You wait decades and three motoring ‘big beasts’ relaunch at once.
Every movement has its icons and given where we are now I think we can probably describe the current SUV contagion as a movement. In terms of icons, the holy trinity of sports utility vehicular worship appears to consist of the Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender and Toyota Landcruiser. Just outside, but banging rather conspicuously at the door is Mercedes with its interloper G-Wagen.
The original Willys MB Jeep is known to all – man, woman and small dog. Created as a military vehicle during the second World war, it entered full-scale production in 1941, going on to enter global consciousness as a symbol of allied liberation. In 1945, a civilian version (CJ 2A) was introduced which continued over several iterations until (I believe) 1983. Just as the Jeep iterated in the years that followed, Willys Overland went through several owners over the intervening decades (AMC, Renault, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, Cerebus) before eventually becoming a pillar of the FCA behemoth.
The Land Rover by contrast was a product of the post-war settlement. Created ostensibly as a farmer’s workhorse by the Rover Car company, it entered production in 1948, quickly becoming the ubiquitous off-road vehicle in Britain and the ‘colonies’. Much like the Jeep, it underwent several iterations, innumerable specification changes, not to mention owners (Leyland, the British Government, British Aerospace, BMW, Ford) before finding its current home as part of the Tata-owned JLR group.
More recent still was the Toyota Land Cruiser. Introduced as something of a Jeep facsimile in 1951, it has since gone on to rule the known World as perhaps the most dependable, most fit-for-purpose utility vehicle in current series production. It’s still made by its original manufacturer, but we’re not here to talk about it today.
Mercedes-Benz’s Geländewagen is the true neophyte here. Introduced in 1979 as the W460, it began life as a vehicle designed for the German military. Never quite catching the zeitgeist like its more established rivals, the G-Wagen, having lived out the bulk of its career in their shadow, suddenly found itself at the forefront of fashion as the upmarket SUV craze took hold. In recent years, it has been repositioned as a (very) expensive lifestyle accessory.
What unifies all of these vehicles apart from their utilitarian / military roots are lengthy production runs and the idea that despite thirteen new handles and a similar number of heads, they are essentially the same as their pioneer forebears. But the other, more pertinent unifying factor is that three of them are being replaced this year.
First up is FCA’s new Jeep Wrangler, which was shown to the press at the tail-end of last year, making its public debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. Also debuting is the W464 G-Wagen, now dubbed G-Class. Both vehicles notable for the careful nature of their ‘don’t scare the horses’ visual reinvention, adopting the most evolutionary of visual makeovers masking considerable change beneath.
The latest JL iteration of the Wrangler sits on a new-generation steel chassis, while wings, bonnet, doors, door-hinges and windscreen frame are aluminium. The rear tailgate (on models so equipped is a magnesium frame with an alloy skin. Not just lighter, but longer too, all models feature an enlarged wheelbase. Power comes from the long-running Pentastar V6 and two FCA corporate units – a 3.0 litre V6 turbo diesel and a 2.0 litre petrol turbo unit, which sounds a lot like the one Alfa Romeo is using. The new Wrangler also majors on in-car tech, while also it’s claimed, is the most off-road capable Jeep yet.
It’s a similar story at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim, with a very familiar body style hiding major changes beneath the skin. Wider and lower than its predecessor, it too is said to be on a new chassis which is stiffer and lighter than of yore. Independent front suspension is the big news up front, although not M-B claims, at the expense of wheel articulation. Engines will include a 4.0 litre petrol V8 (with a fire-breathing AMG option) and a 3.0 litre turbodiesel. A hybrid model will arrive in due course.
Like their former cohorts in the US, great pains were made to ensure the G embodies only the barest of evolutions, so no sensual purity here folks. Nevertheless, the blessed one couldn’t resist adding some ‘Hot and Cool’ to the G’s interior, which apes its saloon counterparts in combining hi-tech gloss with chintz palace chic.
So while the Jeep’s interior is at least on vaguely nodding acquaintance with the concept of utility, the G-Class drops all pretensions of its work-boots heritage once inside. As does an entry-level price which tops €100,000 in Germany. “The history of a legend, the myth of an icon”, say Mercedes. Big sweaty horse bollocks, say I.
With news that Land Rover will show the much anticipated new Defender later this year in production form, speculation as to its appearance and specification has been growing. It’s been confirmed that it will be based on the current LR aluminium monocoque platform, which immediately differentiates it from its key rivals by limiting the number of body styles possible.
It’s evident from the utterances of Land Rover’s Gerry McGovern that the Defender will not be the inexpensive workhorse its many Worldwide fans are hoping for. In a similar vein to how the Mini was reinvented at the millennium as a more upmarket, sporting product, it’s likely the Defender will undergo a similar change of ethos and style.
A pointer to the possible direction was JLR’s announcement of a limited run of performance-orientated Defenders from LR’s restoration ‘Works’ atelier. Powered by a Jaguar-sourced 5.0 litre V8, and trimmed to luxury car standards, this last-hurrah for the outgoing version is very likely a statement of intent. JLR are not in the business of making affordable cars and it’s almost certain that the Defender (certainly as launched) will be anything but.
Also beyond doubt is that this will be the sternest test yet of Land Rover’s hitherto unflappable styling chief and keeper of the flame. The Defender is more than a model line. It’s the Land Rover motherlode. One only has to look at how tentative both FCA and Daimler have been to see how tight a rope they are walking. If McGovern gets this right, his legacy is secure. If he fails, JLR can probably afford the financial hit, but the reputational damage to both would be sizeable.
We can expect to see the production defender in the Autumn. The market for authentic offroaders such as these isn’t massive, but for a manufacturer with such a vehicle on its books, the benefits in terms of credibility (and profitability) is big. Of equal size however is the onerous task of honouring that heritage.
McGovern is a (very) confident fellow. But even he must be holding his breath on this one.