Defender 90 Dreams—The Joys of the D90, and the Case For Less

Land Rover Defender 90

Overlanding needs a diet, a boundary against bloating, fasting from fast, and a menu where minimal is maximal. When Aloha Wanderwell became the first woman to drive around the world, she used a Model T, which was 2WD, made 20hp, and had a top speed of 45mph. Somewhere along the way, everything got big, complicated, and heavy. The 1956 Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition drove from London to Singapore using two 86-inch wheelbase Land Rovers, with two passengers each.

In 2021 Land Rover reintroduced the Defender 90, a 101-inch wheelbase overlander that combines all of the technology of the 110 into a more nimble package. My first time behind the wheel of the D90 was on a sandy track in the UAE, a beautiful spring day in the Arabian desert that brought an epiphanythe case for less. All of my first overland vehicles were small, with the longest being a 103-inch wheelbase, and yet, I always seemed to have enough space (and further evidence of Parkinson’s Law). The Defender 90 is diminutive by modern standards and refreshingly minimal. From the driver’s seat, it had all of the comforts of any luxury 4WD, yet it was a joyous affair to pilot, traversing the test loop with aplomb and navigating obstacles effortlessly. I smiled from ear to ear as the vehicle bounded over mounds and drifted around corners.

Land Rover Defender 90

The D90 is a rarity, harkening back to the 1994 NAS model and the Series Land Rovers. Yet, it is supremely daily drivable, with up to 518 horsepower in the V8 model and a cadre of luxury appointments if desired. The vehicle can also be specified more simply with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a rear locking differential, and even 18-inch steel wheels. With the rear seats folded forward, there is enough room for a reasonable amount of gear. What it lacks in storage volume, it makes up for in other capacities, like the 176-pound dynamic roof load or the 8,200-pound tow rating (not a typo). The payload is an impossible 2,545 pounds. Tiny but mighty.

When driving the Defender 90, the ride quality and stability belies its dimensions. While it is compact by contemporary standards, the wheelbase is two inches longer than a Discover I, Discovery II, and Range Rover Classic, and the track width is over nine inches wider. The modern D90 is the dimensions many of us want, and it extends to off-road capability, with 11.5 inches of ground clearance and approach/departure/breakover of 38/40/30.7 degrees, respectively—performance on par with both the Wrangler and Bronco two-door standard models.

Land Rover Defender 90

Capability on the trail is similar to the 110, with the decreased turning radius a standout and the general ease of navigating earthen berms and larger rocks. At speed, the ride is more similar to its longer brothers than expected, with limited step-out on corrugations and general predictability even at the limits. This stability is due to the rigid unibody structure and four-corner independent airbag suspension, which can be set at lower heights for increased stability and reduced roll center.

One of my favorite attributes of the new Defender is the interior, combining the best of their reductive design language with genuine functionality. The Defender interior is my favorite of any modern 4WD, with numerous cubbies, robust grab handles, and durable materials. It feels premium and comfortable but dispenses with most of the pomp, which I appreciate. It is a perfect place to spend time, the road drive dispensing with the busy ride or harshness experienced with a traditional SWB vehicle. Even the fuel tank is an unexpected 23.4 gallons, which yields a 450+ mile range.

Admittedly, I am finding that Defender 90 and 130 are the most appealing in the lineup, and I have built more than a few D90s in the online configurator. My imagination extends further to the minimalist camping kit I would pack and the few essential modifications I would perform, like taller coils (or the air suspension), a winch, and a set of 275/70R18 tires.

Land Rover Defender 90

My D90 from the Land Rover online configurator.

Overall, the Defender 90 is smaller, but only in the context of modern SUVs. In reality, it is better aligned with the size of classic overland platforms that served explorers for decades, being easier to drive and more capable in technical terrain while simultaneously being more suitable for daily driving and city life. The rear seat is comfortable for passengers, and once you remove the lower cushion, the seat back folds flat. This configuration provides more than enough space for any reasonable amount of cargo, and the dynamic roof load capacity would easily accommodate a hard shell roof tent. It is a minor miracle that the D90 is even available in North America, and I am grateful it is. I could see Aloha Wanderwell or the boys of Oxford and Cambridge ordering one and setting off on another lap around the planet. | $64,100 as configured

How I would configure my Defender 90:

Land Rover Defender 90 S

P300 4-Cyl Turbo

Fuji White

18” White Steel Wheels

Khaki Seats

Off-Road Package (w/ rear locking differential)

Towing Package (w/ Terrain Response Two)

Interior Protection Package

Exposed Rear Recovery Eyes

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Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona IG: @scott.a.brady Twitter: @scott_brady