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Will XE and F-Pace Double Jaguar Sales?

An interview with Jaguar Land Rover U.S. Chief Joe Eberhardt

NEW YORK -- Two product rumors to come out of the New York International Auto Show are a battery-electric Jaguar, according to AutoGuide, and a Land Rover Discovery SVX for serious off-roading, according to England's Autocar. Unlike those publications' sources, Jaguar Land Rover's Joe Eberhardt wasn't nearly as talkative about future product when I sat down with him for an interview. The North American president and CEO outlined a JLR product growth plan that's much more conservative than what volume luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and BMW have in store.

Land Rover's U.S. sales last year were more than twice its sales in 2011, and up 37 percent to 70,582 over 2014. Eberhardt expects Jaguar sales could double in 2016, from last year's 14,466, and that's not an unreasonable prediction when you consider the brand is adding the XE compact entry-luxury sport sedan and the F-Pace crossover to the lineup this year. But don't expect a lineup of four-door coupe Range Rovers or Jaguar CUVs in every size category overnight.

"It's interesting. You contrast Lexus and then our German friends. And Lexus to this day, they have four core models," Eberhardt says. "And that's it. And they sell 60,000 … 70,000 of each, and they get to the same numbers. I'm not sure you need to really be into every last niche and segment. It drives complexity, it drives confusion at times, and I'm not here to critique what they're doing. But try to have a sales consultant understand the 175 models they each have."

In addition to the new BMW 3 Series-fighter, the XE, and its crossover spinoff, the F-Pace, Jaguar has just replaced its XF. A new XJ flagship sedan is expected by the 2018 model year. Jaguar Land Rover expects the F-Pace quickly will become Jaguar's bestseller in the U.S., and so it's fair to expect the XF and possibly XJ will eventually get their CUV versions, as well.

"I think the car will be well-accepted," Eberhardt says of the F-Pace. "I think for a long time, people thought you shouldn't do a performance SUV. Once you drive the car, I hope you'll agree that it's a dynamically very good car. And it has the practicality we all need. Longer term, if that trend continues, then clearly we will have to take a look at what that means for the rest of the portfolio."

Unlike commodity brands, the luxury brands don't seem to be losing sedan sales to their burgeoning crossover business. The BMW 3/4 Series and the Mercedes-Benz C-, E- and S-Class models all continue to be strong sellers. After all, the Benz S-Class outsold all of Jaguar in the U.S. by 7,468 units last year.

"The other thought I have is that people say, 'The car is dead.' I'm not sure that's true completely, because while you can turn an SUV into a performance car, there's still advantage in actually having a performance car. Physically, while there are very good performance-oriented SUVs, it's not the same as a performance car, ultimately. And I think the whole market will eventually … maybe not swing back to cars … but everybody thinks cars are completely dead, and I'm not there yet."

For Jaguar, the manual transmission isn't dead, either, Eberhardt says. When I tell him the stick-shift supercharged V-6 F-Type is the Jaguar I'd most like to have, he makes this reassurance: "You can't be a performance brand without a manual transmission, right? Not everybody's going to buy an SVR (the new 575-horsepower, supercharged AWD- and automatic-only F-Type), right? But you just need to have that halo for the brand."

Conversely, Jaguar Land Rover has been pretty quiet about autonomous technology, so I ask Eberhardt about his brands' work on the technology.

"We have a research center in Portland, on the West Coast, which is mainly focused at this time on the Human Machine Interface [HMI] and the connectivity aspect of it, and application development. But I could also see them playing a bigger role in driver assistance systems, and semi-autonomous systems, longer term. … We're working on a lot of things, none of which is the focus of announcements, at this time. We're not talking about it."

Indeed, Eberhardt's focus is much more immediate-term. With two new Jaguars aimed directly at the most popular and most affordable luxury car segments, he's looking to find the same kind of success with the car brand as he's had with Land Rover in North America. Key to this is the new Jaguar Elite Care warranty and maintenance coverage, "which is the best-in-class coverage, with a five-year, 60,000-mile, including scheduled maintenance," addressing the brand's poor image for durability and quality.

"Rather than pretend it doesn't exist, we'll put this in place, put our money where our mouth is, and just get the last purchase barrier out of the way."

If perception catches up with what Eberhardt says is the reality of Jaguar quality, XE and F-Pace could do for the brand what the Evoque and Range Rover Sport did for the SUV-brand counterpart: They drove renewed interest in the Land Rover business, and cars like the LR4, which is at the end of its lifecycle, those are up 100 percent year over year.

"So the business really is about momentum, and you need one or two cars to spark the initial interest that allows you to reap the benefits and advantages of the rest of the lineup. We think that's what's going to happen with Jaguar this year."