Confident, quirky, comfortable and capable, the Defender 90 has finally arrived and doesn’t disappoint. A small cartoon graphic of a Land Rover Defender floats into view in the instrument panel as you sit at the wheel before hitting the thumb-sized ignition—the Defender pictured isn’t the larger and, by now, more familiar four door 110, rather it’s the very vehicle you’re sitting in: a short-wheelbase SUV whose lines and proportions are decidedly appealing. Production delays at its Slovakian assembly facility mean the vehicle arrives almost a year later than intended, but the smaller Defender 90 (rather than the four-door 110 model) is the ideal version of the icon.
The vehicle isn’t without flaws. It’s inconveniently hampered with only three doors (one at either side, and one at the back), so if you want to clamber into the second row—which has excellent head- and leg-room—you have to slide the front seats forward and unless you are a child or of smaller stature maneuver rather inelegantly to your otherwise comfortable seat.
The rear cargo area also suffers from an obtrusive stability bar, so if you flip down the second row, longer loads have to be awkwardly inserted and rested on top of it. It’s possible, but cumbersome. We got two bikes in there, and managed eight-foot-long two-by-fours by folding down the front passenger seat.
Defender 90 wasn’t built for convenience, it was built with 100% devotion to an ideal. In fact, there’s no good reason for a Defender to exist at all (since we rarely need to get from here to there on the roughest possible path; we’ve built highways around mountains so that we don’t have to go over them) but it’s a fantastic vehicle for going off-piste—or for driving around town—and having a great time doing it. It’s a very proper tool for off-roading because its shorter wheelbase helps move around switchbacks in order to adjust at very acute angles—for instance, to lift a rear wheel over a boulder while not scraping the hood on the Lodgepole pine that’s millimeters away from the front bumper. A great tool impresses the more you use it, no matter its intention.
If you live in a city, driving a hulking, long wheelbase SUV is annoying; they’re hard to park and difficult to maneuver. Like the early-2000s reborn Mini Cooper Hardtop, the Defender 90 is a two-door “hatch” that happens to be a lot more useful. It may be difficult to believe, but the Defender 90 is barely an inch longer than the macro Mini Cooper Countryman. The turning circle of the Defender 90 is slightly tighter than the Countryman’s, meaning, as a city vehicle, the Defender 90 is highly nimble and the identical characteristics that make it ideal for seeing its corners (nearly vertical edges) while negotiating off-road, allow you to parallel park and avoid pedestrians with their eyes focused on their phones in crosswalks with ease.
The side view of the Defender 90 proves neatly, perfectly weighted and balanced. From back to front, one chunk sits aft of the door split, another anchors the center of the cabin, and the forward portion encompasses the bulldog-snout of the engine. The sheer simplicity of the design is its genius. The atmosphere created by perfect proportions, whether you reside inside or outside the Defender 90, rests easily in your mind. Humans innately understand and feel balance or imbalance—and that’s why the Defender 90 is so pleasing, and so pleasing to look at.
The accordion cloth roof is glorious, solving an aesthetic as well as practical problem of “panoramic” glass roofs that put a massive amount of weight in exactly the wrong place, and most don’t open very far. But a cloth-top that can fold as it slides can retract entirely and, even when open, looks neat—rather than like a misplaced surfboard about to fall off the roof.
The floating center screen on the dash—with oversized temperature controls, actual volume control for the radio (three’s also a redundant roller dial on the steering wheel)—offers an elegant aesthetic and boasts a useful shelf that spans its width. That’s handy for sunglasses or a phone to rest behind, and it also features a charging port, as well as two below.
Land Rover’s materials usage is without peer. One seat option features a textile weave that’s long-mile comfy; our loaner vehicle came during a brutal heatwave, yet the seats didn’t get too hot—even when parked in the sun. Likewise, the heavy-duty rubber mats and rubberized, gridded hard plastic protecting the stowage space deter scrapes and scuffs.
The Defender 90’s gorgeous exterior is the reason for the Mini comparison. There’s a cuteness blended with its rugged nature, from the pooch-lidded headlight lenses to the boxed LED tail-lamps. The more you study it, the more appealing the Defender 90 becomes. If you like things just so, the Defender 90 ticks almost every box.
Hero image courtesy of Land Rover