You could say I have a soft spot for Land Rovers. I learned to drive in an early 1960s short-wheelbase Series II: ex-Australian Army, canvas roof, and no synchromesh on first or second gears. Back then, of course, a Land Rover was just a Land Rover: one engine, two wheelbases, and a few simple variations on the one body style. Rugged and utilitarian, it was a vehicle designed to simply keep going when the road stopped. Half a century ago, Land Rovers opened up vast swaths of Africa, the Middle East, and outback Australia. They are said to be the first car seen by more humans than any other vehicle in history.

Today's Land Rover Defender is the direct descendent of the car I learned to drive in, though, like Grandpa's axe, every single part has been reengineered, renewed, and replaced over the decades. The Defender feels crude and slow next to modern, state-of-the-moment SUVs. Until you take it off-road, that is, where it remains one of the most capable 4x4s in the business.

By any rational measure, the Defender should have been pensioned off or replaced years ago, but figuring out the answer to the "OK, now what?" moment has always been the stumbling block. Authentic, iconic, and deeply charismatic, the Defender is one of those rare vehicles whose appeal has transcended time and fashion. The fact that a mint, low-mileage, U.S.-legal 1997 Defender wagon can command $100,000 here -- yep, more than a new Range Rover -- has not been lost on Jaguar Land Rover's senior management.

But time -- and modern crash-safety standards -- has finally caught up with the Defender. After a 67-year run, the last Defender will roll off the assembly line at the end of 2015. It'll be the end of an era. And the start of a new one, as Land Rover design boss Gerry McGovern has confirmed the company is developing a whole new family of Defenders.

The new Defenders are a key element of a bold, new product strategy designed to expand the Land Rover model range and capitalize on the brand's current runaway success. Land Rover vehicles accounted for 81 percent of Jaguar Land Rover sales globally in 2013 and a correspondingly healthy slice of the $3.2 billion profit the company made in the nine months to December 31.

The first glimpse of that strategy was the Discovery Vision Concept revealed at the New York auto show in April. The Vision Concept is not actually the next-generation Discovery (aka Land Rover LR4) replacement, but a showcase of design cues for a new family of vehicles that will be badged Discovery. At the car's reveal, most pundits bemoaned the fact that the Vision concept abandoned the rectilinear, industrial-chic design that makes the current LR4 such a distinctive SUV, and appears to move the vehicle more toward Range Rover territory.

But that's all part of the plan, says McGovern.

"It is a radical departure from the Discovery as we know it," McGovern states. So why do it? First, he explains, existing Discovery/LR4 customers, particularly here in the U.S., have long been clamoring for a more luxurious version of the vehicle. More important, though, moving the Discovery family upmarket will make room for a new entry-level family of Land Rovers -- the Defenders.

The new Defender family will be based on the same vehicle architectures as the forthcoming Discovery-badged replacements for the LR2 and LR4, which means unibody, aluminum-intensive structures and independent suspension all around, and that the new Defender will come in regular and compact sizes. McGovern also hints there'll be more than one body style per architecture. Styling will feature simple lines and sheer surfaces, but the new Defenders will be thoroughly modern, 21st-century reinterpretations of the classic Land Rover design ethos, not retro vehicles.

"Range Rover is about refinement, Discovery is about versatility, and Defender will be about durability," says McGovern, summing up the new Land Rover product strategy in simple terms. "The Vision Concept's design direction takes Discovery closer to Range Rover," he adds, "and when you see the more rugged Defender, the strategy will become clear."

The Defender is dead. Long live the Defender!

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