2023 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: The Smallest Big SUV

The two-door Defender has massive character without massive bulk

LISTEN 15:24

Walk up to a hulking apocalypse-ready SUV. Climb aboard into a towering driver’s seat with plenty of space to spread out. Take in the cabin’s perfect balance of premium and rugged qualities. Fire up the available 518-horsepower V-8 engine. Then scoot into a parallel parking spot that wouldn’t fit a Honda Civic.

This is the unique place of the 2023 Land Rover Defender 90. By lopping the rear doors off the big three-row Defender 110, Land Rover preserves this off-road icon’s mighty yet sophisticated feel — but without the cumbersome bulk that accompanies every other big-feeling SUV. And by combining a two-door body with a classic Land Rover shape, it further ups the Defender’s already-mighty cool factor.

Here are our full impressions of a week with this unique Land Rover.

Overview

2023 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: The Smallest Big SUV
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Land Rover sold the original Defender internationally under various names from 1983 to 2016, though Americans could only buy it from 1993 to 1997. This was a workhorse, luxurious only compared with a stripped-down 1983 pickup truck. The company resurrected the Defender for the 2020 model year; the two-door Defender 90 joined the four-door Defender 110 for 2021, and a new extra-long eight-passenger Defender 130 is new for 2023.

The resurrected Defender keeps a boxy exterior, rear-mounted spare tire, and hardy-looking interior details, but it’s a contemporary Land Rover underneath. That means its mighty off-road capability comes as much from sophisticated electronics as indestructible hardware; it means it has the fit and finish (inside and out) that you’d expect of any other high-end luxury SUV, and it means that its on-road driving manners are comfortable and poised.

Performance and Capability

2023 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: The Smallest Big SUV Drivetrain
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The Defender’s base engine is a 296-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that gets an EPA-estimated 18 mpg in mixed driving. Land Rover estimates it’ll reach 60 mph in an agreeably zippy 6.7 seconds on the Defender 90 and 7.0 seconds in the bigger 110. A widely available upgrade is a much livelier 395-horsepower 3.0-liter inline six, whose 0-60 time falls to 5.8 seconds for the 110 and 5.7 seconds for the 90. What’s more, it also gets better mileage thanks to mild-hybrid assist: 20 mpg in mixed driving.

Our tester, was a Defender 90 with a supercharged 5.0-liter V-8, which produces 518 horsepower and 461 pound-feet of torque— enough to effortlessly whisk this boxy SUV to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds (5.1 seconds on the 110). We found this engine invigorating without being jumpy and sonorous without being obnoxious. It drinks an EPA-estimated 16 mpg in mixed driving and is only available for north of $100,000, so it’s not the Defender for counting pennies.

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Unlike the white-knuckle experience of driving a 470-hp Jeep Wrangler 392 — a rig that feels like it has no business going so fast — even our short-wheelbase Defender inspired confidence with a stable ride, direct and responsive steering, and composed handling. The Land Rover is less of a thrill, but that’s because you don’t feel like you’re about to die. Take your pick. The Defender offers a quiet and relaxed cabin, and is easy to drive; it’s not a master of on-road performance like a BMW X5, but it does better than you’d expect.

And if you are in the mood to scare yourself (and have a closed course or stretch of Autobahn available), Land Rover quotes the V8 Defender’s top speed at 149 mph. Other Defenders have a top speed of 119 mph, while the Wrangler 392 tops out at 112 mph.

This on-road performance is all the more impressive when you consider the Defender’s off-road capability. In addition to 8.5 inches of ground clearance (with an available height-adjustable suspension that lifts it to 11.5 inches), the Defender includes a choice of nine off-road driving modes, an electronically locking differential, and a low-range transfer case.

Fording streams is a Land Rover staple, and the Defender can handle depths of nearly 3 feet. This isn’t a brute-force utilitarian machine like an old Land Rover, but thanks to its combination of physical prowess and technological wizardry, the Defender will outpace other luxury SUVs that are this agreeable on road — with the possible exception of fellow Land Rovers.

