A Gilded Cage?

Is Land Rover overawed by its own success?

Spot the imposter. Images: Land Rover Media.

Range Rover’s success over the past two decades in establishing itself as the pre-eminent manufacturer of luxury SUVs is truly remarkable, particularly when one considers JLR’s chequered and occasionally traumatic ownership history. British Leyland, BMW and Ford all attempted to impose their plans on the company, with decidedly mixed results. It was only in 2008, when JLR was acquired by Tata Motors, a subsidiary of the giant Indian industrial conglomerate, Tata Group, that the company finally enjoyed both the financial stability and management autonomy to get on with the job unfettered.

Of course, JLR continues to experience some considerable difficulty in establishing a new and convincing image for the Jaguar marque following Ford’s misguided retro-driven Olde England era. The original XF enjoyed success for its distinctive four-door coupé styling, stealing a march on its premium competitors. The second-generation XF and smaller XE models attempted to compete head-on with the German premium trio, and decisively lost that battle, while the last XJ was simply too radical and polarizing in a deeply conservative market segment. The E-Pace and F-Pace crossovers sit in the shadow of their Range Rover siblings, while sales of the F-Type and i-Pace are now inconsequential.

Image: Land Rover Media

Land Rover seems to be enjoying a renaissance with the long-overdue launch of the new-generation Defender with its refreshingly distinctive styling. It is now a wildly fashionable vehicle to own, but its success may in part come at the cost of cannibalizing sales of Land Rover’s traditional cash-cow, the Discovery, and possibly even the Range Rover Evoque as well. In fact, the new Defender, given its smart, geometric styling, wealth of ‘lifestyle’ features and options and, of course, its steep price, looks far more like the ‘proper’ replacement for the Discovery 4 than for its ancient namesake.

As for the current Discovery, its stylistic similarity to the smaller Discovery Sport, (nonsensical asymmetric rear number plate apart) has done it no favours. Sales started strongly enough in 2017, with 16,654(1) finding buyers in Europe, but the total fell steadily to 5,107 in 2021. Annual US sales fell from 6,398 to 4,296 over the same period. The decline in sales began in 2018, well before both the Covid pandemic and current global semiconductor shortage.

Image: indianautosblog.com

Range Rover, meanwhile, continues to hone its models into ever more finely tuned expressions of the engineering and stylistic formula that is clearly exactly what its customers want. Because of its history, there is an authenticity to the company’s 4×4 credentials that is highly valued by customers, and equally valuable to the company. No 4×4 from a premium competitor enjoys this advantage. The only company that comes close in terms of heritage is Jeep, but that company suffered greatly from neglect during the FCA era and, in any event, never followed Range Rover’s march upmarket.

Range Rover hit the jackpot in 2011 with the original Evoque, the barely changed production version of the LRX concept vehicle that had wowed the automotive world three years earlier(2). When the time arrived to replace the Evoque in 2019, JLR gave us a refined version of the original, with little to distinguish it at a glance other than flush door handles taken from the Velar. Sales appear to have suffered accordingly. The new Evoque’s best year in Europe was 2019, with sales of 47,374 units. This was also before the two global events mentioned above and was significantly fewer than the old model achieved in each of its six years in full production, from 2012 to 2017 inclusive. Average annual European sales over this period was 54,359 units.

Image: auditoria.bmtrada.es

For all Range Rover’s strengths, I look at photos of the latest Range Rover Sport model, recently unveiled, and find myself just underwhelmed. It is undoubtedly a very finely engineered machine, but just how much more stylistic honing can it take? There really is nothing left to make smoother and slimmer. I need to look at comparative photos to tell the difference between it and its predecessor, and I could easily mistake it for the Velar, Range Rover’s more ‘road-biased’ but dimensionally similar offering(3).

Turning to the full-size Range Rover(4), the latest model is distinguished largely by a new rear-end treatment featuring very slim crescent-shaped vertical light assemblies connected at the top by a horizontal light bar carrying the Range Rover name at its centre. All appear to be high-gloss black when not illuminated(5). At least it’s novel, unlike the same-again design of the front-end.

