Rise Above it All With the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90, A Compact Beast of a Luxury SUV

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv
Photo: Jaclyn Trop

Sometimes, you wish you could just rise above it all…

…Especially when you’ve been sitting in Miami traffic for the better part of an exquisite summer day. But if your helicopter is out of commission, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is the next-best conveyance to elevate you above the masses. 

You may have heard of the Land Rover Defender, the mountain goat of an SUV popular from South Africa to South Australia. With a ride height to rival a truck or tractor, the Defender reigned supreme over jagged landscapes worldwide. However, the boxy off-roader was discontinued in the U.S. in 1997 and worldwide in 2016 due to safety regulations.

Back then, the four-door Defender 110 measured 110 inches from wheel to wheel. Its smaller companion, the two-door Defender 90, featured a corresponding 90-inch wheelbase. Those 20 inches may sound negligible, but as you will soon see, they are not.  

Now, as the world begins to emerge from a pandemic-related hibernation, Land Rover is returning its rugged 4×4 to the market, starting south of $50,000.

Related: The Land Rover Defender Is Back and All That It’s Said to Be

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

Who knew a luxury SUV only needed two doors? Photo: Jaclyn Trop

What’s Old Is New Again

Although the names remain the same, the dimensions are not. The wheelbase on the new Defender 110 now measures 118.9 inches, while the new Defender 90 stretches 101.9 inches from front to rear axle.

“Twenty-five years ago, everything was smaller,” says spokesperson Taylor Hoel. “Cars, people. We wanted to keep the Defender’s heritage, but make the dimensions more comfortable.” 

The Defender has served a crucial role for the brand, but even bystanders unfamiliar with its legacy did double-takes as I cruised around Miami Beach and the ever-burgeoning Brickell neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon. 

The whimsical three-door Defender 90 (so-called for its rear that swings open like a door rather than raises like a traditional SUV tailgate) is cheeky, with sharp angles, short overhangs, and an exaggerated, squared-off posterior. Most strikingly, it bears a rear-mounted spare tire and a $2,200 option for a folding fabric roof — both features a throwback to the Defender’s overland heritage. Though the Defender 90’s compact dimensions render it a cute ute for city driving (and parking), it still looks like an icon, albeit one for the modern age. 

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

They call the Land Rover Defender 90 a “three-door” vehicle because of its rear swing door. Photo: Jaclyn Trop

Land Rover Family Resemblance

That means it also acts like a Land Rover, happiest when it’s as far from pavement as possible. Unfortunately, Miami rush hour traffic is nothing but pavement. But the Defender does boast several systems for mastering off-road terrain, whether grass, gravel, or snow. When the terrain gets tough, its useful ClearSight Ground View camera system lets you see what’s beneath you so that you can proceed with confidence (or caution).

I can attest to the Defender’s “Wade” mode, a hallmark of the Land Rover brand, which I experienced firsthand three years ago in the then-new Range Rover hybrid, as part of an obstacle course-laden romp around Blenheim Palace. Wade mode lifts the SUV’s suspension, adjusts its throttle, and locks the differentials to drive in up to nearly three feet of water. If there had been a way to bypass the Miami gridlock and wade through the intracoastal waterway instead, I would have tried. 

Related: 2020 Land Rover Discovery Sport SE : Top 10 Swoon-Worthy Details

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

The sleek interior lets you know this is indeed a luxury car. Photo: Jaclyn Trop

What I Drove

The Land Rover Defender 90 comes in five trims – 90, 90S, 90 X-Dynamic S, 90 First Edition, and 90 X – and 10 colors. I drove a fully loaded First Edition model in a lovely Pangea Green with an MSRP of $66,475.

All models feature four-wheel drive – the better to showcase its split city/ country persona – and an eight-speed automatic transmission. The First Edition I drove delivered 395 horsepower via a 3.0-liter, turbocharged six-cylinder engine. Lower trims use a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine to make 296 horsepower. This, of course, means the SUV’s fuel economy is nothing to brag about. The 90 X model I drove returned 19 mpg combined city/ highway. 

