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First Drive: 2021 Land Rover Defender 110

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2020-10-20 David Booth
a truck parked on the side of a road: 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 © Provided by Driving.ca 2021 Land Rover Defender 110

Land Rover’s new Defender has the best cabin design I have laid eyes on in almost 20 years. It’s not perfect, it’s not high-tech, and it sure-as-shootin’ isn’t the most lavish or opulent. But if the quality of a stylist’s job be measured on their ability to fulfill a design brief, then whoever penned, sculpted, and coloured the cabin of the new Defender gets the first 10/10 I’ve ever issued for interior décor.

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That’s because the design brief tasked was the hardest I can imagine, the Defender requiring — because of its history as the quintessential go-anywhere, do-anything utilitarian SUV married to Land Rover’s now exalted status amongst luxury SUVs — an interior that is both Spartan and elegant.

Notice that I did not say Spartan and beautiful . Beauty, says the Oxford dictionary, is a “combination of qualities such as shape, colour, or form.” In other words, as those who have studied the definition of human beauty have long surmised, there is no such thing as inherent beauty; just get your angles and symmetries right, and the actual shape of the face you’re deeming beautiful actually doesn’t matter. Elegance, on the other hand — and here I prefer the Mirriam-Webster definition of a “tasteful richness of design” — is much more difficult to accomplish when it must be coupled with the austerity demanded of a vehicle that was originally engineered to double as a tractor .

And believe me, the Defender is elegant, using basic design like the Range Rover — whose cabin the Defender just supplanted as my favourite in the automotive business — to make up for its (relative) lack of ornamentation. And, like that now 20-year-old Range Rover architecture, the Defender’s key design element is its ‘floating’ infotainment touchscreen, held proud from the dashboard by two large cross-dash beams. The cross-dash structure itself forms a cabin-wide parcel shelf — also housing a USB port specifically for the passenger — fulfilling the sensible part of the equation while the leather trim covering said beams adds a taste of panache I’ve been talking about.

That combination continues throughout the cabin. The doors, for instance, have ‘structural’ liners, bolted-in plastic covering that look like — as they would have in the old days — they’re designed to be easily removed for service. However, their shape and feel is a tasteful as service ports get, and rather than being bolted-in by conventional or even Allen head screws, they’re secured with Torx fittings — which, take it from an avowed gearhead, are as elegant as fasteners get.

On the utilitarian side, there are enough cubbies and containers inside the Defender to satisfy even the most diligent of hoarders. In addition to the dashboard shelf and door pockets, the centre console is divided into two levels. The upper houses a standard covered pocket, a dual cupholder, and a small shelf, while the lower level is an open design big enough to carry a purse or small batch of recently powder-coated motorcycle parts, depending on whether you’re working with the elegant or utilitarian part of the equation. The upper part of the centre console, by the way, is held by more of those fashionable Torx bolts.

That symbiotic marriage carries on throughout the cabin. The steering wheel and centre of the dashboard are finished in light gray plastic, usually the death knell for fashionable luxury interiors. But Land Rover makes it work by marrying it — on both the dashboard and steering wheel — with some truly high-end, glove-soft leather. Buttonry, keeping with the whole ascetic motif, has been kept to a minimum, something that would have been problematic with earlier versions of Land Rover’s InControl infotainment system but much more survivable with this new, simplified incarnation.

The interior is also quite roomy, at least in first two rows of seats. Yes, this long-wheelbase Defender 110 has three rows of seats, but I think that’s the only mistake Land Rover made in crafting the new Defender’s cabin — or rather, it’s the only mistake you can make when ordering one. There’s simply no way any fully-formed adult human being (or even most toddlers( can spend any time back there. Land Rover tries to improve the ambiance by adding a couple of skylights to air things out a bit, but the height of automotive designer hubris truly is thinking that anyone will ever last long enough back there to use the seat heaters someone has “thoughtfully” added. I suppose you could really want to pamper Fido, but then what would he do with the cupholder or the electric outlet back there. What I’m trying to say is, nix the third row seats.

I suppose, having spent so much time discussing interior design, I should now focus on the Defender’s exterior. But it’s been in the news so much for the last two years, there really isn’t much to say other than it looks even better in the metal than it does in pictures, pixels unable to totally capture its combination of purposefulness and poise. It’s a good-looking sport-ute (enough so that it was just named Motor Trend’s 2021 SUV of the year) whose traditional boxy design is made less agricultural — MT’s description of the original Defender — by the myriad design flourishes that capitalize on its squarish shape. The two-door 90 might be the more authentic of the new Defenders, but the more practical four-door is at least as fetching as the company’s own Range Rover .

Regarding the Defender’s performance, our drive was short but enough to understand that Land Rover’s electrified inline-six — officially the P400 — is a pretty sweet powertrain. In a reflection of our high-tech future, the Defender’s engine is a combination of belt-driven 48-volt electrification and small electric turbocharger married to a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six. If that all sounds a little complicated, know that it is pretty effective, the high-tech engine pumping out 395 horses and 406 pound-feet of torque. The mild electrification and the electric supercharger are particularly effective at low speeds. Even if the engine’s top end doesn’t quite match the low-end promise, it’s still good enough for a 6.1-second scoot from zero to 100 km/h — that’s not half bad for a sport-brute that weighs some 2,400 kilograms in its seven-seat configuration. Those 5,300 or so pounds are also the reason I averaged around 14 L/100 km instead of its official 12.3 rating from Natural Resources Canada. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive powertrain, all inline-six smoothness married to diesel-like low-end grunt.

As for the Defender’s comportment, our — again, initial — impression is one of grace. The cabin is fairly silent and the long-travel air suspension eats up the incredible potholes that are now Toronto’s main arteries. As to it is off-road performance — whose bona fides are absolutely essential to legitimizing all that design excellence — we’ll be leaving that to our Graeme Fletcher, who back in the day learned to drive on a short-wheelbase Land Rover, the (even more utilitarian) precursor to the Defender .

The only Defender currently available is the long wheelbase 110, as the three-door, short-wheelbase 90 is set to arrive early next year. The 110 starts at $65,300 for the base P300 version powered by a 296-horsepower turbo-four, while the P400 “First Edition” starts at $83,400. There’s an even more off-road-worthy X, which will cost $93,600. Accessorizing it to over $100,000 will no doubt be easy.

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