Great things come in smaller packaging

Keeping it compact is a personal choice. There’s a reason there aren’t many short wheelbase 4WDs on the market—it’s a smaller niche with fewer buyers. But that absolutely does not make a shortie any less of an off-road adventurer. In broad terms it comes with a smaller turning radius and less overhang in either direction, meaning a shortie can twist down a tight track or nimbly clamber over obstacles that will see the larger four door wagon struggle to tackle. Of course, given a different obstacle, the long wheelbase may well have the advantage.

And any full-size SUV obviously wins the volumetric stakes with vastly superior load carrying capacity—which is critical in a long-distance extended vacation tourer. So why choose a short wheelbase? Well, assuming you are more of a weekend warrior without a family to pack into the rear along with a tonne of gear, then it’s back to personal choice… and the fun factor that a shortie seems to deliver with a cheeky grin.

They say good things come in small packages, and mostly that is true of the Land Rover Defender 90 short wheelbase. My test vehicle was the base Defender 90 S P300 finished in a stunning Pangea Green with a crisp, contrasting white roof and 18inch steel rims that were both great looking retro and practical.

Despite having only two doors, and being 430mm shorter overall than its bigger brother, the 90 still has a strong, robust, and almost military grade stance.

Without being able to define any one characteristic, the many clever exterior design elements offer a modern and visually pleasing interpretation of an earlier time, paying tribute to the anachronistic allurement and much-loved quirky attributes of its predecessor.

As contradictory as it may sound to describe a box as appealing, it’s the mesmerising boxy shape that gives this latest Land Rover 90 its bolshie, go-anywhere, do-anything charisma.

For the big kids amongst us who can remember the indestructible Tonka Tuff toy trucks; this is a real life genuine full-sized version.

Access via keyless entry, get behind the wheel and pull the door shut with a reassuring solid thud, and there’s an obvious focus placed on practicality and functionality.

Any driver can quickly orientate themselves to the layout without the trolling through a ludicrously thick, mind-numbing owner’s manual.

Up front, there’s little difference to the 110, other than what applies to spec levels between model variants. 

Seating is very comfortable and forward visibility is great, thanks in part to the large windscreen and deep side glass. 

Rearward not so much, as the second-row centre head rest and rear-door mounted spare tyre consume rear visibility. 

Thankfully, the roof mounted camera offers an uninterrupted digital display of what’s behind, irrelevant of back seat contents.

Front and centre, between the softly padded horizontal dash rails, is the smart looking 10” Pivi Pro Touch screen offering control for navigation, climate, the brilliant surround camera views, vehicle specific 4×4 settings and phone access, with cable only connectivity for Apple and Android, and wireless charging. 

There’s plenty of USB A and C ports, along with standard 12v outlets, scattered throughout the cabin, providing convenient connectivity for an array of personal devices. The driver can customise their large crisp 12.3” digital instrumentation display to show off-road information, full screen maps or custom vehicle settings via the steering wheel buttons. All while enjoying your favourite artists via the 180W 6 speaker entertainment system.

Gone is the frustration over the lack of usable and practical interior storage for your bits and bobs that most two doors suffer from. Having to put most things in one deep centre console bin and rummage around, digging to the bottom trying to find that parking security pass, is a real pain.

Land Rover has mastered Feng Shui up front.

The 90 has oodles of plonk it down points to accommodate all those items you can’t travel without. There’s a wonderful retro ledge that runs the length of the dash, exposing an integrated metal subframe which can be colour -optioned to your personal taste.

There’s usable storage in front of the console and below it; with chunky large door pockets that can easily take large water bottles, flasks, or gloves. You’ll never be poking around to find your wallet or purse again. And let’s not forget your favourite tacky pair of Don Johnson Miami Vice mirror tinted sunnies located conveniently in the overhead console. A must-have accessory if you are to delude yourself that you could ever come close to the sub-zero cool factor and street cred of this British Bulldog of 4WDrives.

Land Rover have achieved an interesting juxtaposition of contradictory elements, applying luxury tactile surfaces over a rugged commercial foundation, nicely emphasised by the contrast of Allen key bolt head accents on the doors, with areas of exposed painted metal surfaces set against an elegant modern leather clad steering wheel and electronic shift lever.

I just love the fact that all regularly used functions with their respective buttons and dials follow a logical layout and cabin placement for quick access. Large clear icons depict operation, making adjustment intuitive and easy.

The result is an interior not only pleasing to the eye but a real joy to use.

If you’d like more detail on the interior design, you can check out my in-depth review on the Defender 110 wagon here.

But there are both compromises and benefits to a two-door vehicle. Ingress and egress to the back seat is not elegant. Despite a reasonable tilt and slide front seat function, without the optional sidestep or a convenient grab handle at roof level between the A and B pillars, it’s a bit of a heave up to get your footing onto the interior floor, and pull yourself in.

There is a nicely placed grab handle to steady yourself in rough terrain or to exit the rear seat, but unless you have a double-jointed wrist, it’s not much help when trying to climb in.

