Over the last several months, there has been a lot of concern among die-hard off-roaders surrounding rumors of future products from Land Rover and Jeep.
Land Rover's DC100 concept looks like a streamlined, modern Defender relative, but you can certainly tell it isn't the vehicle it once was.
We don't know anything about the possible engines for the upcoming production Defender. However, we learned from Land Rover that the four-wheel-drive system could be more electronically based than the heavier-duty mechanical systems of the previous Defender. Ideas included a new version of Land Rover's Terrain Response, one that could anticipate the right throttle, brake, differential, and transmission settings for the surface up ahead, and apply torque vectoring, which can aid in on-road cornering and off-road control.
Other cool ideas are tire spikes that come out when you want them (presumably only off-road); a setup that could control ride height and powertrain systems when crossing deep water; and an electronically disconnecting driveline.
You might see this as heresy, but in the face of ever-changing regulations, some of which forced the cessation of Defender sales in the U.S., things had to change. (The Defender doesn't have airbags, a requirement in all cars sold in the U.S. and part of the reason it hasn't been sold in the States since 1997.) There are clear advantages from Land Rover's perspective: Such systems are lighter and more compact than their mechanical counterparts, making it easier to package them in several vehicles with varying dimensions to achieve fuel-economy goals. It might also mean the Defender could be faster, nimbler, more fuel-efficient, and more appealing to an audience that may never have considered it.
On the other hand, these systems -- though Terrain Response has proven itself off-road -- could be more fragile and temperamental than old-school hardware. Land Rover insists, though, it sees no reason why the new Defender would have to be less capable than the outgoing model. We'll have to wait and see on that one. It would be nice to see the model here again, even if it isn't identical to the classic.
The other concern off-roaders -- and Jeep fans -- have is with the recent announcement of a Fiat-based Jeep crossover, smaller than the Patriot, coming for world markets and possibly the U.S. In addition, the next Patriot and Compass could be based on a different Fiat platform. So, not only are more crossovers coming for Jeep -- which shouldn't be selling crossovers at all -- but now they'll be based on Fiats?
Your first instinct might be that both companies have lost their corporate minds and are flushing decades of off-road supremacy down the drain. Not so fast. They're doing just the opposite: They're expanding their vehicle spectrums to get more buyers. The reality is that Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations are becoming stricter, and there needs to be an improvement in the companies' fuel economy overall.
Land Rover is using modern and near-future technology to update a model that hasn't had a big upgrade in quite some time. With the Defender, some of these changes are long overdue, and because the company put off the inevitable -- changing an icon -- it is responsible for the big shock to the system caused by the DC100. But Land Rover knows what's on the line when it comes to this vehicle. It, like Jeep's Wrangler, is a direct descendant of the company's original vehicle. Mess with that, and the company could find itself in serious trouble.
Land Rover is looking for the best way to keep the Defender's off-road prowess intact while making it emissions- and fuel-economy compliant, both of which would also mean the model could come back to America.
In addition, there are two encouraging elements to the upcoming Defender. First, we know the impressive capability of the Terrain Response system on the LR3 and LR4. We would hope that the Defender would get more goodies, and be set up for even tougher backcountry tests. Also, if Land Rover is to continue selling its Defender to military, government, and humanitarian markets, there must be a mil-spec version of the truck. That's the one hard-core off-roaders can look for.
In some ways, Jeep's got it easier. To ensure vehicles like the Wrangler (and Wrangler Rubicon) continue to exist, it is going to expand its lineup. If Jeep sells smaller, more fuel-efficient crossovers to balance out the Wrangler, something like the Wrangler can stay on the market. So if you're horrified by the idea of Jeep crossovers, just remember if the company can sell those to a mainstream audience, the cool core product --
the icon -- can soldier on.
Neither company is selling out. This is a question of survival, and both are doing it without losing sight of what they're all about.