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Defender dilemma drags on

It's time: Land Rover is working on a replacement for its venerable Defender.

Land Rover says it will replace Defender, but is yet to decide its form

13 Oct 2009

LAND Rover has confirmed it will replace its iconic Defender, but it continues to agonise over what type of vehicle it should be.

Production of the current Defender, which last received significant body revisions in 1983 as part of a Series IV update and traces its roots back to the British off-road brand’s original Series I of 1948, is locked in at Solihull until 2013.

Beyond that, however, new pedestrian-friendlier safety regulations in Europe and tightening global emissions standards will require either an all-new model or a significant reworking of the existing L316 series.

Visiting Australia and New Zealand last week, Land Rover managing director Phil Popham said his company is assessing plans to replace the current model within four years with a model that is likely to be even more capable.

“It is our intention to replace Defender,” he said. “Defender has been an enormous success for us and has been around for 61 years now.

“Before 2013 we need to be very certain and have planned what the replacement for that product is. We’ll be really tuning up the versatility side and practicality side. That for me is the core (Defender attribute),” he said.

24 center imageHowever, Mr Popham cautioned that although the current Defender’s relatively low global sales volume of about 25,000 vehicles annually is not enough to justify the development of an all-new platform, a wider customer base could do so.

He said Land Rover was still studying the complex equation of maintaining the Defender’s hallmark off-road ability while attracting the broader number of sales required for it to develop a fully redesigned vehicle.

“The dilemma we’ve got as a company, when it comes to replacing an icon like Defender, is you’re replacing a car that is known throughout the world and has been for 61 years, but its sells 25,000 units a year – not a lot in the automotive industry and not a lot within our portfolio of products at the moment,” he said.

“You've got to sell a lot more than 25,000 vehicles off a new platform to make business sense.” Asked by GoAuto what Defender volume would make a replacement viable, Mr Popham said: “If you significantly simplify it on a modern platform, you still need to sell about 50,000 units a year to make it viable.” He said number was achievable because the Defender is not currently sold in all countries in its present guise because of various regulations that preclude it but a Defender on a modern platform would open up more markets, including the United States.

“We’re a small player in the commercial business which is probably three million vehicles a year. We need to understand what segments it can compete in, what body styles it needs to have, what level of capability, usage, duty cycle it’s going to have – and that’s the work we're doing at the moment.

“Defining exactly where it will sit will dictate what the car needs to do – how it needs to be engineered – and that will prove or disprove the business case,” he said.

But a decision not to go on would not be taken lightly. “(Defender) is our heritage. It underlines our history, our origins, our engineering credibility and leadership, and it’s passed on a lot of positive things to the products that followed.” The current Defender is produced in 90, 110 and 130-inch wheelbase guises across five body styles, including five and seven-seat Station Wagon, Hard Top, Pick Up, Double Cab Pick Up and Utility Station Wagon models.

In late 2007, the fitment of a Ford Transit-sourced EU4 emissions-compliant 90kW/360Nm 2.4-litre turbo-diesel, a new six-speed transmission, revised bonnet, new dashboard, upgraded heating/ventilation and redesigned forward-facing seats with three-point seatbelts was expected to guarantee the Defender’s local lifecycle until at least 2010.

New Victorian government legislation mandating electronic stability control for all passenger cars and SUVs (but not commercial vehicles) from 2011 could spell the end of Defender availability in that state in a little over 12 months.

The same ESC legislation will apply nationally for new models from November 2013, although no date has yet been set for an Australian Design Rule requiring EU5-compatible engines in either passenger cars, SUVs or commercials.

Mr Popham’s comments appear to confirm that Land Rover is considering two options for the next Defender’s platform: a significantly advanced version of the current model’s full ladder chassis or a significantly simplified version of the integrated T5 body-on-chassis that underpins the L319 Discovery and L320 Range Rover Sport.

While a Defender based on a monocoque, or unitary, chassis like that of the Range Rover Vogue is therefore unlikely, the global Land Rover chief ruled out any possibility of the next Defender being a ‘badge-engineered’ version of a vehicle produced by Tata, Land Rover’s Indian parent company.

However, Mr Popham said some components could be shared with Tata.

