First Drive Review: The 2021 Land Rover Defender

With all of the British SUV's style and luxury, it can still muscle up for off-roading through dirt, sand, water and snow.
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2021 Land Rover Defender First Edition (2)

I looked forward to one international media drive event more than any other for three years. There were only whispers for a while that it might happen as the automaker in question first denied the possibility outright, then downgraded to “cannot confirm nor deny.” Soon, the rumors became unstoppable until final confirmation arrived: SUV royalty was returning to the global market.

In late 2019, it was set in stone that I would finally get a chance to travel somewhere in the world to drive the new 2021 Land Rover Defender. In a matter of mere months, the adventurous minds at Jaguar Land Rover media relations would pick some adventurous spot in the Defender’s native island nation home to allow eager scribblers like myself the chance to get reacquainted with this world famous model.

2021 Land Rover Defender First Edition (3)

Out of production internationally since 2016, and nigh impossible to buy used in the U.S. due to stolidly boring safety issues, Americans finally get a chance to buy their piece of rugged, off-roading legacy. Based on the classic Land Rover concept of four wheels pushed to the outer corners of a rectangle to do away with unsprung weight, the Defender was originally designed first and foremost for dirty work. If there was any vehicle in the automaker’s proud history of building vehicles for royal families and Bond villains that preferred rolling over rocks and fording rivers, it was the Defender.

Right on schedule, the Defender media event was set for March 2020 – just in time for Heathrow to shut and for the UK to button up tighter than Boris Johnson’s collar button. I will never know how it might’ve felt to drive Defender in England’s Mountains Green. I believe that to be the single greatest tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic. Never forget.

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Fortunately, in that stiff upper lip spirit, the U.S. JLR team set me up with a weeklong test drive of the 2021 Defender First Edition. Stylish, yet stately and tough, the new version echoes some of its predecessors lines. Powered by a 3.0 liter V6 engine, electrified with lithium ion battery, its fully independent suspension with electronic air springs are adjustable for different driving surfaces for maximum off-roading capability and comfort.

The most appealing feature for this very comfortable and very capable SUV might just be its price — a real surprise considering what other Land Rover models will run you. While a fully kitted-out Defender with every snorkel and luggage rack will run north of $80,000, you can buy a more stripped down trim for a tick over $46,000. You’d end up with a hell of a lot of vehicle at the MSRP.

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When news of the Defender broke around the world a couple years ago, there were those automotive writers and car show hosts who seemed disappointed with the design. Even though Land Rover established itself deliberately and completely as a luxury brand, lovers of Defenders past thought the 2021 version leaned into luxury too eagerly. They wanted that hardcore utility version, ready for sheep herding duty, pre-dented and in somber 1960s military green.

That’s not what Land Rover does in 2021. The automaker specializes in building machines steeped in comfort, built for safety and armed with the latest driving technology. Then, with all that style and luxury onboard, they can still muscle up for off-roading through dirt, sand, water and snow. The new Defender fits right into that vibe. It just might jump into the mud a little more eagerly.

2021 Land Rover Defender First Edition (1)

Critics be damned. Long live The Queen.