F-Type, Range Rover Loom Large At Jaguar Land Rover

June 6, 2012

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 climb

In 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.

F-Type: once more, with feeling

More than any other time in its history, today's Jaguar can fairly be said to have its best cars ever. The XJ's redesign complemented that of the XF sports sedan and the XK sportscar--but the lineup stops there, a limit that Jaguar acknowledges can't go very far in a luxury-car world obsessed with crossovers and convenience.

Still, the next step for Jaguar comes in the form of yet another sportscar--a fabulous one dubbed the F-Type. Whether it's a signal that all Jaguars will be renamed in the future or not, the F-Type revives the legacy of the old E-Type Jags in an unsubtle way, while leveraging the lightweight aluminum construction of the current XK.

Due on sale in 2013, the F-Type's been predestined, in a way. Back in 2000, Ford showed an F-Type concept at the Detroit auto show, a sporty roadster loosely the same size as the coming new model. It was never built, and became one more proof point to Jaguar fans that Ford was mismanaging the brand's products and reputation.

That's more difficult to argue with the investments made in all-aluminum technology that came under Ford, and that will underpin the F-Type. The two-seat roadster will be built with the same bonded-aluminum technique used on the XK and the XJ, with aerospace glue and rivets used to hold together body sections. Jaguar engineers say they've gotten the stamping qualities of aluminum down to within a millimeter of steel--so preserving the gorgeous bodywork of the recent C-X16 concept coupe shown at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show is a distinct possibility.

The initial powertrain has been confirmed to be a new 380-horsepower, turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6, one of a range of new engines coming to the Jaguar-Land Rover family over the next two years. In the concept C-X16, Jaguar promised the coupe would accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 4.4 seconds.

When it arrives, the 2014 Jaguar F-Type is expected to have a soft convertible top, like the XK from which it's derived (it rides on a short-wheelbase version of the XK architecture). The roadster won't be offered as a coupe initially, though a hardtop is expected to join the lineup. The kinship to the XK suggests a V-8 version is possible--as is a turbocharged four-cylinder edition, though that may not be likely for U.S. customers.

As for pricing, it's too early to set firmly, but a base range from more than $50,000 is likely for the Porsche Cayman competitor.

Range Rover: a fresh start, a lightweight at heart?

Like Jaguar, the Land Rover brand has been on an aggressive product-replacement cycle--aggressive in its historical context, that is. The new Range Rover Evoque bowed in 2012 to acclaim, and to a North American Truck of the Year award.

Next up is the replacement for the standard bearer, the Range Rover sport-utility vehicle. It will be the first time the SUV is completely reengineered under the independent company's oversight: the 1994-2002 editions were largely executed under BMW leadership, while subsequent updates were completed during the Ford tenure. The Range Rover, in fact, still rolls down the same assembly line in Solihull, West Midlands, that was installed during BMW's ownership.

The brand-new Range Rover will mark a radical departure in many ways from the current vehicle, but is expected to stay the same in two very important ways: in its aluminum skin, and in its traditionally handsome styling. Prototypes spotted by spy photographers show a longer vehicle with what appears to be a lower roofline. The net could mean more room for rear-seat passengers, not a particular problem with the current vehicle unless there are plans to offer a third-row seat.

The new vehicle is said to share some of the architecture of the Jaguar XJ, which would also mean a riveted and glued aluminum chassis. Land Rover engineers have also said that the company's expertise in aluminum means thinner panels can be used to create stronger sections than ever. The target is said to be for the Range Rover to shed up to 15 percent of its weight, which could lead to a weight loss of up to 880 pounds, through the use of aluminum and composite construction. That could enable the Range Rover, with a new eight-speed automatic transmission and the current lineup of V-8 engines, to boost its fuel economy well into the mid-20-mpg range.

Turbodiesel models will again be offered in markets outside the U.S. A hybrid edition has been rumored, but not confirmed for production.

Land Rover makes no qualms about how it has softened the hardcore off-road appeal of the Range Rover over the past decade. The talent remains there, but the operation's been glossed over with electronic terrain controls and automatic traction systems. That could take a step further, as engineers promise the world's first automatic terrain-response system in a future vehicle--potentially, the new Range Rover. Such a system would detect the differences between sand, mud, rocks, and pavement without any driver interaction, and would choose throttle, braking, transmission and steering settings to suit conditions. Some of the more conceptual technology from recent concepts, such as the sonar-based fording system and adaptive GPS from the DC100 concept from last year's Frankfurt auto show, are less likely for production anytime soon.

Beyond F-Type and Range Rover

Even after the Range Rover and F-Type launch, the Jaguar Land Rover brands will still be a very small car company in the global scheme and especially in the U.S., where it accounts for a tenth of a percent of total sales volume. To grow sales means engaging in a dogfight, segment by segment, with the likes of BMW, Lexus, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz, brands with a strong dealer and media presence and access to huge marketing budgets.

At the same time, Jaguar Land Rover has to battle lingering perceptions of poor quality that were diffused somewhat in the Ford era, but have begun to resurface--in particular as sales of the Jaguar brand have slumped. The fewer vehicles on the road, the smaller the sample in critical studies like the recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Score survey that put several of the company's products at the bottom of their respective segments.

To get back to sustainability in sales and in reputation, new products are in the planning stages. Jaguar's need for a mainstream hit has often focused on a crossover vehicle--but the success of new Evoque likely means the 2013 F-Type will be followed up by a new XF crafted from aluminum, then by a 3-Series-sized four-door that would erase the memories of the old X-Type forever. It's likely that smaller sedan wouldn't be made from aluminum--costed out, it doesn't seem to make sense, while the XF replacement may, Jaguar executives explained to TheCarConnection--but it would be a technology showpiece, with the latest turbocharged four- and six-cylinder drivetrains yet to come from a new factory in the West Midlands.

Jaguar's also paying attention to lightweight construction on other fronts via its coming C-X75 supercar. The two-seat hybrid won't sport the microturbines of its concept-car inspiration, but the production version of the turbocharged gas-electric hybrid will likely be a composite-bodied vehicle--a learning bed for the company as it keeps cutting weight from its vehicles.

The weight-loss mantra will extend to other Land Rovers, too. The 2013 Range Rover could spawn a five- or seven-seat replacement for today's hefty Range Rover Sport, one with styling akin to the Evoque. A Defender that spawns a new family of more capable SUVs seems possible, given the existence of the DC100 concept and determination to keep the Land Rover spirit intact, but outside of Land Rover's board room, it's speculation.

That leaves two Land Rover vehicles unaccounted for, and possibly subsumed by the Range Rover brand entirely. The LR2 could fade in favor of the Evoque, while the LR4 could be overlapped by a new Range Rover Sport. Certainly, the dual branding in the U.S. is a marketing challenge even a larger company would have trouble tackling.

It's a start-up kind of decision, whether to snuff out a brand name or not--another point of inflection. Jaguar and Land Rover have been there before, time and time again. Even when times were good, just when the cars were right, everything changed, and it was time to start over.

This time, with the new Range Rover and F-Type, at least they won't be doing it from scratch.

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