Once seated, if you’re only carrying two adults across the back, they’ll be very comfortable, even on a long trip. The stadium style seating offers a fantastic view to the outside world. It’s airy, thanks to the additional retro alpine windows.

There’s good shoulder, head and leg room, although the rear floor is a tad high, meaning knees are raised a little upward.

I’d have preferred a little more bolstering on the base to cradle occupants over more challenging terrain but it’s an impressively comfortable space for a compact two door.

Luggage carrying capacity is a different story.

Open the rear side pivoting door and space behind the second-row seats is 397L. Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not too shabby.

Well, here’s the snag, that’s a liquid litre capacity over the entire space. Meaning overall capacity is scaled up to the roof, fine for taller items or if you can vertically stack your load securely. But it’s not a good representation of the practical flat floor area for loading your gear. Being able to jam in enough luggage behind the second row for a weekend away for four people might be an interesting challenge. 

The rear seats fold forward, creating a stepped loading area and increasing capacity to a very usable 1563L.

However, I couldn’t work out how to get them to sit flat and parallel to the armrest as per Land Rover’s marketing image.

“No way,” I thought, “I must be doing something wrong.” Perhaps I missed a button, lever or instruction, but I was left with an odd angular loading ramp making stacking items on top of each other challenging and severely limiting the practicality of the extra space. It seems at complete odds to the clever design and functionality for the rest of the interior.

Don’t forget to ask the dealer how to get the seats to fold flat, so you’re not left scratching your head trying to work it out in your driveway after you get it home.

At the business end, the 90 is powered by a 2L Ingenium 4-cylinder turbo-charged petrol engine, coupled to a proficient ZF 8 speed auto. I was pleasantly surprised how well this smaller capacity engine dealt with the bulk and weight of the 90. This free revving power plant works well with the auto, allowing you to leverage the 221kW in the upper rpm range and put it to good use to stretch its legs, extending each gear change to perform safe overtaking.

Backed by flat wide 400Nm of available torque pulling strongly from 1,500rpm, and pushing through to 4,500rpm,

I found it flexible and willing around town, and sufficiently assertive when negotiating off-road terrain

utilising high or low range, pending the surface conditions. Open road cruising is relaxed, and the 90 responds energetically, especially when leveraging the eight-speed auto and the Ingenium’s respectable mid-range response to throttle input.

Interestingly, Land Rover’s website states the braked towing capacity for the 2.0L petrol is no less than the benchmark capacity of 3,500kg. If you consider a tow ball capacity of 350kg plus an additional load capacity of 420kg, that tips this Defender shortie’s GVM to a tad over 2,900kg. Those are some big figures for a short wheel-based vehicle of this class.

Whilst I couldn’t test Land Rover’s claims of the four-cylinder 90’s ability to pull and control those substantial weights in an emergency—I would have reservations on the 2L’s performance reserves, practicality, and suitability for coupling a 21ft 3.5 tonne van to what is effectively an 8ft short wheelbase vehicle. It’s not just about power, I’d be considering the important aspect of safety and vehicle stability. 

I’d fear a propensity for something to go wrong, as the electronics reached fever pitch to compensate for the heavy sway of a sizable slab in tow if the tail begins to wag the dog while negotiating strong cross winds. 

My preference would be the bigger Defender 130 with the 110 wagon a close second for peace of mind when hauling something that long and heavy.

On the road, I was impressed.  

A shortie is more reactive to small surface irregularities and bumps, as opposed to a larger, heavier wagon counterpart. Generally, a short wheelbase 4WD means you have to accept the common bounce, wiggle and pitch associated with this type of vehicle design.

The Defender 90 demonstrated new levels of comfort and control that challenged my expectations of how a short wheelbase 4WDrive should behave.

But the Defender 90 seemed to be the exception to the rule. While it doesn’t drive like a full sized wagon, thanks to supple all independent coil sprung suspension and the rather hefty kerb weight of nearly 2,200kg, it doesn’t so much bounce over bumps as roll across them, minimising intrusion into an otherwise quiet cabin. But while you might be aware of the bounce and wiggle, you’re not concentrating on counteracting their influence.

Which makes the thought of a long drive over secondary country roads for several hours in the Defender 90 an easy experience.

There’s a little wind noise over the large side mirrors, but nothing the quality audio can’t drown out.

The steering is very good; it’s responsive to driver input, offering good directional control for vehicle placement both on and offroad. It never felt light or vague.

The standard all-terrain tyres and 18” rims don’t tram line over changing surfaces.

And there’s minimal body roll during cornering, providing a relaxed and reassuring level of control.

It’s easy to get settled in this little Defender, the compact size makes the 90 fun to punt around in traffic, super easy to manoeuvre in multi-story car parks, and the 11.3m turning circle will let you spin on a dime. Land Rover indicates a drinking habit of 10L /100, but our combined driving was a tad over 11L/100km, meaning the practical 90L fuel tank should see you clear for 800k plus range.

As a compact, fun and very comfortable urban daily driver with loads a character, and quirky good looks—I loved it!

