With the world in dire straits and the new Defender already off to a flying start, Land Rover would have been excused for not making too much of the 90 launch. After all the once-in-a-lifetime African expedition had been cracked, and the first deliveries already made; quietly adding the three-door to the range would have likely sufficed. But that's not the Land Rover way, and it's very possible that the 90 is closer to the manufacturer's heart than the family-friendly model that preceded it. Denied an exotic venue, the brand went the extra mile: punishing off-road trails, top speed runs in appalling rain, waist-high wading, bumps, jumps, the outside lane of the M40 - it was a proper test over 36 hours. And the Defender 90 coped with it jus... well, you'll have to read on for that.
Firstly, there's an argument to say this Defender has a less onerous remit than the larger five-door model. It's not going to be family transport and can't be compared against the conventional SUVs in a way that the 110 can; this one is going to be bought, you would expect, by those enamoured with the 90's new styling and its enduring status. Wrangler and Land Cruiser aside, three-door off-roaders of any kind don't really exist anymore - even the Jimny is dead. And the Jeep and Toyota are a fair bit more affordable. The Defender 90 is a car that you buy because you really want one.
And in top-of-the-range, Defender X P400 spec, it's very easy to see why you might. In Gondwana Stone with black contrast roof, 20-inch dark grey five-spoke wheels and a Vintage Tan/Ebony interior, the car looks every inch the premium Land Rover product. Feels it, too, from the reassuring heft of the door to the near-seamless integration of the new Pivi Pro infotainment. The Defender, crucially, feels like a Land Rover where you'd want it to and like a modern, innovative product everywhere else (not always a given with JLR products). It doesn't so much pass the showroom test as ace it before the door is shut.
Which is useful, because, somewhat inevitably, the 90 simply can't lay claim to the same hoarding ability as the larger car. Because it is the smaller car. At 4,323mm long, the 90 is a substantial 435mm shorter than the 110; while passenger space in the second row remains more than adequate for adults (at least as a four-seater), the boot space suffers: 397 litres sounds fine, but it's a tall rather than a deep space. To level this as a complaint would be churlish - 'smaller car less adept at carrying stuff than larger car' isn't revelatory - but it's worth noting if your 90 is going to live a life of more than just solo adventures.
On the road, it should come as little surprise to find that the 90 closely mirrors the experience found in the 110 - i.e. one utterly transformed from the old car. The new D7x platform lends the Defender impeccable road manners; it is as refined and as composed at a cruise as could reasonably be expected from a car like this. Perhaps a tad more wind noise is heard than would be desirable thanks to the bluff silhouette, but it's easy to imagine many hours contentedly spent at the wheel of a Defender. It would be staggering to find a Wrangler as adept at long distances as this, because the 90 matches (if not surpasses) the rest of the Land Rover range in this regard.
It handles, too. Not in a stiff, unrelenting, uber-SUV fashion typically preferred by the Germans, but in a manner that's cohesive, capable and, in its own way, satisfying. The Defender will roll and pitch, sure, though only at a point where the car has been pushed beyond realistic expectations for something so large and heavy. Even then, it feels manageable and entirely commensurate with what's being asked. At a lower intensity the Defender steers, rides and turns with an accuracy, class and acuity that tends to mark out a Gaydon-developed product - the quality present in the fixtures and fittings most extends to what can't be seen, too.
Well, mostly. This sounds like a sacrilegious statement for PH, but it's hard to unequivocally praise the P400 straight six, and on this evidence it feels like the D300 diesel might be a better fit for the Defender's mission statement. Nic highlighted this possibility when he drove the 110 version back in March, and despite a 100kg saving over the larger car, the 90 still isn't quite as convincing as you might hope from something outputting 400hp and 406lb ft of torque. Despite its professed brawniness in the mid-range, the new unit feels keener to find peak power at 5,500rpm than lug it out from lower down. That it sounds diesel-like at middling revs and throttle applications doesn't help its cause, either. It's a decent enough petrol engine, for sure. though when paying more than £80,000 for a premium SUV it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect more.
That said, no other Defender will escort you quite so convincingly to 130mph, as the P400 proved at Land Rover's proving ground. In appalling wind and rain, too - the kind of conditions that seem a more appropriate test for the wading depth than the top speed. With a sufficient supply of fuel (it was averaging little better than 20mpg on the drive up), the demonstration revealed a model more than happy to sit at top speed all day long thanks to its unflappable stability and comfort. That the same car could then be used to get air at 50mph, attack what resembled special stage Gaydon and slither around in sand with aplomb speaks to the bewildering breadth of ability and engineering nous invested in the new Defender. Sure, you'd expect a Land Rover to perform well at the place it was engineered - but it was a mighty impressive display nonetheless.
And that wasn't even the proper off-road test. Swapped from air-sprung P400s to four-cylinder, passively suspended P300s the next day, the Defenders were tasked with taking on an Eastnor Castle route. Not just any old tourist route, either, but trails that included old Camel Trophy assessment features. It was boggy, marshy, grimy, sticky, appalling off-roading, chosen to demonstrate every all-terrain facet of the Defender - wading depth, ride height, approach and departure angles - being pushed to their maximum. Every car was stuck at least once. Your humble scribe, lacking much off-road experience, would call it the most challenging bit of driving ever undertaken, each obstacle appearing even more unpassable than the last: too deep, too steep, too slippery, too strewn with dangerous obstacles.
And yet the 90 just kept coming back for more, soaking up punishment like it was a bespoke off-road machine. Like it was capable of, and designed for, nothing but getting down and dirty in the forest every single day; not live the high life in Notting Hill. As PH discovered in Namibia, it felt tough to the point of unburstable. It's hard to take issue with the D7x's weight penalty when it clambers over anything put in front of it with nary a creak or groan. (And before you say anything, the time the PH Defender was stuck was most certainly user error.) Otherwise it was a case of Mud and Ruts on the Terrain Response, traction control off for the very worst bits, do as you're told and prepare to be amazed. In its own way, the Defender's showing at Eastnor was no less impressive than what a 488 Pista does on a circuit or Bentley Flying Spur on an autobahn. In its element, it seemed as good as it's possible to get for something road legal and on four wheels.
Consequently it's impossible to come away without being enormously impressed by the new 90. That its indefatigable off-road performance is allied to excellent road manners and a level of quality and sophistication inside that's almost entirely new to the brand makes it pretty hard to find fault with. Undoubtedly it's expensive, and perhaps a couple of interior details could be improved, though it's hard to suggest that this Defender is anything other than the most comprehensively talented - and obviously desirable - Land Rover to be launched in recent times. And given the bar that's already been set, that's some achievement. Try both petrol and diesel engines to be sure, go easy on the options to avoid a truly scary RRP and then embrace what must be one of 2020's very best cars. Don't forget to try some proper off-roading, too...
SPECIFICATION | 2020 LAND ROVER DEFENDER 90 P400
Engine: 2996cc, six-cyl turbo, petrol
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 6.0 seconds
Top speed: 130mph
Weight: 2,245kg (DIN, 5-seat)
CO2: 252g/km (WLTP, 5-seat)
MPG: 25.5 (WLTP, 5-seat)
Price: from £75,475
SPECIFICATION | 2020 LAND ROVER DEFENDER 90 P300
Engine: 1999cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@1,500-4,500rpm
0-62mph: 7.1 seconds
Top speed: 119mph
Weight: 2,245kg (DIN, 5-seat)
CO2: 260g/km (WLTP, 5-seat)
MPG: 24.6 (WLTP, 5-seat)
Price: from £50,930
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