There’s a heck of a lot of hand-wringing and head-scratching going on these days in the boardrooms, engineering pods, and product planning departments of the world’s largest automakers. The decisions being made now will determine their direction for the next five to 10 years or more. But which direction?
Americans can’t seem to get enough crossovers—for now. How much longer should makers invest in the internal combustion engine? Are electric powertrains the real answer, or will another solution emerge? Will anyone still want to embrace performance and drive for the love of driving anymore? How long before cars drive us?
The simple answer in the near-term is there are no simple answers. But there are those who are positioned better than most. Who have their eggs neatly arranged in multiple baskets. Who appear to be nimble enough to quickly turn once the future of the automobile starts to come into clearer view. Jaguar Land Rover appears to be one of those automakers.
I recently had a chance to sit down with JLR’s president and CEO for North America Joe Eberhardt, who has been running things out of New Jersey since late 2013. The company has had its share of challenges since the two storied British brands were acquired from Ford and consolidated by India’s Tata in 2008. But since Eberhardt’s come on, the news has been mostly good here in the U.S. with record sales for 2015-’16.
Eberhardt has accomplished a lot during his 30-year career spanning multiple auto-makers, but his time at JLR has been some of the most fun he’s had. “The fact that we are the only British luxury volume brand I think makes us quite unique,” he said, “and we were fortunate enough to have the product portfolio … that allows us to record impressive sales growth.”
As is the case with any automaker with more than one brand under a single umbrella, there is invariably platform, engine, and component sharing. The fantastic new Range Rover Velar I spent a week in recently shares several elements with our Four Seasons Jaguar F-Pace, for example. But thanks to the styling efforts of Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern, his counterpart at Jaguar, Ian Callum, and their teams, they’ve been able achieve a large degree of differentiation.
“To have not one but really two of the leading designers in the business is unheard of and almost a gift for us,” Eberhardt said. “The whole company embraces the importance and relevancy of design.”
Jaguar now has two Callum-designed crossovers, the F-Pace and the soon-to-arrive compact E-Pace, but Eberhardt is determined to stay the course with the brand’s cars, despite the continued growth of crossovers in the market. “We internally debate that a lot, and every time I think the SUV share can’t go any higher, it does. We will not give up on cars, and we will not give up on sports cars. … The F-Type is the soul, the heart, the DNA of the brand.” (It certainly helps that Land Rover/Range Rover is an all-SUV proposition.)
In addition to strong design, performance is another area that JLR wholeheartedly embraces, on the road and off.
“Jaguar has a very rich and storied performance history,” Eberhardt said. “Land Rover performance has a slightly different definition. One is the off-road capability; that’s why we launched SVX with the Discovery [an off-road-themed package]. And we have the Range Rover Sport SVR, which is proof that you can also build a performance SUV.”
Eberhardt also sees room for electric power to be a part of the performance mix. The brand has been plugging into go-fast electrification as a major participant in the all-electric Formula E race series and will soon be offering its i-Pace all-electric SUV, which will hit dealers as well as the track this year through its i-Pace-only eTrophy support race for the 2018 Formula E season.
Although he’s high on the i-Pace—and reac-tion to it has been positive thus far—Eberhardt knows JLR has to remain as diversified as possible in the powertrain department, and with advanced turbo-fours, diesels, and coming plug-ins, he believes they’re well positioned. “I don’t think anyone can bet on just one technology and say that’s where the future will go,” he said. “We believe we shouldn’t be the ones who dictate what customers should be driving or choosing. We need to fulfill what their needs and requirements are. We believe for the foreseeable future every powertrain has a role to play.”
When it comes to autonomy, like other automakers JLR has been busy testing its self-driving tech. While he sees it as inevitable, he hopes there will be a way forward where we will still be able to drive ourselves. “Part of our brand experience is the joy of driving,” Eberhardt said. “I couldn’t see myself not driving a car.”
Neither can we, Joe. Neither can we.