I was slightly surprised when Land Rover unveiled their new Defender last year. Here was a modern take on their most off-road-focused vehicle. It was, in theory, quite capable away from pavement. Great, so are vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco. But where those fall short is on towing capacity, something Land Rover claimed the Defender had in spades. I first tested the longer four-door Defender 110, rated to tow 8,201 pounds, but also requested the two-door Defender 90. Despite being about seventeen inches shorter than the ‘110, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is rated to tow 7,716 pounds behind its itty-bitty square body.
Land Rover sent one my way, and instead of immediately finding a trail (that came later), I drove it straight to my trailer’s storage lot and plopped it on the hitch.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Land Rover Defender 90. It’s the shorter, two-door model in the Defender lineup. Where “90” used to correspond with the Defender’s wheelbase, in modern times it just means “the small one” where 110 is the longer four-door variant.
Land Rover launched the Defender with two engine offerings and has added a third this year. All Defenders, regardless of door count, can be had with a 295 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, a three-liter inline six, or a 518 horsepower five-liter V8. My 2021 Defender 90 came with the six, which is turbocharged, electric supercharged, and fitted with a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Between the boosty parts and the engine itself, power output is rated at 395 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque.
Every 2021 Defender puts power to the ground through a ZF eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission and standard two-speed all-wheel drive with low range. Four-corner air suspension is optional, but commonly equipped across most Defender trim levels. Set to its maximum height, it’ll provide 11.5 inches of ground clearance under the Defender 90.
Land Rover offers a bunch of ways to customize the Defender – ten paint colors, 14 wheel choices, and three roof choices. Mine was pretty interesting, with Pangea Green paint topped by a white contrasting roof with a huge power-operated cloth “sunroof.” Inside, my Defender 90 had the standard front bench seat, making this kinda-small Land Rover a six-seater, if you have small friends.
While the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 starts at $47,700, my First Edition model carried a MSRP of $66,475.
Towing an Enclosed Trailer Behind the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90
Tow capacity on the Defender is determined by chassis length. Regardless of your engine choice, every 2021 Defender 90 is rated to tow 7,716 pounds with a 770 pound tongue weight. My enclosed trailer is built largely from aluminum and, even with my BMW racecar inside, comes in around 6,800 pounds. I’ve measured its tongue weight recently and it, too, is within the Defender’s specs, about 675 pounds.
This is, of course, a case of “could” not meaning “should.”
In order to make the Defender 90, Land Rover chopped 17 inches of wheelbase out of the Defender 110, leaving a 101.9 inch distance between the axles. The Defender 90 is ultimately pretty short, in both wheelbase and overall length, though Jeep’s two-door Wrangler is shorter at just 96.8 inches of wheelbase.
Payload is another concern in the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90. My First Edition’s doorjamb sticker indicated a payload of 992 pounds. Had my trailer’s tongue weight come close to the Defender’s maximum rating, I’d have just 37 pounds of approved payload left over once I got behind the wheel.
Enclosed trailers put the most stress on a tow vehicle. Open car trailers and boats are both easier to slip through the air compared to what is, basically, a barn with wheels bolted to it. The aerodynamic demands of an enclosed trailer are high, and passing trucks create a “wind wake” that tries to push the trailer and tow vehicle around as you’re passed on the highway.
Most tow vehicles can handle the effects of wind wake thanks to stiff (enough) suspensions or their wheelbase length. Some have more of one and less of another, like the Defender 110. Large pickup trucks tend to have both. The Defender 90, on the other hand, has neither.
With a relatively-soft suspension optimized for off-road use, the Defender 90 isn’t stiff enough to counteract much push from the trailer. That suspension is paired to a tremendously short wheelbase that is perfect for maneuverability but not long enough to provide stability with a parasail bolted to the rear of the car.
I towed the trailer on a local parkway, achieving speeds of 55 miles per hour and kissing 60 a time or two. There were no big trucks nearby and minimal traffic otherwise. Anything can tow anything at city speeds, but as I got to highway speed with the Defender 90, I could feel the trailer behind me to a degree that said “avoid the interstate.”
Lest this come across as a “avoid towing anything” edict, I think the Defender 90 would be absolutely fine with an open car trailer behind it, like what you can rent from U-Haul. The inline six makes plenty of power and torque and sounds fantastic in the process. Brakes are sized appropriately. Land Rover includes some trailering software on the Pivi Pro infotainment that helps with visibility (using side-mounted cameras) and there’s wiring for a trailer brake controller under the dashboard. Eyes for safety chains are still too small, and there’s no dedicated “Tow mode” to optimize shift points and suspension damping.
Off-Roading and Highway Driving
After parking the trailer, I did hit the highway and an off-road trail. It would be a shame to have a Defender 90 and not take it off-roading, right?
Despite the short wheelbase, the Defender 90 was very stable at realistic interstate speeds. It’s easy to draw comparison to a Jeep Wrangler in spirit, but in practice, the Defender is a much better car on the pavement. Steering is direct and communicative, with no slop or play. Ride quality as fine as it can be given how short the ’90 is. My only complaint at highway speed was the wind noise. The folding fabric roof, cool as it is, is noisy on the highway. If you want a relaxing cabin, consider a solid roof or the panoramic glass sunroof instead.
Off-road, the Defender 90 was impressive. I kept the suspension at its maximum height and set the Terrain Response appropriately for our rocky, slightly muddy trail. This Defender 90 was on a set of mild all-terrain tires, and they handled most scenarios easily. I did wish for the auto-locking rear differential at a few points – optional and not equipped on my test vehicle – as I needed a bit of momentum to counteract open-diff wheelspin and cross some rocky terrain. I enjoyed the front-facing camera as I approached some obstacles with the Defender’s nose pointed toward the sky.
The trail we were on was challenging to a point, certainly not anything close to “hard” for a vehicle like the Defender 90, but I was still pleased with how easily we tiptoed our way up and over the twelve miles of terrain. And once we’d finished, we stopped for coffee and hit the highway in relative comfort.
Where the Defender 110 is the practical choice for most buyers, the 2021 Land Rover Defender 90 is the emotion-driven option. It’s cool, it’s sized to do off-roady things, and it has a bit more presence compared to the 110. It’s also a bit short for towing some things and doesn’t have a flat load floor with the back seats folded, thanks to a structural beam running across the cargo area.
Answering the “should I buy one” question really comes down to your intended use and what matters most.