2022 Land Rover Defender 90 Specs
Engine Dipslacement 5.0 L V-8
Horsepower 518 hp
Torque 461 lb-ft
Transmission 8-Speed Auto
0-60 4.9s
Top Speed 149 MPH
Drive AWD
Mileage 16 MPG
Towing Capacity 8,201 lbs

Exterior Design

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The Defender 90 is a timeless piece of SUV history. It’s big without being long — at 180.5 inches, it is a couple of inches shorter than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, yet it’s also 77.5 inches tall (10 inches more than those crossovers) and 79.1 inches wide (6.0 inches more than the Honda or Toyota). The Defender 110 is the same width and height but 197.5 inches long, while the 130 is a Tahoe-trumping 211.7 inches.

The Defender is the only current Land Rover that didn’t adopt the curvier details of a modern Range Rover. The front end is vertical and features squared-off headlights. The spare tire is proudly affixed to the swing-out rear door. The taillights are individual spots of light. Our Carpathian Edition test vehicle wears semi-matte paint that Land Rover says is as rugged as it is eye-catching.

Overall, the Defender looks like something you’d take on safari, or what the police would drive in a film set in a dystopian future. It won’t blend in with other traffic, especially with the novelty of the D90’s two-door body.

Exterior Dimensions
Length 180.5 in
Width 79.1 in
Height 77.5 in
Wheelbase 101.9 in
Ground Clearance 8.6 in
Curb Weight 5,445 lbs

Interior Design

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Many Land Rover interiors have become pretty first, trucky second. Ultra-rich leather covers their dashboards and door panels, and you’d feel ashamed to set foot on their thickly carpeted floormats with mud on your boots. That’s not the case with the Defender.

The dashboard is deliberately durable-looking rather than posh, with angular details, a gear selector that sticks up to meet your hand, and “DEFENDER” printed across the passenger side. Exposed screw heads and our test vehicle’s easy-to-wash rubber floormats complete the effect.

Yet there’s nothing downscale about this approach. Materials may not be flamboyant, but their quality is top-notch. And we had no complaints about how any of the trim pieces fit together or how any of the moving parts felt.

Infotainment is more of a mixed bag. The standard 11.4-inch touchscreen looks sharp, but as on other Jaguar/Land Rover vehicles, the interface can be inscrutable as you try to delve into its functions. The same applies to its digital gauge cluster. You can switch over to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay when you’re looking to just get things done.

A novelty feature is that the surround-view camera, which renders a 3D view of the SUV and its surroundings, even works at highway speeds. While most such systems will shut off automatically above about 15 mph, the Defender just provides a notice that it’s not recommended.

If nothing else, it’s an impressive demonstration of the system’s powerful processing capacity — it can keep up with this 3D-rendered image from a collection of cameras as the Defender zips down the freeway. It also entertains your passengers. Unlike most luxury SUVs, the Defender includes this camera as standard equipment, and it includes settings tailored for off-road use.

Passenger and Cargo Accommodations

2023 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: The Smallest Big SUV
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The Defender has the commanding seating position and ample spread-out space of a big SUV. Again, you won’t find another SUV this compact that feels this massive from the driver’s seat. And unlike a two-door Ford Bronco or Jeep Wrangler, the D90’s rear seat doesn’t just have enough legroom for two adults — but, thanks to its width, even three. You have to scramble past a folded front seat to access the rear, but it’s doable.

The limitation is the luggage room. Land Rover prioritized passengers over cargo capacity, placing the rear seats mere inches from the swing-out cargo door. The result is just 10.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, about the same as you’ll find behind the third row of a Defender 110.

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That’s also less space than a two-door Wrangler (12.9 cubic feet) and less than half of what you’d get in a two-door Bronco (22.4 cubic feet). So while you can take five adults in the Defender 90, they’ll need to carry most of their belongings in their laps.

Folding the rear seat does open up a more useful 44.6 cubic feet. That’s more than Jeep quotes for the two-door Wrangler (31.7 cubic feet) but less than the two-door Bronco (52.3 cubic feet). You’ll also contend with an extra-high cargo floor in the Land Rover.

Interior Dimensions
Seating Capacity 5
Headroom (front) 40.6 in
Headroom (rear) 38.6 in
Legroom (front) 39.1 in
Legroom (rear) 36.6 in
Shoulder room (front) 60.1 in
Shoulder room (rear) 56.4 in
Cargo Room 15.6 cu-ft

2022 Land Rover Defender 90 Price

Defender prices start at $51,700 plus a $1,350 destination charge, while our top Carpathian Edition test vehicle came in at $113,620. That means well-equipped entry-level Defenders cost about as much as a heavily optioned Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco, or Toyota 4Runner. Having said that, even a loaded Defender comfortably undercuts a luxury off-roader like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Otherwise, though, the two-door 90 costs a bit less than other Defenders. The four-cylinder D90 S starts at $52,300, followed by the six-cylinder SE ($64,000) and X ($85,400).

