Even when BMW unceremoniously flogged the Land Rover brand to ford back in 2000, even the most casual observer could see that the British marque had masses of potential that had yet to be fully explored by their former Germanic owners. Although this period of stewardship by BMW is not renowned as being the finest chapter in the Solihull brand’s history it did nonetheless lay many of the foundations for the strong position it is currently enjoying; the Mk III Range Rover was fully developed by deutsche mark and it was that vehicle that really propelled the belief that Land Rover (and by association Jaguar) made a proper luxury vehicle for the 21st century.
With Ford’s vast empire and financial clout, it seemed they were ideally placed to further this change in fortunes, especially after it was paired with fellow British marque Jaguar in a partnership which in hindsight seems to have predestined from both firm’s conception. Yet sat in Ford’s ‘Premier Auto Group’ alongside Volvo and Lincoln, the focus on cost cutting and profit margins meant that although the vehicles launched in this period (Discovery 3, Range Rover Sport and Freelander 2) were generally well received, they also lacked the premium finishing touches which had made the full-fat Range Rover extra special. Still most people were quite surprised when Ford decided to bail on the brand and bundled it together with Jaguar in a bizarre buy-one-get-one-free deal that did not sit well with die-hard fans of the company, and to top it off the brand was sold to Indian conglomerate Tata, whose sole contribution to the automotive industry is the bargain basement Nano.
However Tata ownership has been very kind to the brand, and they have been content to sit back and provide funding whilst engineers in the Midlands do what they do best and create machines which seem to defy physics (and make people reach for their wallets en masse). This time has seen the transition of the full-fat Range Rover into a pure luxury vehicle, the emergence of the Range Rover Sport from an ugly-duckling into a swan, the birth of the controversial Evoque and not forgetting various tartings-up of the Discovery as it enters it’s later years. Yet despite these successes I am still not entirely convinced on this new generation of vehicles, and although some are starting to win me around I can’t help rolling my eyes whenever I read the latest article on how fantastic these new cars are, whilst overlooking some notable thoughts.
I’ve always found the massive differences in Freelander reviews pretty hilarious; in the UK the machine is praised for car like handling and traditional Land Rover strengths off road and practicality-wise, but in the States and elsewhere it has been derided as outdated, thirsty and notably overpriced (especially for a vehicle based on the same platform as many older Fords). Although the Freelander has never really floated my boat, it definately has it’s place as a competitor for mainstream crossovers like the RAV4 and CRV – but being priced to rival Audi’s Q5 and BMW’s X3 has done it no favours and it does appear outdated now. It’s replacement, the Discovery Sport, is a much more contemporary SUV and fits in looks-wise with the new generation of Land/Range Rovers, but I’m just hoping that they don’t inflate the price too much and end up pushing it out of the reach of traditional buyers.
One of the most controversial Land Rovers of recent years, with looks straight off of a concept model and enough celebrity endorsements to rival L’Oreal it makes no apologies for appealing to what has recently become Range Rover heartland (aka Cheshire or Essex). I think the car looks stunning, not for me admittedly but nevertheless it took a lot of guts to approve a design like that for production without watering it down. Inside things are nicely premium too, if a little cramped and with an infotainment system which lags years behind immediate rivals. However for me the Evoque has ended up well overpriced for a vehicle which essentially competes with the Qashqai and co space wise, and even the BMW X1/Audi Q3 are priced well below the near £40k average transaction price for the littlest Rangie. Add into this fuel economy which barely betters that of full size German SUV’s in real life driving (circa 30-35mpg) and I find it hard to admire the Evoque too much.
The current Defender barely merits mentioning considering the fact it has remained essentially unchanged for the last two decades, but what the model will become is a massive mystery and a decision which could infuriate Land Rover loyalists much more than the Evoque. It seems likely that the new Defender (if it’s even called that) could replace the Freelander as the entry level product for the brand, probably without turning it into a full soft-roader but making it much more user friendly than the existing Defender. That current model is being retired due to crash restrictions apparently, but it would have been quite interesting to see it being turned into a G-Wagen-esque relic doused in luxury features, something that a highly active aftermarket scene suggests would have worked too.
Another Land Rover model which has barely changed in recent years (relatively speaking), the Discovery will soon be the main reminder of Ford ownership in a line-up which has undergone total change in the last 2 years. As a big fan of the Discovery 3 I was a little taken aback when the 4 launched; essentially the same vehicle but with a heap more visual trinkets in addition to a plusher interior, improved engines and much steeper price tag, it seemed to be becoming unnecessarily close to the Range Rover Sport in terms of price and positioning. Yet time has given me an appreciation for this much more refined product, and I will be fighting off the urge to indulge in one when it comes time to change my car – particularly because they are saddled with a below-par infotainment system and high road tax (unless you manage to nab a post 2012 facelift version with 8 speed ZF automatic). When the Discovery 5(?) is launched in the next couple of years it will be a shame to see the current car go, even if it is getting very outdated, and it will also be a shame to see the price climb any further – although I suspect that the £50k price tag of the current car sits pretty nicely with the now pricier Range Rover models.
Range Rover Sport:
I had no problem at all with the original Range Rover Sport – I came pretty close to buying one and although I know I made the right choice in getting my X5 it remains one of the few former potentials which I find myself gazing wistfully at. Still poor performance, fuel economy, reliability and interior quality gave plenty of ammunition who saw the car as merely a tarted up Discovery…which in truth is all it really was. As with the Discovery the 2009 facelift significantly improved most things bar fuel economy and infotainment, but if anything it gave buyers less of a reason to choose the Sport given that the Discovery was now so close in nearly all respects. However the second generation car has changed all that – based on the aluminium full-fat Range Rover platform and shedding pounds of weight (though gaining pounds of price), it is now a world-beater almost in a class of it’s own. Compared to the slightly awkward new full-fat Rangie, the sleeker details of the Sport make it a winner in my eyes, and if they can only sort the bloody infotainment system and make sure it’s reliable then they will shift as many as they can make…even at £75k a pop.
In terms of tough acts to follow the 3rd generation Range Rover was amongst the hardest. Here we had a car conceived under BMW ownership, launched by Ford and then overhauled by Tata, but had amassed a worldwide following ranging from drug dealers to Royalty – not an enviable task and not one I was totally won over by when the car launched just two years ago. Of course the secret to maintaining a successful product like the Range Rover is to change just the right amount to keep it up to date and desirable, without changing the key characteristics that made it successful. Apple do this to a tee with the iPhone and on the whole Land Rover did this with their flagship product, but whilst some things changed for the better (reduced weight and improved fuel economy), the looks of the car are a little too ‘Dame Edna’ and the interior has lost a good chunk of charm in my opinion too. It’s mainly the lights that bug me, so much so that I pretty much would choose the third generation car despite the higher taxes and dated dynamics.
So yes overall I’m enthusiastic about Land Rover’s future, but I would hope that they try to remain sensible with their prices and place emphasis on improving their infotainment system and reliability over forcing themselves into niches that aren’t needed.