My test car also boasted:

  • a front jump seat
  • 20-inch wheels
  • Premium LED headlights 
  • Rain sensing front and rear wipers
  • Power adjustable leather steering wheel
  • Folding fabric roof
  • Black roof rails
  • Sirius XM
  • 10-inch Pivi Pro infotainment system
  • Navigation

The different trims break down as follows:

  • 90: starts at $46,100; features AWD, coil suspension, terrain response, hill launch and descent assist, electronic power steering, low traction launch, dynamic stability control, roll stability control, brake hold
  • 90S: starts at $49,400
  • 90 X-Dynamic S: starts at $57,800
  • 90 First Edition: starts at $64,100; add electronic air suspension, adaptive dynamics, and configurable terrain response, Meridian sound system
  • 90 X: starts at $80,500; add electronic active differential, terrain response 2, and all terrain progress control

Related: Future Cars: 13 Trends That Will Change Your Life Now

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

The Land Rover Defender 90 has the ability to seat seven. Photo: Jaclyn Trop

Inside the Defender 90

Though the Defender was made to get dirty, its entrails are the epitome of sophistication. Its sleek, wide dashboard is anchored by a 10-inch touch screen that runs Land Rover’s new Pivi Pro infotainment system with crisp graphics.

The Defender 90 comes with five seats, but for an additional $900, you can add a middle jump seat to the front row, raising seating capacity to six. (The Defender 110 can seat up to seven people.)

All models come with the standard fare expected of a luxury vehicle: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, HD Radio, and a six-speaker stereo system, as well as navigation and wireless device charging. The system is not compatible with the iPhone 12, but Land Rover says it plans to correct the issue with a retailer update later this year. 

Of course, the SUV is also loaded with standard safety equipment, including:

  • forward collision warning
  • automatic emergency braking
  • pedestrian detection
  • blind spot monitoring
  • lane departure warning
  • lane keep assist
  • a surround-view parking camera system
  • front and rear parking sensors
  • driver drowsiness monitoring
  • traffic sign recognition

Singles, Small Families, and Empty Nesters

Land Rover expects less than 20% of its Defender sales to come from the smaller version. It’s a car for singles, small families, and empty nesters, Jaguar Land Rover CEO Joe Eberhardt tells me. 

For a two-door SUV, the Defender 90 is surprisingly spacious, with an airy cabin and 39 inches of rear legroom. But the cargo hold is tiny, measuring just 15.6 cubic feet behind the second row, compared with the Defender 110’s 34.6 cubic feet. That may fit a few grocery bags or weekender duffels, but likely not a stroller. However, folding down the rear row gives you 58.3 cubic feet, enough to fit 15 bags of mulch from Home Depot.

Overall, the 90 is much less practical than the Defender 110 – more of an off-road sports car than a traditional SUV, Eberhardt says. “The 90 is for customers looking to stand out without driving something that everyone else has. That could mean couples or individuals, or maybe small families with just one child who want to trade design over pure functionality.”

Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

Simple controls and a handsome digital dash make for a great driving experience. Photo: Jaclyn Trop

What’s the Land Rover Defender 90’s Towing Capacity?

The 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 can tow up to 7,716 for all models but the First Edition, which can tow 8,201 pounds. With the 7,716 number, you’ll be able to tow just about everything, including a 28-foot toy hauler, a 28-foot gooseneck livestock hauler, and a 26-foot fifth wheel. Move up to 8,201 pounds, and you can tow a 31-foot fifth wheel.

You’ll also want to add of the following package:

  • Towing Pack: All-terrain control, configurable terrain response, advanced tow assist, and tow hitch receiver; add $1,850
Jaguar Land Rover Defender 90 Luxury Suv

The Land Rover Defender 90 has a flexible rear storage space that can fit groceries and luggage with ease. Photo: Jaclyn Trop

What We Loved

  • Elevated ride height
  • Whimsical exterior
  • Sleek dashboard
  • Spacious cabin
  • Rear legroom
  • Folding fabric roof