Monday, October 31, 2011

Range Rover sheds pounds, aims to gain share

The new Range Rover Evoque is the smallest and lightest model ever to wear the Land Rover nameplate.

Few vehicles can match the off-road capabilities of the typical Land Rover sport-utility vehicle. But when it came time to introduce the new Range Rover Evoque the British maker dug even deeper to reinforce its claims – more than 100 feet beneath the streets of Liverpool.

The media preview – staged in a long-abandoned network of railroad tunnels – was intended to show that the distinctive new Evoque could handle anything the typical buyer would likely run into. But the reality is that few will ever experience anything rougher than a gravel road or un-shoveled driveway. So why design a vehicle carrying all the extra hardware – and weight – of the typical Land Rover? 

While the iconic British brand isn’t likely to abandon the classic SUV that has been its foundation for the last 60 years, Land Rover is planning some major changes, and the Evoque is the first sign of what’s in store.

Apparently, the new crossover-ute has struck the right chord.  It has been named Motor Trend magazine's SUV of the Year and is a semi-finalist for North American Truck of the Year, an award that will be presented at the Detroit Auto Show in January.

The Range Rover Evoque is the first car-based crossover produced by the luxury brand, now owned by India’s Tata Motors, rather than the classic body-on-frame SUV.  With its funky, coupe-like styling, the new model is both the smallest and, at just north of 3,500 pounds in base configuration, the lightest model ever to wear a Rover badge. 

That reflects the reality of today’s automotive market. Motorists are generally downsizing as they struggle to deal with crowded city streets and rising fuel prices. That doesn’t mean they want to give up style, performance, space or functionality, however. 

So while Evoque abandons the low-range gearbox found on the classic Range Rover and other, less expensive Land Rover models, it carries over the Terrain Response Control system that, with the touch of a button, takes the guesswork out of driving on different surfaces, such as mud-and-ruts, gravel, snow-and-ice or standard pavement. 

It does that by revising the settings of all manner of vehicle operations. In one of the off-road modes, Evoque’s ride height increases by several inches. Throttle response changes appropriately. In snow, you’ll start out in second gear. Transmission and brake-intervention systems like ABS and electronic stability control also are reprogrammed for optimum traction and handling.

That dependence on electronic, rather than mechanical, technology will become increasingly apparent in future products, as will the wedge shape of the Evoque, explained Gerry McGovern, the brand’s design director, acknowledging, “Land Rover needs redefining.”

The process began with the unveiling of the LRX concept vehicle in January 2008 at the North American International Auto Show.  Company officials admit they weren’t sure what to expect, but the strong response to the show car convinced them to move forward with the project that became Evoque, which was launched while the brand was still owned by Ford Motor Co., then brought to market by Tata, which acquired both Land Rover and sibling British brand Jaguar in March 2008.

“We knew we had something very special on our hands, something that could change the perception of the brand," said Land Rover managing director Phil Popham

The buzz kept building as the maker carefully doled out details of the project and by the time of the recent media preview there were already 20,000 orders in hand.  Significantly, 80 percent of those buyers have never before owned a Land Rover product.

Considering initial reviews, the new Range Rover Evoque very well could become one of – if not the – best-selling model in the brand’s history.  Long little more than a niche player, Land Rover is aiming to take itself at least a bit more mainstream.  That doesn’t mean it will walk away from classic truck-based SUVs. Quite the contrary. 

It revealed an all-new concept version of the big Defender model at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, McGovern describing it as a “vision of the 21st Century” SUV. A production version should roll into showrooms in a couple of years.

But even such traditional offerings will undergo some dramatic changes, according to Popham, who revealed a corporate goal of trimming anywhere from 800 to 1,100 pounds of weight off the typical Land Rover product. That will be critical if the marque hopes to meet tough new emissions and mileage requirements going into effect in most of its key markets.

Expect also to see a shift to more high-tech powertrains, he hinted. There’ll be more diesels – and very likely a diesel for the U.S. market.  The Range Rover Evoque, meanwhile, will be the first Land Rover offering to get a hybrid-electric drivetrain.  Even conventional gasoline powertrains will be downsized and turbocharged – like the turbo 2.0-liter direct injection 4-cylinder engine offered in the new crossover.

While rising fuel prices have clearly had an impact on the utility vehicle market, sales have remained surprisingly strong.  But Land Rover officials recognize they can’t keep practicing business as usual. The new Evoque gives a hint of the alternative future they’re mapping out.

A look at how dealers can profit from Land Rover's winning SUV, with Ryan Ambrifi, Land Rover of Milford, CT managing partner.

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