First Drive

Coolnvintage Land Rover Defender 90 First Drive Review | The luxurious side of rough-n-tumble

A new Defender is coming, but that hasn't stopped these guys

Cool N Vintage Land Rover Defender 90
Cool N Vintage Land Rover Defender 90 / Image Credit: Cool N Vintage
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LISBON, Portugal – Based on the spy shots and forum chatter alone, the uproar about the upcoming Land Rover Defender's apparently modern styling is having the side effect of building nostalgia for the late, great Defender which was offered in a kaleidoscope of body styles between 1983 and 2015. Riding high on that old-school Land Rover lore, boutique shops have been transforming original examples into steeds so plush and mean they barely resemble their crude ancestors. There's everything from punchy Chevy LS V8-powered boulevardiers to more ruggedly sympathetic treatments out there, with something for all flavors of enthusiasts.

Among the most orthodox of restoration shops is Coolnvintage, based in Lisbon, Portugal – a place where, like most of the world, Land Rovers are considered basic, functional utilitarian vehicles. The outfit is the brainchild of Ricardo Pessoa, a die-hard Rover aficionado who learned how to drive in a 109-inch Land Rover wagon on his family's farm in Mozambique at the age of seven. Those dusty, formative days in Africa forged a certain function-focused ethos. He respects the Defender's functional underpinnings while adding elements of luxury.

In practice, that means there are bold paint choices and an interior slathered with buttery, quilted leather – but noise-killing sound insulation is not offered, so the body can be easily hosed out after off-roading. And while engine power is often enhanced, the suspension is tuned primarily for rugged versatility rather than cushy highway cruising. Pessoa says he was disappointed when some of his early builds ended up as garage queens.

These Lisbon-built trucks typically spring from hard-driven workhorses that have seen better days. But Cool N Vintage won't tackle a partial project; only complete, frame-off restorations are undergone by the company's team of craftsmen, ensuring that beneath those pretty surfaces is complete structural integrity.

Despite their underlying sense of utility, Coolnvintage's clean, colorful builds are like eye candy on their Instagram feed []. I've soaked up the brand's unique visual language for years on social media but finally had a proper excuse to reach out to Pessoa when I had a couple of days off coming up in Portugal. He generously invited me to borrow one of his trucks and ramble through the trails and highways that snake through Portugal's Algarve region, to sample a diverse landscape that matches the range of the Defender's abilities.

I set out to experience Portugal's southern coast in a freshly restored 2014 Defender 90, powered by a TD4 common rail 2.2-liter diesel engine. Thanks to a modified CPU, its stock 122 horsepower output has been boosted to around 170 hp. The torquey mill mates to a 6-speed manual gearbox. Handling is aided by upgraded Fox suspension with revised springs, heavy-duty wheels, and higher-spec brake calipers performing stopping duties.

As the owner of a 1963 Land Rover Series IIA myself, I'm familiar with the Rover platform's mechanical rawness and aesthetic crudeness: My truck produces a riotous clatter as it rolls down the road, demanding heavy inputs thanks to its unassisted steering and four-wheel drum brakes. The interior is simple, filled with hard plastic, metal, and vinyl. By contrast, the Coolnvintage Defender 90 is a big evolutionary step beyond my Series IIA, quieter and much more luxurious – with well-finished interior details and supple leather seats comfortable enough for all-day driving. That said, comparing it to modern standards instead of a vintage Land Rover, the CNV Defender is still a hot mess of noise, vibration and harshness.

It takes a while to acclimate to the curious combination of the luxurious cabin and the minimalist mechanicals, but when I finally do I finally get in the zone. With the Defender's ample diesel torque, virtually zero throttle is required to get moving from a standstill. The short gear ratios culminate in a top gear cruise at highway speeds that's noisy on extended stretches – the wind flaps the soft top against the frame rails, reminding you that this is a truck built more for adventure than insulated, high-speed cruising. And at least with this drivetrain setup, it's easier to short-shift and stay in the meaty part of the powerband rather than winding the engine out in each gear.

After taking a ferry crossing from mainland Setúbal to the Tróia Peninsula, I reach the wilder side of Portugal and hit the coastal trails. Here, the Defender steps into its element. At first I'm hesitant to crawl past scratchy brush in this exquisitely finished truck and risk adding desert pinstripes to the immaculate paint. But once its exterior surfaces get covered in dust and dirt, all bets are off: I'm tackling the rough stuff with just as much gusto as I would in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that's worth a fraction of this Defender's $145,000 cost. For nearly two full days of driving I alternate between trail and tarmac, but thanks to the Defender's unflappable four-wheel drive system and grippy BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, I never need to engage low range. The Rover claws its way through everything without complaint.

At the end of my exploration, the ferry ride back to the mainland seals my adventure and I return to the land of superslab toll highways and homogenous hatchback traffic. My two-day adventure was a blur of alien landscapes and sparsely traveled trails, but it was exactly the sort of diversion that was enhanced in a truck as uniquely comfortable and capable as Cool N Vintage's Defender 90.

The upcoming Defender may well surprise the doubters – all will be revealed when Land Rover pulls the wraps of its camouflaged teasers. But until then, independent outlets like Coolnvintage are doing a bang up job of filling in the gap with their own take on the British legend. If you have the patience to wait a year for one of their bespoke commissions and don't mind paying the premium, these indie trucks offer an alluring sweet spot of raw functionality and unmistakable style.

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