From 1990 to 2008, Jaguar and Land Rover went on an odyssey--only, it wasn't the kind of odyssey that a Range Rover could ford with ease, or the kind a Jaguar could needle through on finesse alone.
Two brand-new vehicles coming in the next 12 to 18 months will show just how successful they've been at navigating the years since that long, strange trip ended.
The odyssey kicked off as the auto industry consolidated in waves, starting with Jaguar itself in 1990. With Aston Martin already in hand, Ford wanted to keep Jaguar from GM, and paid billions for the privilege. In doing so, it set off a cascade that sent Saab and HUMMER to GM; Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini to Volkswagen; Chrysler to Mercedes-Benz; and Rolls-Royce, MINI and Land Rover to BMW, which then in turn sold Land Rover to Ford in 2000.
For almost a decade, Jaguar and Land Rover were huddled together logically with Aston Martin, and in more puzzling fashion with Volvo and Mazda, in a far-flung outpost in Orange County, California, while Ford pumped up the brands to challenge Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus for luxury-car supremacy. Along the way, it smacked into the wall of reality: luxury-car buyers were more resistant to change than it thought. And while Ford had spent a lot of money assembling the brands into a Premier Automotive Group (PAG), it hadn't set aside enough to fund distinctive products for all those brands and its own namesake Ford brand, too.
Then crisis hit--and Ford had its own brush with death in 2007 before the whole auto industry took a swan dive. One by one, it sold off the pieces of the empire, first with Aston Martin in 2007, then in 2008, with the sale of Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata Motors.
The uphill climbIn the four years since that sale, it's been an uphill climb worthy of a Defender for those two British brands. Left with just their nameplates, a few factories, and a future vehicle or two nearly ready for launch, Jaguar and Land Rover were forced to start over. While the ground game of selling the existing XF sedans and LR4 sport-utes was kept in play, the Tata empire went on a hiring binge from around the industry to restaff the luxury brands. CEO Ralf Spethhailed most recently from BMW. Adrian Hallmark served stints at Porsche, Bentley, and Volkswagen before becoming global director of Jaguar. In the U.S. alone, a raft of managers were hired away from other automakers simply to recreate operations that had been disassembled years before.
Before the sale, the company had already moved back into the old Jaguar headquarters in Mahwah, New Jersey. Mothballed and used for storage in the Ford days, the building was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out over the next few years--a metaphor for the business itself. At the same time, the U.S. sales arm had to re-set relationships with dealers in advance of its new positioning--one not squeezed by Lincoln and Volvo at one end, and Aston Martin at the other.
Now, four years into its independence, Jaguar and Land Rover have had some success in the face of a worldwide automotive depression. The well-reviewed lineup is led by the latest Jaguar XJ, reskinned in a glam style, and the new Range Rover Evoque, the stiletto heel of SUVs. New powertrains have been tucked into almost every product, and more are in the pipeline.
The sales results in the U.S. have been mixed, though. Overall the pair are up 19 percent in 2012 thus far, but while Land Rover has seen double-digit gains, Jaguar is struggling to stay above a thousand units a month--sales volumes so low it's difficult to gain any traction, or reliable information from recent buyers on service and reliability.
That's likely to change with the two new vehicles coming over the next year and half. A new Range Rover will give that brand its first new hallmark vehicle in a decade, one it promises will have even more refinement and off-road ruggedness than ever. The other, the Jaguar F-Type, will put stunning styling to work, teasing new buyers to the more expensive cars in its portfolio while it introduces a new generation of powertrains, including a new turbo V-6.