Arguably, this is the Land Rover Defender that no-one needs, but which doubtless everyone will want. The '90' combines iconic styling with a truly remarkable breadth of capability, and would leave the original Defender languishing miles behind it in any circumstances.
In the Metal:
We're fairly sure that in this spec, with this engine, this will be one of the lesser-seen variants of the new Land Rover Defender. This is our first chance to drive the short-wheelbase '90' version of the new Defender (90 is just a badge these days, no longer the wheelbase measurement in inches - if Land Rover were still badging it thusly, this would be the Defender 101 - or Defender 2,587 if we're talking millimetres) and I would have originally said that it's the best-looking Defender. Certainly, the short-wheelbase body, especially when seen side-on, has a 'rightness' about it that, combined with the gorgeous detailing around the rear shoulder line and those LED brake lights, makes it look like the most 'Defender-y' of the new Defender line-up. Actually, having spent the day with it, I think that the 110 version, the long-wheelbase model, still has its stylistic charms, but there's definitely a level of coolness to the 90 that the longer car slightly lacks.
In an effort to impress us, Land Rover has filled the spec bucket to the brim and thrown it at this test car. It's a Defender X, the top-spec model to begin with, and to that Land Rover has added a deep-bronze paint job, called Gondwana Stone (named for one of the super-continents formed millions of years ago by the Earth's drifting land masses, fact fans) with a contrast-finish black roof and bonnet, that gives it a faint air of 1970s hot rod saloon. Garish? Yeah, a little, especially with the satin-grey 20-inch wheels.
Inside, the Defender's cabin has been swathed in orange and black leather (again, a bit garish) and it's been fitted with such options as a Meridian sound system and the rear-view mirror that takes a feed from a digital camera in the radio antenna fin. Much more importantly, this one has been fitted with the front-centre 'jump' seat, turning it from a five-seater to a six-seater. Now, that jump seat is a little narrow, and you'd probably want to be married to (or at least intimately acquainted with) anyone sitting there, but it certainly adds to the Defender's practicality and versatility.
Sadly, out back, that practicality has been trimmed somewhat. This being the short-wheelbase model, the boot has been truncated from the 110's massive load space to a relatively small 397-litre space. Now, obviously, that can be easily expanded by split-folding the rear seats (which have plenty of legroom, but are a little tight on headroom for very tall passengers), but this is not the big load-lugger that the 110 is.
It is a mild-hybrid, though. While the full-on plug-in hybrid Defender is imminent, this is our first chance to drive a Defender, any Defender, with electrical assistance. This P400 model gets the new straight-six 3.0-litre petrol engine, with a 48-volt mild-hybrid system. Now, that doesn't just do the usual faster-reacting stop-start system, and torque-infill at low speeds, but actually also drives an electric supercharger, which works at low engine speeds before handing over to the normal exhaust-gas-driven turbocharger. The result is a combo of power and torque - 400hp and 550Nm - of which any factory-spec original Defender could only have dreamed.
Performance is spectacularly good. While the combination of turbo-and-super-charging means that there's a little bit more mechanical gnash and thrash than you might be expecting from a big, high-tech, new six-cylinder engine, there's compensation to be had in the inherent smoothness of that layout, and in the frankly bonkers performance. Here is a big, tall, six-seat 4x4 that can beat a Golf GTI to 100km/h. It was bizarre in the extreme to take the Defender 90 X onto Land Rover's high-speed test track at its vehicle development site in rural England, and keep the accelerator pedal planted until we saw an indicated 200km/h on the big, digital, speedo. You'd have had to have pushed an old Defender off a tall cliff to get it to that kind of speed, and yet the new Defender X sat there with imperious stability until we had to slow for the long, arcing left-hand corner at the end of the track.
It's actually surprisingly efficient too. Well, relatively so, or at least it demonstrates the value of mild-hybrid systems. While its outright emissions and fuel economy figures will look pretty terrifying to most, the odd fact is that it actually performs better in most metrics than the smaller-engined, non-hybrid, P300 turbocharged four-cylinder petrol model doe. Needless to say, most Defender buyers will stick with a more sensible, more frugal, diesel engine, but I guess at least it's nice to know that there are other options.
All-but needless to say, it's brilliant off-road too, although doubtless cognisant of those big alloys and their road-biased tyres, Land Rover only let us loose on some relatively tame gravel tracks. Still, we were on a loose-enough leash that over one hump we could accelerate hard enough to get air under all four tyres, and to get the rear end fishtailing around, rally-style, through some fast, loose-surfaced corners.
While all that is fun, arguably the new Defender's best aspect is its cruising ability. Backed up by excellent seats, and with those big 20-inch rims affecting the ride quality of the adjustable air suspension only slightly, this is a hugely refined and comfortable way to cross a country or even a continent. The cabin, styled to slot just about perfectly into the gap between utilitarian-chic and genuinely luxurious, works really well, as does the combo of Land Rover's new 'Pivi Pro' infotainment system and its related digital instrument panel.
It's not bad through the corners, actually. There is body lean, but it's well-contained and controlled, and actually works as a form of communication between car and driver to let you know how hard the Defender's chassis is working. The steering is light and accurate, if slightly slow-geared, and working with the excellent visibility you can easily hustle the Defender across country with no little vim. It would be stretch to call it a driver's car, but it's not short on entertainment, nor on decent chassis responses.
What you get for your Money:
Land Rover Ireland has not yet set prices for the Defender 90, nor the 90 X model, and definitely not for the P400 version. Nevertheless, I think we can safely say that in a nation where petrol costs €1.40-ish per litre, and the top rate of motor tax is €2,400 (and that's not even mentioning the environmental conscience-prickling) that this is the wrong spec for a Defender. While the X looks great and is good to drive, frankly we still think that a Defender should be as basic as possible, with steel wheels, and not too many options beyond the most necessary items. This everything-in X version will look great in a showroom, or on a driveway in the more exclusive parts of, say, southern California, but we'd rather have a Defender far more affordable than this. A 110 P400 X model costs €130,455 and while we do love the Defender, that's well into Range Rover prices. This is a car best-kept simple.
We already knew that the new Defender was a remarkable car, one with a breadth of abilities that is pretty hard to match. This 90 X P400 stretches out those abilities yet further, although arguably in a direction that they didn't need to be stretched. While it's certainly fun to haul ass at 200km/h in a Defender, and academically interesting to know that it can be done, the X looks and feels like a spec too far for this car. Better to keep a Defender down and dirty, and leave the luxury stuff to other cars in the Land Rover range.