The Defender 90 is perfectly at home in nature, or in this case, a gravel pit turned into an off-road park.
The Land Rover Defender is a badass SUV, able to take your whole family and a pile of gear nearly anywhere. If this upscale SUV can’t get you there, there probably isn’t accessible by dry land or fordable waterways. Now, a shorter, even more capable version of this iconic British mountain goat is available, the truncated Defender 90, which takes all of the longer 110’s go-anywhere capability, amplifies its already rugged good looks and wraps it all up in a more manageable package.
LikeUnyielding structural stiffnessRetro yet modern stylingSupple ride qualityOff-road prowess
Don’t LikeOddly shaped cargo spaceUseless lane-keep assistErgonomic oddities
Overall, the Defender 90’s body is about 17 inches shorter than the 110’s and its wheelbase is abbreviated by nearly the same amount. These changes help give the vehicle a sportier, even more capable appearance. I adore the 110’s styling but find the 90 even more seductive since it’s a little trimmer, more in keeping with the original Defender that Land Rover kept in production for about 1,200 years. This SUV’s maximum approach and departure angles (38 degrees and 40 degrees, respectively) are identical to the 110’s, but since it’s so much shorter, the breakover measurement is more favorable, topping out at 31 degrees compared to just 28. Ground clearance measures 11.5 inches for both variants and the maximum grade either Defender can ascend, descend or traverse is 45 degrees, a sphincter-puckering figure.
The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is like a concept car you can buy
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Defender 90s come standard with all-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case. Fancified models, such as the penultimate First Edition version I’m testing here, also feature an adjustable air suspension, adaptive dampers and Configurable Terrain Response, which allows you to tailor the vehicle’s behavior to various surfaces, like mud, sand, rocks and more. (The available Terrain Response 2 system is even more advanced.) Off road, the 90 is an incredibly capable machine. The generous ground clearance means it can negotiate nasty surfaces without scraping its belly, plus the adjustable air suspenders provide a supple, well-controlled ride whether you’re bombing over ruts or trolling your local strip mall.
All this off-road hardware makes the Defender 90 one of the most capable SUVs you can buy today. In the dirt, it’s as confidence inspiring as anything else, short of a sport side-by-side or a main battle tank. When you’re really pushing it and get a wheel or two in the air, the Defender feels as unyielding as a granite countertop, like it was carved from a tungsten billet, with no creaks or groans, looseness or shakes.
That immense strength is just as important when driving on pavement, giving the Defender 90 a rock-solid feel and helping it ride shockingly well. Despite the relatively curt 101.9-inch wheelbase, which is actually 1.2 inches shorter than a Nissan Versa sedan’s hub-to-hub measurement, the ride is silky smooth, without any of the choppiness you might expect from something so stubby. Honestly, I expected this Land Rover to bob around like a ship in stormy seas, but that’s not the case.
The Defender 90 is about 17 inches shorter than the Defender 110, a massive difference.
Helping you spot what might be hidden in this SUV’s somewhat large blind spots, a 360-degree camera system is standard, but so is a related feature called ClearSight Ground View. While off-roading, it helps you see terrain around the vehicle, so you don’t scrape or get high-centered.
Giving the Defender 90 ample scoot is a 3.0-liter turbocharged and electrically supercharged I6, an engine that’s also augmented by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system. Sparing you the boring technical details, it whips up 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, enough to get this Land Rover to 60 mph in around 5.7 seconds. This engine is potent, liquid smooth and quiet. What more could you ask for? With an agreeable eight-speed automatic transmission, this Defender 90 stickers at 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. Combined, it should average 19 mpg, though I’m only getting about 17.1 mpg in real-world testing, which includes some off-roading and lots of pavement pounding. For greater economy, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, but if speed’s your thing, a V8 will also be offered for 2022.