Time to go play off the smooth stuff as heavy rains had turned dusty gravel tracks into slush pools of muddy water. 

At the get go, I’ll say the all-terrain tyres are an improvement over standard road tyres. They provide a greater level of control and demonstrated they will endure and perform reasonably well in most situations. If you’re only going separate from the black top occasionally, and a well-formed forestry trail is your preference, they will serve you well.

But if you want give explore the 90’s significant breadth of capability, nothing beats a good set of hiking boots. Enough said.

The standard coil suspension setup is not as sophisticated as the air suspension option that can raise the vehicle for greater ground clearance, provide a more supple ride with greater wheel articulation and self-leveling. All of which are obvious benefits for off-road excursions. But the standard setup was surprisingly effective.

Short comings aside in comparison to air bag functionality, the simple coil setup is a cheaper option and still very good. Plus there’s the option to change to aftermarket springs for tuning and lift that may better suit your personal 4Wdriving style and requirements.

Corrugations and potholes were easily managed without any of the shaking and shuddering commonly experienced in short wheelbase fourbies where the increased unsprung weight of live axles oscillates over bumps and dips. In the 90, this is largely removed by independent front and rear suspension and nicely balanced calibration of compression and rebound, quashing the vigour of the stereotypical buck and jump I’d expect.

The off-roading credentials are impressive.

The Defender 90 offers approach, departure, and ramp over angles of 31.5, 37.5 and 24.2 respectively with a wading depth of 850mm as standard. 

A comforting thought, as a few of the muddy puddles we encountered were more akin to mini lakes with unexpected dips mid crossing. 

Ground clearance isn’t stellar at a moderate 226mm. Another benefit of the optional air suspension is the clearance jump to 290mm.

When tackling more challenging terrain with deeper moguls covered in ball bearing gravel, the 90 with coils is happy and quicker to lift a leg and show off a little airtime than the 110 wagon.

On several occasions, not having the longer wheelbase saw the 90 pivot on two opposing wheels.

But Land Rover’s excellent traction control, working in near perfect harmony with the variable electronic active rear differential, allowed the 90 to continue moving forward with minimal fuss or the need to bury the right boot to get through.

The result is a relaxed drive with both stability and control, even in slippery conditions. 

As for the tech, the surround camera system provides amazing, clear, and sharp images with multiple viewpoints to help in even the most challenging terrain. 

Speaking of terrain, Land Rover’s terrain response letting you optimise the vehicle for the driving conditions is a good as it gets, plain and simple. It’s been around the longest, has a huge amount of engineering experience backed by years of R&D that allows it to make thousands of computations and adjustments to the vehicle’s systems, so seamlessly that your barely aware of its presence as you move through challenging terrain with confidence and minimal effort or intervention on your behalf.

If you want a nimble and very capable 4WD with a large range of luxury and practical options that can easily haul a large camper or small van; and you don’t need the bulk of a full-sized wagon for extended family or constantly hauling luggage, then the Defender 90 might be the best possible candidate.

With good on road manners and impressive off-road capability, the 90 offers the next level refinement and capability in a compact, truly capable 4Wdrive.

So good that you could be forgiven for occasionally forgetting you’re driving a short wheelbase. 

In the time I spend with this plucky Brit, three things became obvious— everyone loved the way it looked; it was a pleasure to drive and very easy to live with.

Model: Land Rover Defender 90 S P300

Price: $83,346

  • Engine: 2.0L Ingenium 4-Cylinder Turbocharged Petrol
  • Output: 221kW/400Nm
  • Transmission: Eight-speed ZF automatic
  • Tow Capacity: 3500kg
  • Fuel: 10.1L/100km
  • Safety rating: ANCAP 5 Stars
  • White Contrast Roof $2,171
  • Pangea Green Metallic Paint $2,060
  • Clearsight Interior Rear-View Mirror $1,274
  • Wheel Arch Protection $1,131
  • 3-Zone Climate Control $910
  • Leisure Activity Key $910
  • Electronic Active Differential w/-Torque Vectoring by braking $806
  • Cabin Air Ionisation with PM2.5 filter $606
  • Heavy Duty Rubber Mats $338
  • Cross Car Beam Finish-White $299
  • Air Quality Sensor $195

Price-As-Tested: $92,086

Drive Editor - Ray Cully
Drive Editor – Ray Cully

About our Motoring Editor: Ray has been passionate about all things automotive since he first started collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels models when he was five. Since leaving his executive role at General Motors (GM), he’s been sharing his driving experiences with Australian audiences for nearly 20 years, commencing his automotive journalist career with a popular WA-based magazine and was writing his own column in The West Australian for 8 years.

Ray’s strong love of automotive engineering and clever design has seen his articles and photography featured in prominent national magazines in Australia and the UK. He loves sharing his passion with other drivers, including via a long running stint as Senior Instructor for Land Rover Experience, providing training and education for new vehicle owners.

Recently Ray has been presenting on TV shows including Ready for Adventure and the very popular Caravan and Camping WA, to showcase some of the great products, vehicles and companies that make getting out and exploring Western Australia that much more enjoyable.