The flanks, meanwhile, are smoother, sleeker and better than before, but only marginally so. Surely a bit more bravery on the part of Gerry McGovern and his team could have resulted in a similarly new and distinctive front end with, for example, a vertical orientation to the headlamp units? Likewise, surely they could have dispensed with the incoherent dummy ‘vents’ on the front doors?

Images: Land Rover Media

To be clear, this is absolutely not a criticism of Range Rover’s ‘house’ style, which I regard as handsome and refined, and mercifully free from the ugly gargoyles that afflict so many of its competitors’ vehicles in a misguided attempt to make them look ‘characterful’ or ‘distinctive’. Each current Range Rover model still looks very good in isolation(6). It is instead a concern about the lack of both diversity and progression in Range Rover’s design.

One has to ask why JLR appears so reluctant to be more adventurous in the evolution of Range Rover design. Perhaps it is a corollary of the ongoing difficulties of Jaguar, a fear of killing the much-needed golden goose, without which the company would surely be in a parlous position. That said, JLR should know better than most the dangers of allowing its design to atrophy, no matter how handsome its vehicles are.

(1) All sales data from http://www.carsalesbase.com.

(2) The LRX Concept was actually a three-door coupé with a very shallow glasshouse. JLR tried to sell a production version of this at a premium to the five-door, but the market largely overlooked it in favour of the cheaper and more practical variant.

(3) Given that Range Rover’s unique strength is the ability of its models to perform equally well both on and off-road, why does it need a ‘road-biased’ model anyway?

(4) Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it annoying always having to prefix ‘Range Rover’, the model, with something to distinguish it from ‘Range Rover’, the marque. Isn’t it time it were given its own model name?

(5) Rather oddly, there is also a bright-metal bar connecting the vertical elements at the bottom. This is crying out to be painted in body-colour or wrapped in high-gloss black.

(6) Reservations about the large dummy vent on the full-size Range Rover’s door apart, of course.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

29 thoughts on “A Gilded Cage?”

  1. In the bin with all these wasteful, resource-guzzling narcissist conveyances, I wish. Could not care less how these turds of entitlement are styled.

  2. Daniel, I agree with your points – these are good looking cars of their ilk (if one can bear to behold such things), but it does seem that GMcG is running out of runway with the current RR family look. That said, we need to be careful for what we wish given that writers were saying the same of BMWs pre-Bangle and look where that has led us.

    On the Discovery, I almost hate myself for admitting that, relatively speaking, my views have softened towards it. It’s still rather bloated aft of the B pillar and suffers from clunky detailing, but one can see that it’s meant to be the friendly SUV for the larger family. The problem the Disco now has is that the Defender does a similar job but looks more obviously rugged/ Tonka-toy like, which is what people seem to want from their LRs. In comparison, the Disco looks a bit like a cross between a MPV and a Range Rover.

  3. Similar criticisms of the lack of progress were levelled at Mercedes. In trying to be consistent, I have to say that JLR´s gradualism is fine with me. I don´t think styling is Land Rover´s problem and I can´t say other wise because to my only Volvo make a comparably good interior. The exteriors of Land Rovers are as good as I might hope to see. Parts of them are gorgeous. It runs entirely counter to my prejudices of where design excellence lives that such refined shapes come from the middle of Brexit England. Apart from that I am no fan of SUVs and I wish this design excellence was expended on other types of cars such as class-leading, customer-wooing mid-size four door saloons.

    1. Hello Richard, Volkswagen have just unveiled what looks like the electric replacement for the Passat / Arteon.

  4. I personally like the Velar. However, I also always felt like it’s both not very well placed and it steals a lot of jaguar’s thunder as well. A Range Rover that sits awkwardly between the small one and the middle one that’s more on roading than off roading…isn’t that what the Jaguar Pace models are supposed to be?