These prices undercut the equivalent Defender 110s by about $3,000. That’s not insignificant, and it’s a break from two-door coupes that cost more than equivalent sedans, but it’s not like many Land Rover buyers will choose their luxury SUV over this price difference.

Every Defender is a loaded luxury SUV, except that the base 110 Standard has cloth upholstery instead of leather and steel wheels instead of alloys. (Purists might wish for a Defender 90 Standard, but we’re grateful that Land Rover otherwise sells the lower-volume two-door model in a complete model range.) The S brings leather, 19-inch alloys, 12-way power-adjustable front seats, and a 10-speaker Meridian sound system.

You’ll find a similar set of options and standard features available across the Defender line, with the engine being the most significant difference among the trim levels.

Available add-ons include:

  • A panoramic roof
  • Adaptive cruise control
  • 14-speaker Meridian surround-sound stereo,
  • Refrigerated center console
  • Land Rover’s “Activity Key” (a rugged electronic wristband that lets you lock the normal keyfob safe and dry inside the vehicle)

Off-road features include height-adjustable suspension and a full range of driving modes.

Land Rover Defender 90 vs Competition

2022 Ford Bronco

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The Ford Bronco isn’t a luxury SUV like a Land Rover, but even setting aside the model’s infamous markups, there’s a very high chance it’s priced like one. Add a V-6 engine and leather upholstery, and a two-door Bronco tops out at $55,000. And while it has a nicely styled and finished interior for a mainstream-brand SUV, it doesn’t live up to the Land Rover.

You’ll also get a bit less passenger space and far less on-road finesse, and there’s no option to spend six figures for absurd speed. On the other hand, the Ford does let you get less heavily optioned Broncos with sticker prices as low as $30,000. Finally, its cargo space trumps the D90s, its controls are far simpler, and it lets you get more air by removing the roof and doors.

2022 Jeep Wrangler

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The fastest Wrangler only comes with four doors: the 470-hp 392 models. It’s a different animal from the D90. It’s loud and brash, and it feels insane that such a clumsy vehicle can surge so quickly from a stop. By contrast, the Defender offers a civilized experience and is smooth about its moves, inspiring the kind of confidence that the Jeep lacks.

As we said earlier, you’ll pick your flavor of the high-powered off-roader. Other appealing Wrangler powertrains include a 375-hp plug-in hybrid and a six-cylinder diesel that makes 442 pound-feet of torque, though these are also exclusive to the four-door Unlimited model.

Two-door Wranglers can get fairly quick with their V6 or turbocharged four-cylinder engines, too, but any Wrangler is a smaller and cruder machine than the Defender. While it’s gotten more civilized over the years, it’s an off-roader first and an on-roader second. By contrast, the Defender looks like a beast while offering the ride, handling, comfort, and interior appointments of a big luxury SUV.

2022 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

2023 Land Rover Defender 90 Review: The Smallest Big SUV Exterior Wallpaper quality
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When off-roading meets speed, Mercedes-Benz used to corner the market with the G-Class — especially in its AMG forms — before the Defender V8. The Benz’s latest generation, like the Defender, is a modern luxury SUV that honors its past with boxy styling and plenty of off-road capability.

That means, like the Defender, it looks like a relic but drives like a modern on-road vehicle and has an elegantly finished interior. However, the 2022 G-Class starts at $131,750, well above any Defender even in its 416-horsepower G550 guise (0-60 in 5.6 seconds). The G63 AMG, with 577 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds, starts at $156,450. And there’s no two-door model available.

Final Thoughts

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In a year when the hottest, quickest luxury SUVs are sleek electric models, the 2023 Land Rover Defender 90 stands proudly apart. Thanks to its size, shape, and on-road and off-road polish, it’s a luxury SUV like no other. It bursts with character and capability while having fewer warts than a humbler off-roader.

It provides the feel of piloting a big SUV, but with more agility and a much tidier footprint. And while it’s not exactly a bargain, considering how expensive its rivals can be, the Defender is more aggressively priced than you might expect.

Brady Holt
About the author

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