Crossing the Serengeti in a 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 SE

land rover logoOkay, so I didn’t really cross the Serengeti, though it’s Africa where the fabled Land Rover gained its reputation as being unstoppable, even through the toughest terrain on Earth. Heck, I didn’t even go over a curb or hit a mud puddle in my suburban and mountain road test of the 2021 Land Rover Defender 110 SE, but it was still a very interesting drive and a unique, albeit somewhat uncomfortable interior design.

Range Rover, if you’re curious, is essentially the luxury brand of Land Rover, a company that introduced its first 4×4 back in 1948. In the beginning, Land Rovers were entirely functional with an engineering focus on getting you safely through even the most difficult and forbidding terrain. While they still have pretty impressive offroad features, however, the SUV market has clearly moved towards urban and suburban drivers who like the dimensions and safety but demand all the bling of a luxury vehicle too.

I appreciate comfort, a good sound system, and safety tech, particularly when coupled with a highly capable drive experience, but though it sports a price tag just a smidge below $70,000, the Defender 110 SE surprisingly wasn’t as luxurious as I expected. But let’s start with some photos of the 2021 Land Rover Defender in Fuji White with Acorn/Lunar interior:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - exterior front

The outside certainly looks rugged and attractive with its vertex windows along the back and squared-off front grill design. Turns out the Defender has great ground clearance, as you would expect, and can even show you its dimensions before you try to squeeze through a small space:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - dimensions display screen

That 0.16 meters of ground clearance is the equivalent of 6.3 inches, if you don’t speak metric. Watch from the outside when the Defender is started and you’ll see it lift up an inch or two further, something that is unnoticeable within the vehicle. The 110 designation indicates it’s a four door (the “90” is their new two-door style) and the “SE” is the top trim level for the Land Rover line.

This vehicle was powered by a 3.0L 6-cylinder gas engine with 395 horsepower and an 8-speed automatic. It features all-wheel drive with a twin-speed transfer box and what the company calls Terrain Response, allowing you to match its driving configuration with the actual terrain. It’s also a surprisingly peppy drive, particularly once you’re rolling. I had zero problems merging into fast-moving highway traffic with the Defender.

The dashboard is interesting, with some elements reminding me of Jeep interior design, particularly the passenger-side shelf:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - dashboard

One thing I will say for the Land Rover designers; there are a lot of power outlets in this vehicle. From the 12V plug along the shelf to the 12V, USB-A, and USB-C plus just under the climate control, to yet more in various semi-hidden spots in the center console, you’d be hard-pressed to run out of ways to plug in your devices, even while bumping along the Sahara.

The design elements are, however, very boxy, which is a throwback to the original Land Rover design aesthetic, but for a modern driver, it’s an acquired appearance. I was particularly intrigued by the 10-inch navigational system design because it does something that I’ve heard isn’t possible; has on-screen buttons appearing simultaneous to the main display showing (wireless) CarPlay. This was great in practice, meaning that the buttons along the left and right edges stay on-screen regardless of mode.

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - dash close up

What most impressed me from an interface design perspective was the climate control system. Not the flat panel of buttons, some of which required me reading the user’s guide to figure out, but those great knobs. Turn them to adjust the temperature and the button’s screen shows the new setting. Push them and you’re adjusting the seat heater or cooler. Incredibly intuitive, one of the best climate controls I’ve encountered in any vehicle.

The main gauge display was terrific too, flat, crisp, and eminently readable, particularly at night:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - main gauge display

It’s clear that the Land Rover design team just discarded any legacy constraints and asked the question what’s the best solution for this specific area of the vehicle? The result was some really interesting components, like this main gauge display. Note that the average fuel efficiency for my trek was 21.3mpg, which isn’t bad for an off-road beast, but for a suburban SUV? Not so great.

The Defender SE also features a pretty aggressive lane correction system that can be a problem if you want to drift from one lane to another and omit your turn signal. I like the haptic feedback of the steering wheel vibration and maybe a relatively soft beep or warning, but I don’t want to wrestle with the vehicle. My guess: A lot of Defender owners disable this particular safety feature.

The back seat passengers also get a great climate control and power port system, if you’re curious:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - rear climate controls

Again, a terrific design that will allow even the youngest members of the family to figure out how to make things warmer or cooler, as desired. They’ll also enjoy decent legroom, even with a tall driver who’s pushed the seat all the way back:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - legroom rear passenger

Speaking of the back, the very back of the 2021 Land Rover Defender is a throwback to classic SUV design, even to the side-hinged tailgate:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - rear tailgate spare tire

I looked closely but didn’t see any sort of locking mechanism for the spare wheel, which does make me wonder what Land Rover has done to ensure it won’t get stolen late one night while in a poorly lit parking lot. From the last two photos, though, you can see that the trade-off of rear passenger space versus cargo space has atypically favored the passengers. A surprising choice given the off-road trek reputation and heritage of the Defender.

Speaking of which, I was startled the first time I got out of the car when it was dark. Far from leaning into its heritage as a no-frills offroad beast, it offers a veritable billboard projected from the side view mirror:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - nighttime logo projection

It’s startlingly bright and if you aren’t ready for it, will definitely give you pause. I imagine there’s a way to disable this feature in the vehicle settings, but did not find it myself.

Let’s step away and look at the rear exterior:

2021 land rover defender 110 SE - exterior rear

With all of its good looks and impressive heritage, I still found some strange features. For example, there are two modes of cruise control: ASL and regular. ASL is a speed limiting cruise control that won’t let you drive faster than the actual speed limit. Useful if you have a lead foot, but I found it dangerous when I’d get up to the common speed, enable cruise control, push to set it, and have the Defender slow down rather than stick with the speed I indicated. Neither is an adaptive cruise control either, so the vehicle can’t react to traffic conditions and ensure your speed matches that of those around you, regardless of speed limit or what you’ve set with cruise control.

The on-dash gear shift was finicky too and I often found that while I thought I had shifted into drive, I was still in reverse or neutral. This is something you would undoubtedly master as you had more time behind the wheel, but it was surprising nonetheless. There was also a rattle of some sort in the back cargo compartment, even though it was empty at the time. A toolkit under the mat? Maybe. But a premium SUV should be quiet while on the road, not rattling from the rear compartment.

Overall, though, I liked the driving experience with the Defender. If you’re looking for a vehicle that prioritizes tough driving capabilities over amenities, this might well be one to check out. If you want a vehicle that will still get you there after a terrible storm, earthquake, or other cataclysms, the Defender could prove ideal. If only the sticker price was just a bit lower than its premium pricing…

2021 Land Rover Defender 110 SE in Fuji White with Acorn/Lunar interior. Base price: $62,700. Add ons: Sliding panoramic roof, three-zone climate control, 14-way heated and cooled seats, off-road tires, premium interior protection and storage pack, etc. AS DRIVEN: $69,195.00.

Disclosure: Land Rover loaned me the Defender for a week in return for this candid writeup. Thanks, Land Rover!

dave taylor vertigo film swirl backgroundPlanet Dave is run by Dave Taylor, who has been writing about film, cars, games, and his lifestyle for many years. He's based in Boulder, Colorado and assures readers he's only occasionally falling into a gravity well or temporal distortion field.

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