    And at the risk of being controversial, have they ever considered making Land Rover and Range Rover into truly separate brands to try and deal with this issue of models cannibalising each other? Would that even work or would that be upsetting things too much?

    1. Good morning J C C. Welcome to Driven To Write and thank you for your comments.

      I agree that the Velar seems to be trampling all over a space that should be reserved for the F-Pace, and also that Land Rover needs two, not three separate ranges.

      At present, the company presents ‘Defender’, ‘Discovery’ and ‘Range Rover’ as three separate families of vehicles (prominently badged as such on their bonnets). The trouble is that the new Defender is, as I said in the piece, a much more natural replacement for the Discovery 4 than it is for the old, tough but utilitarian and crude Defender. Land Rover is probably right to leave the utility workhorse market to the likes of Toyota and Mitsubishi. The problem this creates is that, with the arrival of the new Defender, there is now insufficient room for the ‘Discovery’ family in the middle

      I would have two ranges, one branded ‘Land Rover’ for the (still premium) 4×4 SUVs, and one branded ‘Range Rover’ for the luxury models.

      The Land Rover range would have two basic models, the new Defender in short, regular and the recently introduced long-wheelbase forms, and a smaller vehicle, similar in size to the Mk2 Freelander, but styled in the mould of the Defender.

      Range Rover would have three basic models Evoque, Sport/Velar and, er, Range Rover models. I really don’t see the need for two different models covering the Sport/Velar space.

  5. Good morning gentlemen. Richard, your comparison with Mercedes-Benz is interesting. I think Gorden Wagener and his people are doing pretty much the same thing, smoothing out the creases and refining the designs to their basic elements, soft organic curves and the continuous arc that defines the side DLO. The trouble is, it’s all a bit dull and generic, even if the cars are finely built. Who really wants their S-Class to look like an XXL C-Class? Perhaps it’s Wagener’s reinterpretation of Bruno Sacco’s principals of vertical affinity and horizontal homogeneity? If so, then he should take another look at Sacco’s fine work. During Sacco’s tenure, concurrent model never resembled the same sausage cut to different lengths and every successor was a notable stylistic advance on its predecessor.

    At least Range Rover is working from a much stronger start point in design terms, but I wonder how and when they will move on from the current theme? At least the Defender, which is growing on me increasingly, especially after seeing a few in the metal, indicates that they should be capable of doing so.

    1. Indeed – yet I think at the time Sacco´s stylistic advances were not thought (by some) to be dramatic enough. Also, these days there´s not a lot of stylistic space into what a brand can go. In the 1980s there was room enough in the degree to which the silhouette conformed to aerodynamics. I think we´ve been through most of the range of expression just like in architecture. Remaining innovation will be small. I don´t expect a lot now but well done to anyone who can try and who can succeed.

    2. Thanks for having me Daniel. And I see we think alike! I would love the idea of a ‘baby defender’ in a new freelander model, and yeah with how things are developing, there’s just no room for the discovery’s anymore imo.

      This 5 models across 2 brands idea has merit. The two tonka toy land rovers and the 3 sleek range rovers. As for Jaguar well…there is a market for road going crossovers. And proper sports cars. I think they said it themselves but they want Jag to go after Porsche and the AMG type Mercs don’t they?

  6. Dear Daniel
    Thanks for your accurate analysis, that lead us to an interesting debate: so far Land Rover is selling a good range of the on trend type of vehicle in different sizes, but what about the future?
    What will happen when SUVs go out of fashion?, why buying a big expensive car that looks like an smaller, cheaper one of the same brand?, and up to which point each new model cannibalize the others (meaning there’s no sales increase)?

  7. There are only so many ways you can design a box on wheels. And both the Land Rover and the Range Rover have a design language that is almost set in stone, stray too far and it isn’t a Range Rover anymore. They can play with the form as much as they want within those constraints, because that seems to be what people want and has always wanted it to be. Why not continue to make the basic package indefinitely? They are lucky they own a package that is very much in vogue, compared to Jaguar that has had their entire demographic stolen from right under them.