“As we work on a replacement for Defender clearly there are opportunities on the commercial side and certainly some synergies with Tata in terms of contract business. (But) We’ll never be in a situation of badge engineering,” he said.

“Could you feasibly develop something with Tata? Possibly – in the same way we are sharing architectures with Jaguar. There’s not many similarities between a Jaguar sedan and sportscar and a luxury SUV, however, the architecture behind that – in terms of components, electronics, etc – there are huge synergies.

“So in that respect, yes, there could be (co-development with Tata).” Mr Popham said the decision to badge the company’s first premium compact SUV, based on the LRX concept, as a Range Rover opened the door for the car-maker to further develop the Land Rover brand, which comprises only the Freelander, Discovery and Defender. The LRX will join the Vogue and Sport in the RR range.

“We started out as Land Rover and we introduced Range Rover as a nameplate,” he said. “The moment we introduced Range Rover Sport – which has become the most successful product arguably in our history in terms of volume and profitability – we created a brand out of Range Rover.

“Clearly with a third Range Rover on the way customers are telling us it’s a brand all itself. That has given us an opportunity to think about what Land Rover stands for.

“Range Rover is kind of obvious in terms of ‘premiumness' and feature and perceived quality. With Land Rover there's a real opportunity to continue to develop along the lines of versatility, practicality, capability – if you like, the roots of Land Rover – in a range of products, and that is what we're working on at the moment,” he said.

But Mr Popham cautioned that history might not dictate the new Defender’s chassis type – or indeed its exterior design.

“It is an incredibly complex process when you are looking at (developing a vehicle) for a broad commercial-vehicle four-wheel drive segment ... But I wouldn't say anything is sacrosanct in terms of design or platform attributes,” he said.

“I've no doubt (Land Rover design director) Gerry McGovern and our design team can make a fantastic looking Defender replacement that the world will want to buy.

“But for me it’s what's actually under the skin. Does it meet the requirements of customers? That's the work we need to do,” he said.

Asked at last month’s Frankfurt motor show if he had considered what a next-generation Defender should look like, Mr McGovern told GoAuto: “Absolutely. All the time.

“We have done numerous design exercises and studies as to what a modern-day version of that vehicle should look like. We’ve got some pretty good ideas, actually.

“If you look at the business at the moment we’ve got 10MY (Rangie Sport, Rangie Vogue and Disco), the LRX potentially coming as a Range Rover ... there’s a lot of focus there on Range Roverisation. Range Rover has grown in terms of its product offerings so where does that leave Land Rover? “If you want to optimise differentiation between those two nameplates your starting point potentially will be what would the next-generation Land Rover be? How will a modern-day Land Rover talk to perhaps a whole new family of Land Rovers that compliment but are uniquely different to Range Rover? “The answer is yes we have, but at the end of the day it is down to what level of investment we’ve got and where to prioritise it, really,” he said.

“For me there are some real design opportunities there to do some unique vehicles.

“Watch this space. I think there’s a real opportunity to develop a design strategy for Land Rover that’s absolutely relevant to the marketplace, particularly in some of the developing markets.

“You don’t have to be premium in a luxurious way but there needs to be a level of credibility in a pared-down approach. A Land Rover should not be a poor man’s version of a Range Rover – it should be something that has an entity of its own and is therefore not without desirability,” he said.

Mr McGovern said the current Defender’s lifespan was a minor miracle.

“The irony of that vehicle is that we can still sell it,” he said. “In certain markets we won’t be able to sell it for that much longer and in other markets with a few tweaks we could sell it for longer.

“Clearly the customer that is very different than for the rest of our range. We still sell that vehicle to the military, the forestry commission ... lots of organisations that use it purely for its functionality,” he said.

Former Land Rover chief Mathew Taylor previously told GoAuto the scope of the Australian army’s ‘Project Overlander’ vehicle fleet tender, which was recently awarded to Daimler (which will supply various iterations of its evergreen G-class), was sufficient to extend the life of the current Defender globally.

But it is understood that after working on the project for three years under Ford ownership, Land Rover’s troubled parent company decided not to invest in a bid for the lucrative 30-year military contract, effectively sinking another nail into the Defender’s coffin.

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