Drives with none of your usual SWB-4x4 messiness, insanely good off-road, brilliant design
Pretty thirsty, three-door is a pain in the real world
What is it?
It’s the short-wheelbase version of the Land Rover Defender, which also comes in normal and extra-large flavours in the form of the Defender 110 and Defender 130. The bigger the number, the more space inside.
The Defender had to overcome a deafening roar of opinion (both negative and positive) when it was launched in 2020. And that was before anyone had even driven it. Upvotes from people who loved the design and the progressive engineering; trolling from those who said it was too posh to push and that it fatally busted the rough 'n' ready brief of the original.
But after a few years on the road, the 110 proved its mettle, provided you don't mind its size, and can afford it. The 90 spreads the appeal even further, as it can be had more cheaply and in a lower spec, without the bulk.
How much smaller is it?
It's 435mm shorter in the wheelbase, and overall length falls by the same amount. Less metal to haul along means it's 100kg lighter, fractionally quicker accelerating, and cheaper. How much cheaper isn't clear cut, but it looks like about £5,000 like-for-like.
At present you get the choice of five - count ‘em, five - powertrains; two diesels and three petrols, all of which are mild hybrids. Even the mighty V8-engined P525, which packs 518bhp and costs upwards of £109k.
Blimey! That’s expensive…
You’ll likely be more interested in the sensible end of the spectrum, occupied by the 3.0-litre six-cyl D250 and D300 - capable of 246bhp and 296bhp apiece - and the 2.0-litre four-cyl P300 (296bhp) and 3.0-litre six-cyl P400 (395bhp). 0-60mph times range from 5.7 to 7.6 seconds, although the P525’s sub-5.0s is something of an outlier.
Company-car buyers will note the tax-saving plug-in hybrid, available with the 110, isn't compatible with the shorter body. Official fuel economy ranges from 33.8mpg to 19.9mpg. Again, no prizes for guessing which version’s responsible for the latter…
What about the inside?
The 90 has two rows of seats, but speccing the front central jump seat makes it a 5+1 seater and turns you into the most popular parent in the world. Apart from space in the back, the cabin design is the same as the 110. Which is fine. It's smart but tough.
The exterior design is, we think, masterful too. The boxiness is just right for a hardcore SUV. It ekes out the maximum carrying space, and also helps when you're driving between obstacles because you know where the bodywork begins and ends. The short overhangs help off-road. But it's subtly curved, not flat sided. Flat panels look makeshift and go wavy.
Though it's completely modern, the design does manage to evoke the old Defender. A vehicle that was very widely adored, for the exact same reasons it was almost impossible to justify buying. It was basically a tool. Its ability to survive harsh and brutal conditions meant it was, frankly, itself far too harsh and brutal to be taken seriously as an everyday vehicle for most people.
What’s the competition like?
Does any car join up off-road ability with on-road appeal quite as well as the Defender? The Ineos Grenadier is the new kid on the block, but you’re unlikely to see many of those in Kensington. Back in 2022 we pitched the Defender (albeit not a 90) up against the Mercedes G-Class, Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler in an epic trek through the Welsh wilderness… and it came out on top.
This one’s a proper utility vehicle, then?
Well, all versions will happily tow 3,500kg. The whole bodyshell is immensely strong. So's the suspension it rides on. It shares principles with the Discovery, but few parts. Almost everything is stronger. Click these blue words to drink in the details of its capability and tech.
That's the off-road part. On the road, short versions of hardcore 4x4s tend to pitch and wobble far more precariously than their longer counterparts. The long Defender 110 is a superb vehicle on the road. Can the short 90 match it?
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
Very few buyers will make full use of all the Defender's capabilities. Still, if you can put up with the impracticalities of a three-door it's a family car with a deep and wide backstory. It just makes you feel adventurous. And when you do use its ability – as an off-roader, a snowy-roader, a towing roader – it's immensely reassuring.
And the amazing thing is how well it drives. It's stately and dignified and feels like it belongs on the road. That in itself is quite an achievement.
Compared with the 110, the 90 is less cumbersome in towns, a bit more agile off-road, and a bit more characterful-looking. But it won't swallow as many people or as much stuff, obviously.
We usually recommend 4WD estate cars over expensive crossovers, because there's not much a crossover can do that an estate can't. But the Defender isn't a crossover and skittles that argument. If you can make use of it, there's nothing to match it.