It clears the ground by 8.9 inches, will wade in 35.4 inches of water, and in First Edition trim packs an energetic 395 horsepower 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder with mild hybrid system to power its electronics. A fine 8-speed automatic transmission easily melds with the big power unit for a luxury feel.

Trust me, a Jeep-like vehicle with a short wheelbase is normally about as much fun to drive as a square-wheeled peddle car. Think Flintstones! But the Land Rover Defender feels refined and quite comfy on most city streets, and in limited off-road romping. There is some bump felt on severe or sharp road imperfections, but the ride is generally pleasant indeed.

Power is luxury sedan smooth and instantaneous. Driving the Defender is fun as you can get on the gas and be quickly up to highway speeds. In fact, I found myself over accelerating initially in highway jaunts, needing to whoa this boxy beast down to avoid the constabulary.

Handling is precise and firm with moderate steering effort required and Defender corners well for a tall short-wheelbase vehicle. It never felt tippy, although from outward appearances you might assume it to be top-heavy. I did not get to use this in rugged terrain, but it’s capable and has numerous off-road settings, all controlled via a big touchscreen. I’d prefer a knob or button.

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Mark Savage
The Land Rover Defender features lots of handles for both driver and riders to hug when bounding around boulders. The dash also has a rail across the top and at both edges if you need to hang on for dear life.

Off-road options include mud ruts, rock crawl, grass/gravel/sand, sand, and wading for those nearly three-foot deep streams that need forded, or should that be Rovered? Comfort and a customizable Configurable settings also are available. Comfort works on city streets and highways.

So nimble is the Defender that parking is a breeze! One assumes that would help in dodging trees and rocks once off into the bush country too.

Speaking of which, there are a bunch of “dear Jesus” handles for both driver and riders to hug when bounding around boulders. The dash also has a rail across the top and at both edges if you need to hang on for dear life.

Otherwise the interior looks utilitarian. Door panels show exposed metal as in a Jeep and overhead there’s a cool fold-back cloth panoramic sunroof, powered of course. Seats are a mix of cloth and perforated leather-like material that would be easy to clean. Some of that texture is carried over into the doors and dash. These were a dark gray to black in the test truck with light gray trim on the doors and dash, which also had a shelf along its top face for storing sunglasses, phones, and rhino tranquilizer darts.

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Mark Savage
The Defender's interior is fairly utilitarian. Door panels show exposed metal as in a Jeep and overhead there’s a cool fold-back cloth powered panoramic sunroof. The seats are a mix of cloth and perforated leather-like material that would be easy to clean.

Seats are fairly flat, but powered and heated up front (controlled through the touchscreen) and there’s a jump seat in the middle that can be folded up to allow more elbow room such as that needed when off-roading. Put it down and there are cup holders in its back for the front seat occupants. However, that seat is quite thick and feels pretty confining for the front seat folks and a bit high for a comfy armrest. Put it up though and it somewhat blocks rearward vision.

In fact, rear vision is tough much of the time with the rear seat headrests and spare tire on that back door blocking the view. Thank goodness for the backup camera, mounted overhead in the shark fin antenna housing on the roof.

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Mark Savage
Rear Vision is a challenge with the Defender since the jump seat blocks some of the view, along with rear seat headrests and a spare tire on the back door. However, the backup camera mounted overhead in the shark fin antenna housing on the roof certainly helps.

Rear seat folks also get a little ambient light from side skylights built into the Rover’s white metal top. Opening that cloth sunroof helps, too. The skylights are retro styling touches, as are the little round taillights and so much more here. All good, as the styling communicates modern retro inside and out.

Storage room behind the seats is even less than a Jeep Wrangler, which isn't much. There's enough space for maybe four or five upright grocery bags. Seats will fold down, of course, and there’s a power height button inside that rear-opening back hatch door. So if you’re loading up and need the vehicle higher or lower for loading comfort that’s a plus.

I’m no fan of a rear-opening door, especially with a big 20-inch tire mounted on it. The door is heavy and the tire partially blocks rear visibility. Does it look macho and rugged? You bet. But it’s style over function.

What surprised me the most about the Defender was the interior’s quietness. This being a box on wheels, I expected a lot more nubby off-road tire noise (20-inch tires here added $350 to the price), or more wind noise. Not so. Its interior is quiet as a near luxury sedan, allowing you to hear the fancy Meridian sound system, with volume easily adjusted by a roller on the steering wheel.

On the practical side, the powerful Defender is a fine trailer puller and will tow 8,200 lbs., and if the rear seats are down there’s decent cargo space in back. If you’re going to tow you’ll need the trailer hitch receiver, a $675 option.

Rovers are not known for stellar gas mileage, and the Defender 90 is not a true hybrid. It’s rated at 17 mpg city and 22 highway by the EPA, and I got just 17.1 mpg in a mix of city and highway drives.

However Rovers, now owned by India-based Tata Motors, are known for being electronic gremlins. I found only one slight glitch this time — the rearview camera liked to stay on when the SUV was in Drive for several minutes, but did switch to a front view. Hmm, maybe for watching out for wildebeests, or boulders!

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Mark Savage
Handling on the Land Rover Defender is precise and firm with moderate steering effort required and it corners well for a tall short-wheelbase vehicle.

Overview: 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

Hits: Snazzy retro looks, awesome color, off-roading ability in spades, strong smooth power, good handling, and a nice ride for short wheelbase. Quiet interior, cloth folding panoramic sunroof, heated seats, radio volume roller on wheel, Meridian sound system, easy to park.

Misses: Poor rear visibility, rear hatch opens out like door, tire on door makes it heavy, fold-down optional middle front seat very thick making for uncomfortable arm rest, rearview camera stays on when in Drive for several minutes.

Made in: Nitra, Slovakia

Engine: 3.0-liter I6, 395 hp

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Weight: 4,780 lbs.

Wheelbase: 101.9 in.

Length: 180.4 in.

Cargo: 58.3 cu.ft.

Tow: 8,200 lbs.

MPG: 17.1 (tested)

Base Price: $65,450 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $61,604

Major Options: Tow hitch receiver, $675

Off-road tires, $350

Test vehicle: $66,475

Sources: Land Rover, Kelley Blue Book

Editor's Note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

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