Behind the wheel, Land Rover’s reborn Defender looks and feels a lot like a Jeep Wrangler, with its upright windshield, unusually vertical A-pillars and relatively short dashboard. But this vehicle is way better to drive on road than its equally iconic competitor. The Defender goes where you point it, delivers a luxury-car ride and is impervious to crosswinds that can make a Wrangler feel like it’s trying to change lanes without your consent. The steering is crisp and free of unnecessary slop, the body remains composed when pushed through corners and there’s not much squat or dive when slowing down or accelerating. Overall, the whole thing is remarkably composed. It will be interesting to see if the reborn Ford Bronco drives more like this Land Rover or the Wrangler. With an independent front suspension and a live rear axle, the Ford might end up splitting the difference.
This boosted straight-six is silky smooth and plenty potent.
The Defender’s exterior styling is modern but pays homage to this SUV’s history. Visually clean from every angle, this vehicle almost looks like a concept car, but those roof-mounted safari windows, textured appliques on the hood and neat little kick-out just below the beltline keep everything grounded by recalling older Defender models. The whole package is tastefully retro and oh so cool.
This theme of old-meets-new carries through to the interior. The Defender’s cabin is cleanly designed and made of some unique materials. None of the plastics or textures employed are ritzy, but they all harmonize nicely. I’m particularly fond of the exposed door structure, which adds a splash of body color to the cabin and visible Torx-head bolts provide a technical look. The retractable fabric roof insert is a nice touch as well, making you feel just a little closer to nature while out on the trail. Aside from other durable-feeling materials, my tester also features rubber floor mats for easy cleaning after a day of off-road domination.
Comfortable and quiet, this vehicle’s interior nonetheless has a few head-scratching ergonomic oddities, like the volume knob, which is inconveniently mounted on the passenger side of the center stack. The dashboard vents are a reach to adjust and don’t really blow air any lower than chest height, the climate controls are unintuitive until you’ve fiddled with them a few times and the door-lock switches are in an odd spot and hard to see. This cabin is probably 90% of the way there, it just needs 10% more refinement to be truly great.
The Defender’s interior looks great, but the ergonomics are not.
The Defender’s interior is versatile, with plenty of space to stash things in its dashboard-spanning cubby, plus it’s very comfortable, with supportive front seats and plenty of headroom and leg space in the second row. My tester also features a small jump seat between the front chairs, though it’s pretty awkward to sit in and eliminates a more versatile center console. However, this seating position could prove handy in a pinch, allowing up to six people to travel in the Defender 90.
Passenger comfort was clearly a priority here, because you only get 15.6 cubic feet of room behind the rear seat. This cargo space is also quite shallow and very tall. In comparison, the Defender 110 offers more than double that amount of room. Fold those backrests down and that initial figure grows to a decent 58.3 cubes (which is still 20.5 fewer than its larger sibling provides, but who’s counting?), though the floor looks more like a ski jump than a billiard table.
The Defender 90 is loaded with off-road tech, but it has plenty of other useful features, too. As is expected these days, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included at no extra charge. Rain-sensing windshield wipers, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are all standard across the range as well. You also get a swanky new infotainment system called Pivi Pro, which has a super-clean interface and is impressively responsive on the vehicle’s 10-inch touchscreen.
Where do you want to go? If it’s not the bottom of the ocean this Land Rover can probably get you there.
This First Edition model features a rear-view camera mirror, which provides a dramatically wider field of vision behind the vehicle; it’s also super crisp, easily one of the best I’ve experienced. My tester also has lane-keeping “assist,” which I’m writing in quotes because this feature is pretty much useless. It does a poor job keeping the Defender in the middle of its lane and will regularly veer to the right if the white line is interrupted, such as while driving in construction zones or when a turn lane opens up. Save your sanity and just turn this function off.
The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is available at dealerships right now. It starts at around $47,500 including $1,350 in delivery fees, not that much more than a two-door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. As it sits, the version shown here checks out for $66,475, which is a lot of money, but it doesn’t seem that crazy when you consider everything this vehicle offers and the places it can take you.