    1. Agreed, Ingvar. LR can keep making these packages as long as people want them. They don´t need to do more than keep it fresh. Jaguar should make one saloon and one two seater and stop doing anything else. An electric saloon like Tesla´s biggest is all that´s needed here. The two seater can be like whatever Porsche sells the most.

    2. Hi Ingvar. Looking at the image above of the five generations of Range Rover, it seems to me that the pace of evolution has slowed as the scope for further refinement has diminished. The first three generations are quite radically different from each other, but the most recent two look more like facelifts than wholly new models. Yes, the latest iteration is fine in isolation, but I wonder how well it will age, given its similarity to the superseded model, and how much scope there is left for yet further refinement.

  8. Interesting discussion. SUVs may continue to be with us for a while, although I’d hope that designers would take the opportunity to do something different with EV powertrains. A Land / Range-Rover could be something else – it just has to be good / attractive enough. There is a trend for squashing the SUV profile and I thought the Aegis project from 2016 which was sponsored by Land-Rover was interesting.

    https://www.coroflot.com/robsonm/Land-Rover-Aegis

  9. Hi Daniel, I share your analysis, broadly. Like Aston Martin and its not-always-successful attempts to tweak it, LR/RR has an incredibly strong design base to work from. To me, the current Range Rover Range Rover (…) is the strongest of the bunch, while the Evoque and Disco Sport are nice, more attainable variations on the theme. Note that the word “nice” doesn’t evoke a great deal of enthusiasm. That’s deliberate, although it’s probably also a good place for these models to be, given their hierarchy and hence might very well be Land Rover’s intention.

    Two years ago, AROnline featured a virtual concept of the RR design language applied to a sedan, which would logically be a Rover. It’s a handsome beast:

    https://i0.wp.com/www.aronline.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/range-rover-sedan-01.jpg?resize=1536%2C1025&ssl=1

    (https://www.aronline.co.uk/opinion/rover-return/)

    It makes one consider the utter blasphemy of giving up on Jaguar altogether and instead devising a Rover car range utilising this design language. The Rover brand as was is probably largely forgotten by now, at least by the target audience for this ‘new’ Rover, so past associations will take distant second place to the quite prestigious association with Range Rover, giving it the posibility to broadly take up Jaguar’s current market position instead of the old Rover’s (which was much lower).

    You can appreciate the conundrum for Land Rover, though: they have a successful range (no pun intended) that supports a far less successful but emotionally important sibling. Coupled to that, I would venture that apart from the market moving away from Jag-style sedans completely, the faltering success of a few recent LR’s like the Evoque is also partly attributable to the fact that they’re not particularly CO2-efficient. In my home country of The Netherlands, that meant the Evoque was dead on arrival, as was the E-Pace. In other markets, the situation is less extreme, but the trend is still there. I’m sure LR feels the heat from that as well, perhaps reinforcing their tendency to be conservative. The Defender’s success (even in NL) is a bit of an outlier in that respect and testament to the attractiveness of its concept (make of that what you will about the psychological state of its buyers). It also attests to exactly your point: this is the Land Rover that deviates most from the current design status quo.

    Finally, in a shameless plug, I direct your attention to my own variation on the Range Rover (Range Rover) front end, as featured below the article about that particular car.

    1. Tom, I’m glad you smoothed out my biggest issues with the current Range Rover: the grill and headlights that look fussy and the faux air vents or whatever they’re supposed to be on the door.

    2. Hi Tom. Definitely a move in the right direction for the Range Rover. I might pinch it and play with it further!

    3. I really like that. With the trim starting alongside the headlights and extending across the grille, it’s the logical place for the American model to have the FMVSS 208 side-facing amber reflectors and I’d hope they’d have the guts to make the whole thing reflective amber. It wouldn’t work that well with this beige, but it would really pop on a blue or green car.

