Off-Road, Through The Canyons Of My Land Roving Mind

Tim Marrs

Although I rarely venture off pavement intentionally, when it comes to go-anywhere Land Rovers, I've long considered myself something of an internationally renowned expert. As mentioned elsewhere in the process of explaining a lifetime's fascination with British cars, I grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, the proud but tiny New York City suburb where British Leyland, one-time makers of Land Rovers, situated its U.S. headquarters. In that parking lot I spent an inordinate portion of my childhood riding a bicycle around in circles, watching the British cars go by. In a coincidental but geographically unrelated note, my dad made the Land Rover his official campaign vehicle when he ran for president in 1964. He lost, but the Rovers were winners in my book. The unlimited utility, possibility, and off-the-graph coolness of these English alterna-Jeeps was already well known to me by the age of six, and I told anyone who could stand to listen.

Proximity in my formative years to Leyland's Yankee beachhead left me with the mistaken impression that all of America drove and preferred British cars, a view that's been hard to shake, even though the truth is clearly otherwise. But it was also near the BL lot -- and the prime Jersey swampland it abutted -- where I spied in 1969, from the leather-saddled perch of my (what else?) Raleigh Sprite touring bicycle, one of the first Range Rovers ever, a prototype sent to America, I assume, for hot-weather testing. Why? Well, Range Rovers weren't offered for sale in America for another eighteen years, but there it was. And New Jersey in high summer was so hot it was punitive. Still is.

To be honest, I was more consumed at the time with the grievous affronts that BL intended for my beloved MGB -- recessed, matte-black grilles and vinyl interiors replacing leather -- in addition to positively fuming over the death of the 109-inch-wheelbase Land Rover in the U.S. market. But I thought this new Range Rover thingy looked rather dope. Forty-one subsequent years of Range Rovers -- during which time more than a million have been sold -- prove that I knew exactly what I was talking about, even then.

Needless to say, I still have Land Rover on the brain, along with Range Rover, the upscale sub-brand that has arguably outstripped its rugged progenitor. So no special occasion is needed to trigger broader meditations on all things Roverian. However, a recent press junket to Vancouver, British Columbia, to drive the new Range Rover Evoque up Whistler Mountain opened the viscously coupled floodgates of all-wheel cogitation, big time. And, yet again, this new Range Rover is pretty dope. The spot-on correctness of my expert assessment would be confirmed by the Evoque's walkaway election some weeks later in South Haven, Michigan, as one of this magazine's 2012 All-Stars [see page 58].

One more time, Land Rover, a small niche manufacturer with finite resources and a heavy cost basis, has managed to thread the magical automotive marketing needle, finding the microgap in an oversaturated category with something that looks and feels fresh and, dare I say, may even prove to be one for the ages.

Range Rover and Land Rover have mercifully managed to avoid the worst of the anti-SUV backlash -- on account, I'd argue, of vast wellsprings of perceived authenticity -- but nevertheless, the time is ripe for a more efficient offering. The new Evoque promises decent mileage in gasoline-powered form, even before we get (if ever) the high-mileage diesel version that Land Rover sells abroad and ought to be selling here. Gone in one shot are two of the things I deplore most about genus sports utilitarus: lousy fuel economy and inferior road manners.

The fact that it looks good is encouraging news for Range Rover, as the Evoque may well foreshadow, like an 8/10-scale model, the next full-fat Ranging Rover. The high-end cash cow is going to march further upscale in years to come, as presaged by the recent Autobiography Ultimate Edition, which sold like hotcakes -- limited-edition gold-plated ones -- at a rarefied $170,000.

Indeed, the extraordinary success of the Range Rover sub-brand, which the Evoque seems likely to cement, is cause for celebration. But it also occasions concern. Thanks to its luxury offspring, Land Rover has managed to survive the worst that disastrous mergers, incompetent management, short-sighted labor unions, and global energy scares can offer. In fact, it has emerged after some pretty nasty decades as a strong and, in the hands of India's Tata Motors, surprisingly profitable company. When it comes to worldwide luxury marques, subtract the Germans and the ultrapremium brands and all you're left with is Range Rover. (Lexus, Cadillac, and Infiniti are big in the U.S. only; Jaguar, the other leg of Tata's bling holdings, is out there, too, but still waiting to catch its big wave in terms of volume.)

Yet while Range Rover soars, Land Rover appears to have charted a difficult overland route to success, one so complicated that it's almost impossible to understand. The fear here is that the luxury spin-off is in danger of overtaking the whole shooting match, much the way BL was once Austin, Morris, and about 137 other brands (some quite worthy) and then all that was left was Mini. Land Rover's intended U.S. volume leader, the LR4, for instance, is a very fine machine but is regularly outsold on these shores by the less practical, more expensive Range Rover Sport, not to mention the full-flavor Range Rover. The sensibly sized LR2 (to which the Evoque is closely related) is a perfectly fine vehicle, but it is whatever resides below nonentity in the marketplace, apparently receiving less support from the parent company than the Crosley Hotshot did in its run-out year of 1952.

Against this backdrop of a fading marque, all eyes must be on the original Defender that built the Land Rover name and upon which the authenticity claims rest most strongly. One alarming scenario has Land Rover killing it off entirely in a few years. In my view, that's the first step toward killing Land Rover, and that would be a mistake, if for no other reason than the fact that it undergirds Range Rover's authenticity. Sure, there were some concepts for a new Defender shown at Frankfurt recently. They were OK but not great. Frankly, Land Rover needs to go back to the drawing board. The company needs a Defender replacement and it needs to do it right, meaning lightweight, long lasting, and simple. It's the brand's toughest assignment yet. But it's critical, and I believe they can do it. I know, I'm an expert.

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