What do the Land Rover Defender and the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen have in common? Answer: They date back to an era when passive safety and exhaust emissions were only vague terms instead of strict norms. Although various exemptions have helped to extend the life for these and other golden oldies, the grace period granted by the European Union ends for certain in 2015. Mercedes has no replacement in the pipeline for the G-class, but Land Rover is exploring ways to replace or overhaul the Defender in time for the 2016 model year — and is even considering a departure from the traditional body-on-frame construction.
The good news for American Land Rover enthusiasts is that an updated Defender would likely return to our shores for the first time since 1996, when emissions regulations and low sales led to its discontinuation here. However, reengineering such a low volume vehicle — annual production volume has dropped to 20,000 units, globally — will be no easy task. With this constraint in mind, Land Rover is considering several options for the next Defender, which has the fitting internal designation “Project Icon.”
The simplest route would be to update the Defender’s current “T5” platform, which also underpins the Range Rover Sport. However, this body-on-frame platform weighs too much and is not sufficiently flexible in terms of track and wheelbase. In addition, it suffers from a strong off-road bias and doesn’t support alternative powertrains.
The other extreme would be to tag the Defender on to the LR2 components set, which has been derived from such humble passenger cars as Ford Focus, Mondeo, and Kuga. The question is: can this DNA be stretched far enough to cover the extreme requirements a new Defender needs to meet?
Another option for Land Rover would be to find a strong partner could share development costs and production volumes, but at this point all the big names seem to be tied up elsewhere.
That leaves a forth option, which is simply for Land Rover to develop its own new architecture with partner Jaguar. This would likely include a premium, aluminum-intensive space frame for the next Jaguars as well as the next Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, as well as a more affordable steel architecture, which should spawn in a first step the all-new Defender. Such a Defender would appear in two versions: an indestructible, no-frills Land Rover for Costa Rican coffee farmers and a chic and trick Road Rover for the Malibu in-crowd. Eventually, this same architecture could find its way under the next LR2, along with other new models. Expect four-cylinder gas and diesel engines play an increasing role, in combination with electric motors.