Is Land Rover overawed by its own success?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.