  10. Another well written piece, thank you so much Daniel. While I tend to agree with your analysis regarding heritage and think that FCA has given us some really hideous Jeeps in previous years, we shouldn’t forget that the Grand Cherokee alone sold over 200’000 times a year in the previous years. Even if margins are probably much higher at RR, these are numbers they can only dream of.

    1. Hello Patrick, and thank you for your kind words. As a former owner of a (non-grand) Cherokee XJ, I’ve a lot of affection for the marque and hope that Stellantis will prove to be a more respectful and astute owner than FCA.

  11. Out of curiosity, I took a look at the Discovery Sport’s annual sales data. Here are the numbers for Europe and the US:

    Year: – Europe: – US:
    2021 – 15,729 – 22,378
    2020 – 21,348 – 26,320
    2019 – 27,989 – 26,373
    2018 – 33,802 – 30,171
    2017 – 44,181 – 42,616
    2016 – 47,569 – 26,557
    2015 – 32,089

    Sales here have been in decline since 2017 in Europe and 2018 in the US, again long before Covid and the semiconductor shortage. I’d place a small bet that current Discovery models may well be the last.

  12. I’m glad I’m not the only one having trouble keeping tabs of the Land Rover/Range Rover range proliferation. Can I identify all the ones shown in this piece? I’m afraid not. They’ve certainly come a long way from the SWB Series 1 I had a ride in (or should that be ‘on’?) on a neighbouring farm some years back! I don’t see many new ones around my neck of the woods.
    As Land Rovers become fancier in response to real or imagined market demands, they come closer to what I always thought of as Range Rover’s ‘territory’. Range Rover can’t go further upmarket (surely?), which means the two will be stepping on each other’s toes. And they can’t really get more competent, surely? So Range Rover seems to have moved sideways into the ‘designer’ niche, especially with the Velar and Sport.
    Your point is well taken about the impossibility of further refining or decluttering/debarbing the existing Range Rover shape. I am thankful that they have kept the design free of all the meaningless humps bumps and vents that seem to infest so many modern designs. That in itself seems to define a Range Rover. Just so long as they lose that weird and pointless front door applique! It’s rather ‘Early Sixties Detroit’ in my opinion, not really a look for the twenties.
    New models just show all the more what a standout piece of design the original was – pure genius.

    1. Hi Peter. “Appliqué” is exactly the word I was searching for to describe the decorative detail on the door, which on the latest version no longer even pretends to be a vent of any sort.

  13. Funny thing, evolution – never quite goes where you expect it to. Even less so if you attempt to control it. The tractor began as a horse with wheels, the Land Rover as a 3-seat tractor (the prototype even had a central driving position) with load space and a lid on. Land Rovers were intended for farmers, the military and anyone who needed to tow things off-road; gloriously, uncompromisingly, uncomfortably fit for purpose.

    The Range Rover changed all that – but not at all in the way apparently intended, if the tone of both reviews and advertising at the time are anything to go by. Who would have thought that the successor to my late father’s Series 1 of fond memory would, in turn, evolve into a luxury style item of such ubiquity? But as for heritage, the current range are far too big to access the places the original could….

    Still, as always, a great article Daniel – thank you!

    1. “Funny thing, evolution – never quite goes where you expect it to.”

      Good afternoon John. That’s a brilliant expression, which will definitely be recycled into my writing at some point!

  14. You’re very welcome to it Daniel. But I fear I may have peaked – since coining it everything went pear-shaped. I spent the rest of the morning trying to get a new monitor to work, checking connections, moving cables around…. eventually I discovered a tiny un-marked push button hidden under the bottom edge. Why do manufacturers provide reams of verbiage on the safe handling, siting and disposal of electrical items but not instructions on how to turn the b****y things on??!! And don’t get me started on technical specifications that can only be found on-line…. but I really ought to have remembered the good old reliable technique of feeling round the edges first. A soothing mug of Darjeeling might put things right.

    1. Good evening John. Sorry for your tech-frustrations, but I’m sure we’ve all been there, being made to feel helpless because of stupid, unintuitive design. I hope your day improved after your mug of Darjeeling.

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