If you want the truest Defender experience, you need the two-door model.

Verdict

9.2 / 10

There are very few good reasons to buy the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 over its four-door counterpart, the Defender 110. It's cheaper and the wheelbase is shorter, but beyond those advantages, the four-door Defender is the better option for the overwhelming majority of people. After all, the versatility of extra doors is what doomed the three-door Range Rover Evoque to a short life.

But unlike that soft-roader, there's one very good reason to buy the Defender 90 over the 110: its stone-cold cool factor.

Buying a car simply because it's rad AF is the driving force behind car enthusiasm. As little kids, we point and stare at the odd and unusual cars we see while peering out from the backseat. This is one of those vehicles – a veritable box-on-wheels with an incredibly small wheelbase, big doors, and overwhelming style matched up with extreme off-road capability. The Defender 90 is the coolest Land Rover you can buy.

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2021 Land Rover Defender

Looking The Part

Saying the Defender 90 is just a two-door version of the four-door Defender 110 might be a simplification, but it's not an oversimplification. At each end, this is the same SUV, both in terms of design and its overall size – the overhangs, approach/departure angles, and styling elements are identical.

Instead, all the action happens between the front and rear tires. A pair of doors have gone missing, and Land Rover shrunk the wheelbase from 119.0 inches to just 101.9. The physical effects of this are obvious, and in some cases, kind of annoying. The lone doors are overlong and the second-row bench loses 2.5 inches of legroom. You also can't get the D90 in the five-plus-two configuration of the 110, and you lose quite a bit of luggage capacity, seats up or folded. And I say good riddance to all that.

The Defender 90 gives up practicality in the name of style, and that's always a worthwhile trade. The shorter wheelbase does wonders for the squared-off design, presenting a vehicle with a more upright appearance while also creating a more aggressive stance. Moving the axles closer together also highlights the incredibly short front and rear overhangs. Honestly, the only thing I don't love about the D90's look is that the doors are long and quite heavy relative to the 110.

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Much as the front and rear of the two Defenders are identical, there's little to separate them in the cabin. You'll look out on the same chiseled dash, with a structural beam spanning the vehicle. The D90 is available as either a five-seater with a fixed center console or as a six-seater with a central jump seat – the First Edition I drove only comes in the latter configuration.

While I'll admit I initially liked the idea of the central jump seat, some time behind the wheel of both five- and six-seat Defenders has made me change my mind. Fold the center front seat flat and it does a poor impression of a center console. The “arm rest” is narrow and has to live next to a hard, rubberized insert that houses two cup holders. A front-row bench is attractive as hell, but I'm not sure I could tolerate constantly brushing my elbow against the hard edge of the cup holder surround.

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Sacrificing Size, But Not Drivability

My primary concern before driving the Defender 90 wasn't that it gave up too much space, but that slashing nearly a foot and a half from the wheelbase would ruin the SUV's surprisingly civilized ride. Combine that with the fact that the 90 only offers an air suspension on its top two trims, and my worries were not unfounded. While Land Rover didn't have a coil-sprung D90 available for testing, the First Edition's standard air springs managed both the shorter wheelbase Detroit's horrid roads in a composed manner.

Yes, there is a drop in ride quality, but it's a small one, with the suspension managing the shorter pause between front/rear impacts well. The Defender attacked rough terrain willingly, with the air springs isolating the cabin well, while the smaller wheelbase gave this off-roader a nippier and more responsive character while cornering.

That said, you can't defeat physics, and slashing a vehicle's length by shortening the wheelbase and retaining the same height gave the 90 a slightly tipsy feel in the bends – there seemed to be more roll that came in less predictably than the Defender 110 I drove earlier this year. I wouldn't say it's better or worse than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but the D90's top-heaviness is something its owners should keep in mind.

Gallery: 2021 Land Rover Defender 90

Unlike most versions of the aforementioned Jeep, the Defender 90 First Edition is something of a rocket ship. Available exclusively with the so-called P400 engine – a mild-hybrid, turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six shared with several other vehicles in the Jaguar Land Rover lineup – there's 395 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque on tap. Matched with a slick-shifting eight-speed automatic, the Defender 90 P400's 4,830-pound weight is little issue.

Low-end torque is strong, and the short-wheelbase off-roader can snap off passes on a whim. The sprint to 60 takes just 5.7 seconds, so you won't be beating Wrangler 392s off the line – that's the Defender V8's job. Still, as a means of getting his heavy SUV rolling, the P400 is more than up to the job.

Unfortunately, we can't say much about the base powertrain, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Land Rover PR reps told me it accounts for just 25 percent of sales and because of that, likely won't ever end up on the media test circuit. Also unfortunate? I wasn't able to sample the Defender 90 off-road during the short test around metro Detroit. I bet it'll be good and suggest you stay tuned for a more thorough review in the future.

2021 Land Rover Defender

A Compelling Price Argument

While I'd buy the Defender 90 because it looks way cooler than the 110, its lower price tag is a bonus. This two-door model undercuts the four by $4,400 for the base trim, $7,700 for the X-Dynamic, and $2,500 for the range-topping Defender X. The First Edition I was driving is something of a sweet spot, though. Its $64,100 starting price is high, but unlike the rest of the range, there are very few options that can drive the price up substantially. I could see less than $2,000 in must-have extras, like the $1,100 active differential and the $350 off-road tires. This is a pricey trim, but it's still a solid value.

When Land Rover was briefing the media ahead of the drive, a spokesman explained that the Defender 90 was “more about the ‘me' than the ‘we.'” With two-door models largely falling out of fashion – aside from a few enthusiast-oriented pockets – across the industry, that's worth remembering. The Defender 90 is a more indulgent product, but it's also more interesting and arguably more attractive. Land Rover's last two-door model, the original Range Rover Evoque, didn't last long. But I have a feeling the Defender won't have the same problem.

Defender 90 Competitor Reviews:

Gallery: 2021 Land Rover Defender 90: First Drive

2021 Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition

Engine Turbocharged 3.0-liter I6 w/Integrated Starter-Generator
Output 395 Horsepower / 406 Pound-Feet
Transmission Eight-Speed Automatic
Drive Type Four-Wheel Drive
Speed 0-60 MPH 5.7 Seconds
Maximum speed 130 MPH
Efficiency 17 City / 22 Highway / 19 Combined
Weight 4,830 Pounds
Seating Capacity 6
Cargo Volume 15.6 / 58.3 Cubic Feet
Towing 8,201 Pounds
Base Price $64,100
As-Tested Price $67,250 (est)
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